The Bristol Cable
Crucial questions remain unanswered in the ongoing fight to protect M32 Maples, including who owns the trees.

Campaigners fighting to save three mature maple trees next to the M32 in St Pauls say the dispute exposes serious flaws in the city’s planning process regarding tree protection and unanswered questions about the ownership of the land they stand on. 

The trees, now draped in yarn and signs, have become a symbol of to what extent Bristol City Council will step in to protect valued mature trees threatened by developments, of which there are several across the city. Protestors have been watching the remaining trees constantly since New Year’s Eve to stop them being chopped down. 

In St Pauls, where greenery is sparse and levels of air pollution are high, local residents are demanding that the council apply the principles of its climate emergency declarations and commitments to double tree canopy cover in the city by protecting the Maples. 

“This is a time when the council is declaring itself the first Climate Emergency city and we have a wild west situation in deprived St Pauls”

Anita Bennett, Save the m32 maples campaigner

“The point that we’re trying to make is that we are in a climate crisis and trees are an essential part of the process, which needs to be considered,” says local resident Amirah Cole. 

Campaigners believe the Maples case shows the limits of progressive council policy when pitted against private interests in specific cases. “This is a time when the council is declaring itself the first Climate Emergency city and we have a wild west situation in deprived St Pauls where its completely opposite to what the council’s trying to do,” says Save the M32 Maples campaigner Anita Bennett.

Wild west’

The trees have been under threat since planning permission was granted for student accommodation to be built on the Lower Ashley Road site in 2016. As that application was due to lapse, a second application was made by developers Clayewater Homes Ltd in May 2019 proposing a 31-unit block of flats including at least 13 units of affordable housing. The application, which the developers now say may be entirely affordable housing, is pending consideration. 

Work began on the trees last June when two trees were chopped down, prompting a spontaneous protest which halted further work. Early in the morning of New Years Eve, contractors again arrived without warning and began working on the remaining trees, but were stopped by the protests of residents, with two women chaining themselves to one of the Maples. Locals are now maintaining a constant watch to prevent further trees being cut down.

Campaigners are asking for the council’s word that the trees are included in a demolition ban on the site, and for a pause on all works until crucial questions are answered about the ownership of the trees, including the consideration of alternative plans which would enable the trees to remain.

“No demolition should be taking place whatsoever – they should wait until the final planning decision,” says Bennett.

The council did not respond to questions about whether it would prevent the landowner from carrying out further works on the trees. 

“It is a false choice to say that we either have urban trees or social housing.

Vassili Papastavrou, Bristol Tree Forum

Distrust in the planning process

“The M32 Maple tree dispute has highlighted a serious flaw in the planning process,” says Bennett, referring to the fact that the 2015 application was delegated to a lone planning officer to decide. “These decisions are not going to planning committee and they are not being scrutinised.”

The original 2015 application by developers Clayewater failed to include in its aboroculturalist’s report – which concluded that felling the trees was necessary – the fact that the then-five Maples were subject to Tree Protection Orders (TPOs).

TPOs are granted to trees that provide significant public benefit and make it a criminal offence to damage them without the authority’s permission. The omission meant there was no mention of the TPOs in the documentation available for the public consultation on the proposed development.

Vassili Papastavrou, from Bristol Tree Forum, points out that the complexity of the planning process acts as a barrier to community engagement: “Local residents rely on the planning officers to get things right so that developments are built appropriately. Especially for the large applications where there may be hundreds of documents it is virtually impossible to wade through them all… What has happened here shows a failure of the planning system even to consider these important trees.”

Campaigners are calling on the council to create new processes which would ensure the public gets a say when trees are threatened, and that planners should compel developers to retain trees wherever possible. 

Bristol Tree Forum suggests that all planning decisions regarding TPO trees should automatically be considered by a planning committee and not delegated to an officer, and that planners should highlight proposals that would impact trees to the public.  

“It is a false choice to say that we either have urban trees or social housing. What we want is better social housing with mature trees retained. With some imagination, and the involvement of landscape architects at the beginning there is no doubt it can be done,”  says Papastavrou. 

Ownership uncertainty

Crucial to the dispute is the matter of ownership of the trees and the strip of land they stand on. Legal documents pertaining to the council’s assets and estate appear to show the Maples stand either within, or on the boundary of council-owned land. This would give the council the power to prevent their destruction. 

“We want it acknowledged that its public land, that the planning process was totally flawed, and that in future no more outsourcing of planning,” says Bennett. 

A spokesperson for the council said: “My understanding is that we remain of the opinion that the land in question is privately owned and have communicated this to local residents.” They added that the council had documents to prove this but did not provide them.

However, residents have compiled publicly available evidence including documents from the Land Registry that appear to show the boundary of landowner Mr Garlick’s land does not include the Maples. 

Meanwhile, a notice for demolition was lodged to pull down the existing structure on the land, and campaigners are concerned that the short timescale of just several days for the public to object represents an attempt by the council to rush through the issue while important questions remain unanswered. 

“They’re very valuable trees, we’re not messing around here. This is a stand for all urban trees in Bristol and beyond, because they are being slaughtered right now. We need them, it’s that simple, it needs to stop,” says campaigner Howard Ogden.

Join a community of 2,600 Cable members

The Cable is not your average newspaper. We are 100% owned by thousands of local people. Join us, and help build a new model for the journalism Bristol needs – community owned, local, and in-depth – free for everyone, only with your support.

Join the Cable


    Report a comment
    Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy

  • Rich Fisher says:

    What is ridiculous about this whole situation is the Council’s basic failure to get involved and actually stand up for their claimed green morals. Is it acceptable to have private interests literally vandalising our street trees, your street trees? It looks beyond dispute that the Council actually own the land as public land. If you doubt that then read some exhaustive research on the Save The M32 Maples public Facebook group. In the YouTube footage you will see the state of the trees after the first attack, sadly the first 2 damaged trees have been finished off by another illegal chainsaw operation on New Years Day and all that remains are stumps of trees that would have taken 50 Years to grow

  • Darren says:

    Totally not thought through and an act of vandalism, clearly there needs to be more affordable housing but where’s the creativity and partnership work, let alone consultation with the local community?…..

  • Carol says:

    Drove past these trees the other day and shocked at the thought of them being destroyed. This are desperately needs mature trees and our council needs to act

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

'Why Bristol needs openness and transparency on house building'

Bristol desperately needs more affordable housing, but this is difficult to deliver in a planning system that stinks, writes former Green councillor Clive Stevens.

Number of homeless single people more than triples during pandemic

While rough sleeping has plummeted in the past 12 months, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people living in temporary accommodation.

Greens and Labour are close in Windmill Hill, where climate, air pollution and housing are key concerns for locals

It’s likely to be a tight fight in Windmill Hill again, after Labour beat the Greens by just a few hundred votes last election.

Green spaces a priority for voters in Horfield, where every vote could be crucial

Green spaces, litter and a community space are key issues in Horfield, where the Tories and Labour were neck and neck in the last council election.

Housing hustings underlines scale of crisis facing next Bristol mayor, leaving more questions than answers

Mayoral candidates admit government support is needed to really get to grips with housing crisis, while some questions remain over details of sitting mayor Marvin Rees's plans for next term.

'Be open about developments': Housing could be the issue that sways the election in Lockleaze

Lockleaze has become the site of a wave of housing developments. Labour’s veteran councillors standing down, internal division and last-minute candidates could affect their chances of reelection, as other parties are ramping up their efforts.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday