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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.