Northumberland Heath Trees
The Northumberland Heath Community Forum has for the past four years been lobbying for the restoration of the avenue of trees that visually defines the main road through the Heath. Alas it transpires that the Council have not properly charted the beneath-pavement service lines and so the sites trees formerly occupied have been over-run. This problem is not unique to either the Heath or some other boroughs. According to the GLA report The Great Chainsaw Massacre (2007) half the boroughs of London are experiencing long-term tree loss and Bexley is one of these. If things continue as outlined in the GLA report, and experienced by the Northumberland Heath local community, then in a few decades
Bexley's main roads will be a lot less green and visually defined not by leafy avenues but the concrete and tarmac of suburban sprawl.
A 2008 report charting the local community's efforts follows:-
Northumberland Heath's Vanishing Trees
– The Great London Diaspora –
A local follow-up response to the Greater London Authority's report
Chainsaw Massacre: A Review of London’s Street Trees
Half of London's boroughs are losing trees. This prompted concerns raised by the Greater London Authority report Chainsaw Massacre: A Review of London’s Street Trees (2007). Northumberland Heath's main street has historically been defined by an avenue of trees. These have gradually been lost over the years. Broad local resident support is to encourage a 'village on the Heath' style community. An overwhelming majority of traders on the Bexley Road would like to see the avenue of trees restored. The local community Forum made a request for tree restoration in line with the Borough's 'Trees & Woodland Strategy'. Despite support from successive local Councillors (belonging to both the leading political parties) for over three years, Council staff were reluctant to engage in dialogue with the local community. Finally a meeting took place and the community were told that new cabling and poor mapping of service lines now prevents tree replanting even though some tree sites have only seen trees removed (due to age) in recent months (well within the three-year period of the campaign). The question has been put that if this is the case for Northumberland Heath what is to prevent it happening on other Borough main streets. No reply has yet been received. It is assumed that there are consequences for Bexley Borough and other London Boroughs that have experienced tree loss and where service laying is unrestricted and tree sites unprotected. Trees could vanish across London.
This response is being made one year on from the Great London Authority's report Chainsaw Massacre: A Review of London’s Street Trees (2007). It is a local follow-up response being made by the Northumberland Heath Community Forum, which is a local forum within the London Borough of Bexley.
The broad London issue
The GLA report Chainsaw Massacre: A Review of London’s Street Trees (2007) highlighted that half London's boroughs have less than 20,000 street trees (as opposed to park and woodland trees). In the main the larger boroughs have more trees. Similarly, very roughly half London's boroughs have seen a net loss in street trees between 2002 and 2007. Bexley Borough is one of London's medium-to-large boroughs that has seen tree loss over the 2002-7 period.
The local issue
Earlier, hence independently of the GLA Environment Committee's Chainsaw Massacre report, in 2005 the Northumberland Heath Community Forum began to identify local community priorities. These were summed up in the vision phrase to foster 'the Village on the Heath'. Northumberland Heath itself lies in the northern part of Bexley borough and has seen considerable population growth as part of the regional Thames Gateway development even though it is already one of the more densely populated parts of the borough. Between 2005 and 2012 local plans suggest that Northumberland Heath's population will increase by some 20% (Bexley Council, 2005). The Heath's neighbouring ward to the north, Erith, is anticipated to see a 43% rise in population over the same period. Meanwhile traders on the Heath have faced increased local competition from the redevelopment of Bexleyheath Broadway in the 1980s to the south and Erith town centre in the 1990s to the north. Further afield over these periods the developments of the Thurrock and Bluewater mega-shopping zones have provided additional competition. Consequently Northumberland Heath as a community is one under stress.
Northumberland Heath's main road (the Bexley Road) acts as a high street for the community with many local traders. The road visually defines the centre of the Heath and itself historically has been an avenue of trees: this is the Heath's principal central amenity. However, over the years since the 1970s trees, have been lost one-by-one to old age. They have not been replaced. The Heath's central visual definition, providing a 'sense of place', is changing from being one that is leafy in nature to one whose principal characteristic is one of a continuation of concrete and tarmac.
The Northumberland Heath Community Forum provides a voice for residents and the various community stakeholders on the Heath. In 2004 it started to ascertain local priorities. This included broad local resident support is to encourage a 'village on the Heath' style community. To this end the Heath's community worker surveyed local stakeholders to help identify needs. Furthermore, as part of the Forum taking this forward, a public meeting (attended by around 100 residents) voted for the main street's tree restoration. Meanwhile the community worker, as part of the aforementioned survey, ascertained the views of over 100 traders that operate on the Heath, the vast majority of which are located on the Bexley Road. All but one of the Bexley Road traders were supportive of the street's trees to be restored. The Forum's Environment sub-group was then charged with taking this issue forward and to this end ensured that the Forum's proposals chimed with the borough's 'Trees & Woodland Strategy'. The Forum then took matter forward by first outlining to Bexley Council of its broad wish concerning the avenue of trees (without detailing any specifics such as location, species, etc.). However the response was disappointing. Over the subsequent three years the Forum found that Council staff responsible for tree provision and maintenance appeared reluctant to engage in dialogue with the Forum. This was despite successive local Councillors (from both political parties) attempting to facilitate dialogue. (See 'Key Events' annex for a timeline summary and developments.)
Conclusion of local action
Finally it became clear that the reason why the avenue of trees was slowly being lost was due to there being no detailed control or detail mapping of cabling and other service lines beneath the pavements running alongside Bexley Road. In the spring of 2008 local residents were pleasantly surprised when one cherry tree (albeit a smaller species than the existing trees in the avenue) was planted and two small fir trees added to existing raised planters (concrete flower beds). The Forum has asked the question that if the spread of service lines has prevented the re-planting of trees along Bexley Road what is to stop this happening along other main streets in the borough? As yet no answer has been forthcoming. However this issue is not that new as has been found from the following quote.
- "A number of admirable Tree Warden schemes and similar activities have lapsed when local workers and volunteers have become disillusioned by the way in which carefully nurtured new street trees and parkland trees have been damaged by ill-supervised street work contractors and park maintenance or utility service contractors. Greater attention needs to be given by local authorities to the proper enforcement of contractual standards to avoid such situations occurring."
- page 44, Tree and Woodland Framework for London
An issue for London
If the GLA is concerned at the pan-London level as to the loss of street trees in many of London's boroughs (especially at a time when the public mood appears sympathetic to green and environmental issues), and if, as exemplified by the Northumberland Heath's experience at the local ward level, there is difficulty in halting and reversing existing street tree loss despite local wishes, then what is the likely fate for London over all? Will London become a landscape of grey urban sprawl dotted with a few islands of green? Alternatively will London be visually characterised as a physically greener city with its parkland islands of green connected by a thin lacework of tree-lined avenues? The future depends on what action is taken next.
Northumberland Heath Community Forum
- Bexley Council (2005) Regeneration Framework for Bexley 2005-2016 Consultation Document. Bexley Council, Bexley.
- Bexley Council (2004) Trees & Woodland Strategy. Bexley Council, Bexley.
- Environment Committee (2007) Chainsaw Massacre: A Review of London’s Street Trees. Greater London Authority, London.
- London Woodland Advisory Group (2005) Connecting Londoners with Trees and Woodlands: A Tree and Woodland Framework for London. Greater London Authority, London.
Re-Greening Northumberland Heath
Key Events Regarding Council Engagement
- September 2008 Report finalised and submitted.
- May 2008 Comments on the draft report received and Forum approval given for amendments to be incorporated and sent to the GLA.
- March 2008 The Forum decides to summarise its experience with a view to sharing it with key issue stakeholders such as the GLA. Draft report made available to the Forum
- February 2008 One cherry tree planted on the Bexley Road (the Heath's high street) and two fir trees in raised planters. (Though a small but welcome development, the Forum was not offered the courtesy of being notified of this occurrence.)
- Nov 21st 2007 Forum's response to Didsbury sent via Cllr Sawyer (one of N''Heath's three Councillors). Reply asks what is preventing cables and services expanding in an uncontrolled way under pavements of all of the Borough's main streets so preventing future tree planting and replacement or was N'Heath's main street a special case and if so why?
- October 2007 Form of Forum's Environment Working Group reply considered
- August/Sept2007 Below Didsbury response circulated to members of N'Heath Environment Working Group.
- July 27th 2007 Overall response to questions received from Stephen Didsbury (Head of Waste & Street Services) saying that cables and services now occupy all places for location of replacement and/or new trees.
- May 2007 Summary notes from the April meeting with the Trees Officer circulated to Forum's Environment Working Group and said Group meets. A series of follow-up questions is derived and sent to the Trees Officer.
- Feb/April 2007 Following meetings within the community a set of questions is derived for the Council's Trees Officer. Meeting with Trees Officer held April 18th.
- February 2007 Leader of Council encourages meeting with Trees Officer facilitated by on of N'Heath's Councillors.
- January 2007 Not hearing of any response to September's local Councillor initiative, the Forum Chair writes to Leader of Council Regarding problems with Council department responsible for trees.
- Nov 14th 2006 Forum's Executive Committee notes continued lack of engagement by Council Department to address this matter and that, save for a single meeting in January, has not had any meaningful contact from this Department for nearly two years. As such it votes for a letter complaint be submitted.
- Sept 21st 2006 Community Forum's public meeting AGM vote affirms the Forum should continue with its campaign to restore the avenue of trees through the Heath.
- September 2006 As no word has come from the Council staff, Northumberland Heath's three Councillors jointly write to Council department responsible for trees.
- Jan 25th 2006 Jonathan Cowie, Forum's representative of its Environment Sub-Group, meets with Graham Mollison of Bexley Council on site. It is noted that not all trees lost in past three decades can be replanted due to changes in legislation. That in some instances permission will be needed from land-owners if trees are planted on the borders of land owned by land-owners. Forum rep notes that land-owners have already been preliminary surveyed and are nearly all, in principle, in favour of tree re-planting. The Forum can play a role in liasing with land-owners for the Council. Bexley Council's representative also noted that for those few trees that need to be re-sited completely on land owned by private land-owners that Bexley Council cannot pay for re-planting out of ratepayer funds. Forum rep notes that the Forum has an independent finance and is in a position to seek funding where the Council is legally prevented from funding out of rate-payer resources if Council can say how much it needs to cover costs to undertake this work. It was agreed that a plan would need to be developed for this venture that would take time to implement, but first this plan needs to be developed. However since then there has been no further communication from the Council.
- January 2006 Community worker makes informal follow-up enquiries. This leads to a meeting later in the month (see above).
- Oct 10th 2005 Cllr O'Neill verbally informs that the follow-up letter (Sept 15th below) has been passed to Council Dept responsible for trees for reply. (No reply received.)
- Sept 15th 2005 Jonathan Cowie writes follow-up letter to Cllr's Bryant and O'Neill.
- Summer 2005 Forum begins to consolidate its long-term vision for a 'village on the Heath' and the restoration of the main street's avenue of trees as one part of this vision. There are over 100 traders on N'Heath with the clear majority along the Bexley Road. The Heath's Community Worker, Chris Long, surveyed the traders on Bexley road and included a question about trees. All but one were in favour of restoring the Bexley Road avenue of trees.
- June 15th 2005 Michael Harvey (then current Forum Chair) writes to Cllr Bryant informing of the Forum's meeting decision (below). (This letter has never been replied to nor has its receipt been acknowledged.)
- June 13th 2005 Report presented from the Forum's Environment representative on how restoring the Bexley Road avenue of trees fits in with the Council's Trees and Woodland Strategy, Agenda 21 as well as Governmental regeneration goals. Social and ecological benefits are also noted. Report also notes that further street tree planting on the Heath (though desired) may be limited.
- Mar 14th 2005 Vote taken at Forum's first public-held AGM to pursue the restoration of trees on the Heath.
- Autumn 2004 Forum pre-cursor committee calls for a volunteer to investigate the planting more trees on the Heath.