July. High summer. Fledglings everywhere, but plenty of nests still active and more to come. Birds nest in trees. So maybe July is not a good month to begin major tree felling?
According to the actions of our County Council and local comprehensive, July is the best time to fell trees.
Wolsingham School and Community College is going through a major period of redevelopment. Like it or loathe it, a new modern building is being surgically attached to the original 1911 structure. I never got to look at the plans, but there was no outcry (lots of grumbles) and it sailed through the planning process. Then on 6 July the news broke: “That beautiful copse of 100 year old trees that shields walkers from the ugly sports centre? It’s getting the chop tomorrow to make way for a MUGA.” “OH NO! HOW CAN THAT BE? And what’s a MUGA?”
Contractors look up into the trees before felling starts
A MUGA, it turns out, is a Multi Use Games Area. Basically a football pitch with artificial turf and floodlighting. Planning permission was granted, no objections. Shame nobody realised it was going to be at the expense of twenty five 100 year old trees.
Feeling powerless, but determined to stand witness, I recorded the fellers at work the next day. They took down four trees. The school carried on as if it wasn’t happening, leading to the bizarre scene of World Challenge participants practicing their camping skills in front of the falling trees.
The first tree is down
World Challenge participants practice their tent skills in front of the falling trees
Despite having less-than-adequate broadband throughout the dale, Weardalians love Facebook, and many a page feed (sorry, Wall) was crammed with shocked and angry outcries. “What? I didn’t know! No one knew!” There were reports of children crying, birds shrieking, even a lone protester protesting. The editor of the Weardale Gazette was on the warpath. As was our MP Pat Glass.
The next day news broke: the felling had been stopped. The remaining trees had a temporary reprieve.
As I write, only the first four trees have been felled, but unless Durham County Council has a sudden change of heart, their fate is sealed. The chain of events sheds a dim light on the murky business of planning, and the way decisions are made based on the weighting of competing values.
Early in 2014, a planning application was prepared for the new school building, including the MUGA. There was lots of publicity for the new build, and the MUGA (if anyone noticed) was A Good Thing. Planning was approved, amid a blaze of publicity, for the school building, but the MUGA application was withdrawn. There were two problems with the proposed siting: the bat survey ruled that the floodlighting would interfere with the flight path of some resident bats, and Sport England declared that no existing sports facilities could be lost, even if the overall facility was increased. The MUGA would shave a bit of land from the existing playing field, so a new position had to be found.
The school looked around their grounds. “Where can we site this thing? All our land (that the Council is not selling to developers) is covered in sports fields. Oh, look, here is a patch of 100 year old trees. Generations of school pupils have memories associated with these trees. We can put it there.”
The new MUGA application was duly submitted. Residents were notified, and notices were glued to nearby lamp posts. If your neighbour has ever sought planning permission, you will know that the notice says something vague like ‘replace windows’ or ‘build MUGA’. There are no details, and only the very committed will venture to the Planning Portal and wade through the many documents to find out just what is going on. I’m betting that no one realised that the MUGA (good thing) would lead to the loss of twenty five 100 year old trees (very bad thing).
Locals muttered under their breath as the construction of the new school building commenced, but forgot all about the MUGA (if they’d even noticed), so it was only when someone on Facebook raised the alarm on 6 July that anyone realised what was about to happen.
After the first trees came down on the 7th, there was no felling on 8 July. This was apparently due to ‘protesters’, although the only protester I am aware of left the site upon request by the police.
The scene after a day’s felling
This brief reprieve gave the “Tree Huggers of Wolsingham” hope. A collaboration on Facebook (nothing so formal as a group) wrote letters, scrutinised planning documents, followed up leads, and set up a petition. The school issued a statement (“We have no choice, it’s a small sacrifice, for the greater good, etc.”). A front (and back) page article appeared in the Weardale Gazette. Pat Glass MP managed, with no notice whatsoever, to arrange a meeting at the school, on the last day of term, with some of the more vociferous letter writers (including me) and the Head Teacher, Mrs Merrett; DCC Head of Planning, Stuart Timmiss; and DCC Education rep, Sheila Palmerley.
There are two aspects to the Tree Huggers’ campaign: save the trees, and save the birds. We’d rather save the trees, but at the least we want to save the birds. This business has been a sharp learning curve. I’ve had to scrub up on my knowledge of the planning process and wildlife law just to write this blog.
Save the birds
Nesting birds are protected in England by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Act states: “Any person who intentionally […] takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence.”. In essence, if a contractor fails to make proper checks, and fells a tree leading to a nest being destroyed or abandoned, they are in breach of the Act.
The Act is one thing, but how is it applied in practice? Various bodies place blanket restrictions on tree work during the bird breeding season to ensure compliance with the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The breeding season is defined by Natural England as between March and August, and their standing advice for local planning authorities simply states “No works should be undertaken in the breeding season (March to August)”. However, and here’s where it starts to get murky, Durham County Council deviates from Natural England, as their standard planning advice to developers states “Non-urgent major tree work involving tree removal/reduction and hedge cutting operations should not normally be undertaken during the bird nesting/breeding season, which is considered to be from 1 March to 31 July.” The statement also fails to provide a definition of ‘urgent’, but as the Head of Planning confirmed to me that economic reasons count as urgent, it’s pretty easy to fell trees during the nesting season with the Council’s blessing in County Durham.
I received an email on 9 July from a senior planning officer stating that felling was halted after a DCC ecology inspection that morning identified nesting birds. One of the planning conditions included in the approval notice stated that “should it be necessary to fell within [the breeding] period, a check for the presence of active nests and nesting birds should be undertaken by a suitably qualified ecologist prior to the commencement of works”. However, Wolsingham School published a statement that claimed: “as planned, contractors have investigated each tree prior to felling. As active birds’ nests have been found, all tree felling is suspended until all hatched birds have fledged”. The school’s approach seems to go against that demanded by the planners, and does not sound like a practical approach: personally, I can’t imagine a tree felling crew turning up ready to go, then finding a nest and going home for a few weeks waiting for the birds to fledge.
At the meeting in the school, Stuart Timmiss announced that felling would not recommence until after July, and that an ecologist would inspect the trees before felling could start. Yay, we saved the birds.
Save the trees
In a weird quirk of the planning process, when a council commissions development work, they are both the applicant and the approver. It is standard practice for councils to prepare and submit school planning applications, even though it is actually the school who requires the development. We therefore have the DCC planning department scrutinising a high profile application submitted by the DCC. This is a serious (but accepted) conflict of interest, not helped by the balancing act faced by planners for every application, where they weigh up different values and make decisions on applications where there can be strong grounds both for and against the development.
As most of us living in Wolsingham also find ourselves in a Conservation Area, we are used to having to beg the planners to let us make minor changes to our homes (changing the colour of our windows, or felling a tree). There were so many reasons for the planners to reject the new siting for the MUGA. Apart from the standard noise and light pollution issues, trees have high status in planning terms, and these trees are a significant landscape feature, with historical and emotional significance to former pupils, and of value in their own right because of their size and age. There were also reasons to just ‘hurry up and get on with it’: funding had been secured for the MUGA, there was no easy alternative siting, the development had already been timetabled and was now behind schedule, and the school was determined for there to be no unfinished works for the grand reopening scheduled for February next year.
At the school meeting arranged by Pat Glass, Stuart Timmiss talked about the three-legged stool of planning. I didn’t take very good notes, but my understanding is that the planning system as a whole now favours economic and social development over the environment (unless you are trying to fell a tree in a conservation area, of course). While on paper the environment should be given equal weighting, in practice the planners simply demand suitable mitigation measures. They can then give approval and be done with it, whereas refusing applications can become costly if the developer appeals.
On the Planning Portal, the delegated report includes extracts from the National Planning Policy Framework. Part 8, Promoting Healthy Communities, states: “the planning system can play an important role in facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities. Access to high quality open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and wellbeing of communities.” Part 11, Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment, states “the planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains where possible.” The MUGA delivers part 8, but the loss of the trees goes against part 11.
The landscape report shows that officers were well aware of the significance the trees had to the local landscape, but were placated by the proposal to mitigate through new planting. It states: “The trees standing on the site chosen for the MUGA as a group make a significant contribution to the appearance of the school grounds and are visible from the public footpath that runs to the south and east just outside the school boundaries. As the initially proposed compensatory tree planting in the form of individual specimen around the edge of the MUGA site would be both ineffective and incompatible with the sports facility, a revised scheme that recreates the tree group on the abandoned vegetable garden to the north has been subsequently submitted and is accepted.”
Now to my mind, nothing mitigates the loss of 100 year old trees, as we will all be dead before the new trees are as good as the old ones, and there is no certainty that the new trees will survive long enough for some future generation to enjoy.
Finally, and I think this is what has hurt people the most, the consultation for the re-sited MUGA went completely unnoticed by all the people who are angry right now. I’ve no doubt that proper consultation processes were followed, but I also have no doubt that no one at the school or in the planning department drew people’s attention to the fact that the new site involved the loss of the trees. As I said earlier, planning notices provide very little information, and unless you go to the bother of reading the ‘small print’ hidden in the mountain of planning documentation, you are not going to have the full picture of what is being proposed.
The petition that was set up after the felling started has been signed by over 300 people. The comments show that many people feel passionately about the trees. Here are just a few examples: “any school could build a MUGA, but many would be jealous of Wolsingham’s setting, surrounded as it is by acres of greenery and mature trees.” “To remove these trees is a disgrace! My son attends as have all of my children, myself, my partner, sister, etc. and I feel very strongly about the removal of these trees. Our history is being removed bit by bit and for what??” “I think it will be a scandal and disgrace if these lovely trees are lost from the school grounds – they are themselves a wonderful outdoor resource for the children and must be incorporated in the plans for the site and the school curriculum.” 300 people writing letters to the planning department before permission was granted could have made all the difference.
Once upon a time, I lived in Southend in Essex. There was utter outrage from the local media and the public when a line of very mature trees was felled to make way for road improvements. I knew the Conservation Officer for Southend Council very well, and he said to me before the felling, with genuine sadness, “no amount of protesting can change this now, but if the public had expressed themselves before permission was granted, it could have been stopped”. The problem is that planning is a boring and complex business, public meetings are boring, but once the decision has been made, there’s a “bad decision” to latch on to, a controversy for the press to write stories about, and people find out and get angry only when it is too late to influence the outcome.
If you feel angry about the loss of these trees, then next time you see a notice stuck to a lamp post, maybe it’s time to take a closer look.