Seven Dials is an area of Brighton popular with young professionals, immigrant communities and some of the richest people in the city. For decades it has been blighted by a roundabout so tortuous to negotiate that many locals just walk straight across it. Of the roads leading out from Seven Dials, one leads to one of the grandest public spaces in town ~ Montpelier Crescent. The entrance to the Crescent (Vernon Terrace) was dominated for as long as anyone alive can remember by three mighty elm trees. Sadly, a few years ago two of them fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease. Now the third may fall victim to the city council’s folly. Whereas you might expect this sort of bloody minded decision in the rest of the country, Brighton & Hove City Council is run by the Green Party and this tree is in Regency ward, which is represented by the Leader of the Council, Jason Kitcat.
Regular readers will know that I am not only a member of the Green Party but an activist too. I also lived in the Seven Dials area for ten years and walked past the last elm more times than I could shake the proverbial stick at it. It was planted after Samuel Johnson’s visit to Brighton in 1777, after which he said, “the place is truly desolate and if one had a mind to hang oneself for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten a rope.” His remarks shook up the people of Brighton. They rectified the problem by means of a mass tree planting programme. When the neighbouring two elm trees were felled, us residents gathered and wept. Everyone agreed that they had to go, to protect the third tree. Now the third tree is under threat but not from disease. Instead the City Council has decided to fell it because:
- it will hinder traffic flow around the soon to be reorganised roundabout
- there’s a pelican crossing nearby and it prevents motorists driving South along Vernon Terrace to see people stepping out to cross the road
- its roots are disrupting the pavement and the road
- people using pushchairs, wheelchairs and mobility buggies cannot pass the tree at the same time
- ten new trees will be planted to replace the felled tree
The local Green Party councillors have made public consultations into their watchword. There is a consultation for practically everything the council does. Opposition parties, which actually have a majority of the seats on the council, routinely mock the Green’s love of consulting with the public, as if it is somehow anti-democratic. Apparently they prefer to ignore consultations, wait for decisions and then raise petitions against the result. Witness the Labour Party’s attitude to the regeneration of The Level. Knowing that they should have sorted out Seven Dials years ago, neither Labour nor the Tories have substantially objected to the plan to change the layout of the Seven Dials roundabout.
However, questions are now being asked about the integrity of the Seven Dials consultation process, which left many residents in the dark about the decision to fell the last elm. The original plans presented to the public made no mention of felling the tree. Having so many connections with the area, I participated in the consultation process. The original scheme included a plan to convert Vernon Terrace (the straight side of Montpelier Crescent) to a one-way street. The residents who replied to the survey did not approve of that plan, so it was dropped.
I have been forwarded various items of official correspondence from the council on the subject. It says that the public disapproval of the original plan led to the decision to fell the tree, although it isn’t clear who first suggested the felling or when. It also says that the council consulted its own arboriculturalist, whom it describes as, “a leading authority on Elm Trees both in Brighton and elsewhere“, and the reply said that “the need for removal of this particular tree was acknowledged.” Elsewhere in missives from officialdom it states that the decision to take down our beloved tree, “was communicated very clearly to residents at a public meeting on 17th December where over 200 local people were present.” I wanted to go to that meeting but I couldn’t make it due to a prior engagement. I had asked to be informed of the ongoing plans. Back to the correspondence from a council official ~ he says that a web link to final plans was sent out to 300 local people who had asked to be kept informed of developments through the consultation process. I know I received some emails. I recall clicking on the link but I don’t remember my attention being specifically drawn to something as dramatic as this. The “final decision” was taken by the Transport Committee, which noted that no objections had been received.
The tree was originally scheduled for felling on 4th and 5th March. That was delayed, for unknown reasons. Now the word is that the council thinks it will fell it on 7th March. That isn’t going to happen. A group of residents are guarding the tree throughout the day and night. Various people are on standby to protect it, including some Green Party activists. I’m in their number. Another is Tom Druitt, who is better known as the Managing Director of the most ecologically aware bus company in the country (The Big Lemon). He’s ready with his climbing equipment.
We know that our Green Councillors haven’t got the necessary spunk for this fight. We know that they will not order the heavies into forcing Mr Druitt down from the tree. We knew know that they will not be able to withstand the forces I am now mustering. They know that the last time I personally became involved in a campaign (to save the Runaway Cafe on Lewes Railway Station), the target company capitulated within a couple of days.
We also know the consequences of our actions for the Green Party, both locally and nationally. The very thought of headlines about the Green Party facing an uprising from its own activists makes me shudder. Going public on this has been a very difficult decision for me. Before taking this step, I’ve tried to address the issue in private with those responsible. Transport policy in the city is led by the estimable Ian Davey. He’s easily been the hardest working councillor and is hugely respected for his achievements to date. I’m not the only person who has contacted him about this. Each of the reasons for the felling have been tackled in correspondence to him. Here they are again, with the objections myself and other Green Party activists have raised in private:
- it will hinder traffic flow around the soon to be reorganised roundabout ~ no it won’t because the tree does not stand in the road, it is on the pavement
- there’s a pelican crossing nearby and it prevents motorists driving South along Vernon Terrace to see people stepping out to cross the road ~ only if they drive carelessly and besides, the crossing could be moved by a few yards, so that careless drivers could see pedestrians waiting to cross ~ moving the crossing would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than felling the oldest tree in the neighbourhood ~ if the crossing isn’t moved, it could be raised which would slow cars to a safe driving speed; given that it is only a few yards from a roundabout, they shouldn’t be driving more than 10mph anyway
- its roots are disrupting the pavement and the road ~ this could easily be overcome by raising the pavement by a few inches around the tree, removing a kerb stone or possibly two and raising the tarmac by a couple of inches too; again this would be considerably cheaper and better for the environment than felling the tree
- people using pushchairs, wheelchairs and mobility buggies cannot pass the tree at the same time ~ this point is completely specious because if the council was really motivated by this sort of thing it would have to knock down most of the houses in the North Laine and the Lanes, both hugely popular with tourists and featuring narrow pavements.
- ten new trees will be planted to replace the felled tree ~ it will be years before the new trees soak up as much carbon from the atmosphere as the old tree and besides, if there is space nearby for ten new trees why not just plant them as well as keeping the old tree?
These points were raised with the councillors concerned via the local party’s usual communication channels. They were ignored. They were also communicated to the Green Councillors in the city, again through internal channels. No-one replied to defend the felling with respect to the points made. Thus, those Green Party activists who still care about trees have decided to go active on the issue.
It isn’t just hardcore Green Party activists spoiling for a fight with the Brighton & Hove Green Party council administration. A community defence group has been formed ~ the Seven Dials Save Our Tree Action Group. That group includes people living within 100 metres of the tree, who say categorically that they were not consulted about the felling. Already they have informed UNESCO that whilst the city is applying for an Urban Biosphere Award, it has decided to cut down a perfectly healthy and very old elm. They’ve also corresponded with Caroline Lucas, whom I hardly need remind anyone is the country’s only Green MP. She replied saying that she was, “not convinced that planting up to ten new trees can be used as an argument to explain the decision.”
The photographs in this post have been republished here with the kind permission of Nick Hider.
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