This is my personal account of events on the ground and in the last Elm tree at Seven Dials from late in the night of Wednesday 6th March to the evening of 7th March. For background information, please see my post on the plan to kill the oldest resident in the Green Council Leader’s ward and Tree Lessons for Jason Kitcat.
At 11:00pm on 6th March two Green Party activists climbed up the Elm tree, having heard that the council’s subcontractors planned to arrive very early in the morning the following day to fell the tree. The police arrived before they started up but made it clear that they had no wish to intervene at the time. The climbers sat in the first couple of branches until 4:30am the following day, when they climbed higher and set themselves up with netting, bedding, food, water, a toilet and the usual techno equipment required in these situations. I arrived on the scene just before they raised their ascent. I stood at the bottom of the tree with another soul whose vigil had passed through the night. Our mission was simple: to prevent the tree being felled. Sure enough, the contractors arrived at about 5:00am and set up a site compound on Montpelier Crescent.
Shortly afterwards I went over to talk to them, to explain that we would not allow them fell the Elm. They told me that their job was just to secure the site and that they would not remove anyone who was inside the area they were going to enclose. Their foreman also told me that he would allow people inside the enclosure to come and go for comfort breaks. Both him and his work crew were perfectly courteous to both me and all the protesters who arrived later. In fact, he kept calling me “brother“, which is a first for me!
As they erected the fencing (at 6:00am), various other people arrived and got themselves inside the enclosure. With the enclosure complete, more and more people arrived in support. The occasion was and remained completely peaceful, friendly and civil. The police came back and spoke to everyone. The police sergeant I spoke to was perfectly well aware of everyone’s lawful rights.
At around about 7:00am a council officer, Dave Parker, arrived to inspect the situation. We explained that our people were ensconced in the Elm and kitted out for a very long stay there. One lady summarised the flaws in the public consultation process and said that she had contacted the council as soon as she had discovered the plan to fell the Elm but had received no reply. Mr Parker asked her to explain what points she had raised in her correspondence. These were the same as were set out in my first post on the Elm. He asked her if she could email him. After some more conversation of the consequences of her leaving to do this, he proposed that he would ensure that no action was taken “until I receive that email and give a formulated response.“
The lady left to send the email. Mr Parker went off towards Montpelier Crescent, where he spoke to the contractors. Then Mr Parker returned. At 8:00am he informed us that the trees would not be felled that day and that he had called off the tree surgeons.
The residents got up and went to work, stopping by our spot first, signing our petition. Cars began to hoot their horns in support. We stayed put, fearing that without a formal stay of execution our departure would endanger the Elm.
Around about 9:00am our local Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas turned out in support of the campaign to save the Elm! She had already declared her support the night before but her presence really lifted the morale of the protesters. Throughout the day, various Green Party councillors arrived to show their support. I’m not going to name them all, mainly because I fear that I might miss some out but also because I didn’t time stamp their arrivals with a tweet. Special mentions must also go to Councillor Ruth Buckley, who represents the neighbouring ward of Goldsmid and Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty, who represents Brunswick and Adelaide ward. Both of them were present for several hours.
Shortly before 10:00am, various strangers had become acquainted with one another. Commitments were made to protect the Elm and supply those of us inside the enclosure. A vicar arrived and dished out tea and coffee. An online petition was created to mount the pressure on the council. It’s worth noting at this point that earlier the previous day the local Tories had tried to set up their own petition but they had not contacted the emergent community group which had galvanised the support for the Elm (@SaveOurTree on twitter). The day before 500 signatures against the felling were presented to the council. We carried on gathering signatures on paper and, at the time of writing, another 742 people have signed the online petition.
Just after Noon, an experienced independent arboriculturalist informed me that the contractors had damaged the roots of the trees in the Crescent by excavating the top 250mm of soil around some semi-mature Elm trees there, without “any regard or basic understanding of BS 5837 2012 in relation to design, demolition and construction.” Furthermore, he said, “I would be hard pushed to find a private developer undertaking site works with so little understanding of what needs to be done to protect trees on a construction site.” He had spoken to one of the Highway Engineers on site in the morning, who confirmed that he could see no reason why the pedestrian crossing near the Elm we were protecting could not be moved a little further to the South (which would obviate the council’s claimed issue of a problem with a motorist’s sight line around our Elm tree). He also told me that there was no reason why the residents’ demands could not be met and the tree saved. He asked me not to put his name into the public domain at this time.
At 12:30pm our decision to stay was justified when the contractors drove a large digger into the enclosure and announced that they were going to use it to rip the railings out of the ground. We pointed out that the railings were embedded in the Elm’s roots and that their removal would undoubtedly damage the main roots of the tree. We stood in the way of the digger.
At this point, the contractor’s boss, Martin Baldwin, got a bit stroppy with me and the others inside the enclosure. There were only four of us in there, although there were many more people outside. He tried to tell me that if we caused an accident we could be sued. I suggested that making invalid legal threats was not conducive to the calm atmosphere which had prevailed up until then. Much later he told me that he had never had to deal with anything like this and admitted, most cordially, that the tension in the situation had perhaps got the better of him. At the time I pointed out that if there was an accident with his digger and our heads, the risk was someone getting killed. He said that would be our fault. I suggested that it would be corporate manslaughter in the circumstances, which were being properly recorded in photographs and film. He took the point and ordered his men to lower the digger’s arm until we had resolved the immediate dispute. I invited him to back off.
All the while I’d been posting to app.net (and cross-posting to twitter). At this point, I asked for as many people to join us as possible to prevent the railings from being ripped out. More people entered the enclosure by climbing over the fence or squeezing under it. I told Mr Baldwin that I could only speak for myself but that I could not stand by and watch the Elm’s roots being damaged. I said I would get in the way and that I suspected many others would as well, with the result that they would not be able to lift the railings.
The police arrived again. A different sergeant came to talk to us. I spoke to him at length, to get to the bottom of his view of the situation and his intentions. To cut a very long story short, his immediate difficulty was that without expert opinion on possibility of damage to the Elm’s roots, he could not see any reason to prevent the contractors from carrying out their lawful activity. I phoned up the arboriculturalist again. By this point, I had almost mastered pronouncing his job title! I passed the phone to the officer and they chatted for a bit. The policeman said that was good enough for him for now but pointed out that he could be overruled by someone further up his chain of command. Fine, I thought, let’s see what happens.
At 1:09pm I published a post on my blog, detailing the problems already caused to nearby trees by the contractors, as described to me by the arboriculturalist. By this point, I’d pretty much mastered the pronunciation of his professional title but the police had given up attempting it, referring to him as a tree expert.
At 1:30pm we got word that there was some kind of special meeting taking place inside the City Council. We were unsure of the nature of that meeting. The police appeared to want to take their cue from the decisions taken in that meeting.
Another call of nature was pressing most urgently on me. Whereas the foreman had most graciously agreed in advance to let me re-enter the enclosure on each of the two occasions I had previously left, now Mr Baldwin was in charge. I guess him watching the police listen to our concerns and apparently delay the proceedings still further had exacerbated his worsening mood. He was, “not your gate man.” He declined to promise me re-entry at 2:18pm. I’m sure he realised pretty soon that that had been a tactical error on his part because the immediate consequence was that people began to lift the fence up to get in and out underneath it. This had happened a couple of times before but the police had successfully persuaded us to leave it alone, on the basis that those of us inside the enclosure could come and go as we pleased, so long as we asked nicely. With the niceties removed, we were obliged to avoid public toiletries by mucking about with the fence. Fairly quickly, this decision was reversed.
I spent a bit of time talking to Mr Baldwin. Despite his apparently hostile mood, he was in fact a perfectly reasonable person after that. We explained ourselves to each other, discussed the politics, law and commercial realities of life in general, Brighton and he became very pleasant again. Although others might take a harsher line with people doing his job, I was inclined to take him at face value. Here was a fellow who had never encountered public protest before and was presumably ill-trained for how to deal with it. His professionalism kicked in again, after a period of readjustment. He was as obviously keen for us to go away as we were for him to do the same. We were both big boys and rose above our difficulties, so as to avoid the situation becoming unnecessarily inflamed.
The lady who had persuaded Mr Parker to halt the felling suggested that the contractors cut the railings off at ground level with a ‘disc cutter’ (by which I presumed she meant an angle grinder). Initially, I thought that this might be dangerous afterwards for pedestrians but I thought about it a little bit and realised that the resulting metal stubs would be concreted over to cover up their sharp edges. At 3:10pm she told me that the contractors had agreed that they could do that instead of using the digger. They didn’t though.
At 4:00pm, Mr Baldwin informed me that they were not going to do any further work that day or the next day. All through the day I had been watching the urgent chatter inside the Green Party’s private communications systems, which allow all members to chat with all other members live and direct. Pressure had been mounting on the council via this channel as well as various other means. I was aware that a majority of our Green Party councillors had declared to the other Green councillors that they were in favour of saving the Elm. After Mr Baldwin told me that he was pulling out, I checked our party’s internal comms and found a message from the Council Leader Jason Kitcat, whose ward the Elm stands in, which confirmed that there would be a pause in the proceedings. Unfortunately, he gave no detail as to proposed length of the pause.
Without a written guarantee that the tree would not be felled, none of us were in the mood for trusting the assurances given. The tree-dwellers declared that they would remain in situ. They had enough supplies to hold out for a considerable period of time and the means to replenish themselves. A rumour arrived that the work would be halted for a fortnight but I wasn’t able to ascertain whether its source was trustworthy. Mr Parker told one of our tree-dwellers that no further work would take place until Monday. However, Mr Baldwin told me that they would do some work and explained that this would involve resetting the kerbs and pavement on the Southern side of the pedestrian crossing near the Elm. The contractors took down their fence and rearranged it around this area. Nonetheless, many people on the ground declared that they could not risk abandoning the site in case the job started up again unexpectedly. I shared that opinion. Although I had to go home pretty soon, to look after my wife, who is recovering from surgery (She more or less ordered me to go and save the tree!), I was satisfied that various people were prepared to sit the night out and support the treetop encampment.
Later on I heard from our tree people that a Mr Geoff Raw (a council officer but, forgive me, I have lost track of his job title in the long day that was yesterday) had informed them that the reprieve would remain in place until further consultation had been done with the public. Furthermore, a meeting had been arranged for the following day to discuss that. Our hardy tree people told Mr Raw that they would need that undertaking in writing. Mr Raw agreed to draft a letter. They have told me that if that letter shows sufficient consultation with the public, they will descend. To a heroes welcome, I imagine. Certainly, they’ll both get a pint of Harvey’s from me!
Before I left at 4:30pm, two local Tory councillors turned up (Ann and Ken Norman). They angrily declared their support for the tree but bizarrely claimed that they had raised objections to its felling, despite there being no record of any objections. As soon as they arrived, they spotted Councillor Ruth Buckley, made a beeline for her and, despite the fact that she was talking to me, started shouting at her. How rude!
In a nutshell, the reason why no-one objected is because virtually no-one was aware of the plan to fell the beloved Elm. The decision to fell emerged very late on in the consultation process and was effectively buried in much other detail. However, I’ll not publish my full analysis of the legal situation right now. I prefer to leave that for a more timely moment. Similarly, I prefer to hold the cards of our legal options to my chest at the moment. Let’s see what today brings first… round one to the Elm’s neighbours!