Save Cox's Walk Footbridge Oaks

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Concept.png Save The Footbridge Oaks
(protestFacebook TwitterRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Susan Oak.jpg
Susan Donaldson protecting 155-year-old Thor
Founder(s)Pennie Hedge

Save Cox's Walk Footbridge Oaks has been a 2-year-long campaign of protest by petitioners[1] and local activists[2] to save two healthy, mature oak trees from being cut down as part of Southwark Council's proposed repairs to the footbridge on Cox's Walk in the Sydenham Hill Wood nature reserve in SE London. The footbridge spans the former Nunhead to Crystal Palace railway line, which closed in 1954, and the two oaks nicknamed Thor and Odin are described by campaigners as being "like sentinels, welcoming and guarding the bridge, and their magnificent canopy dapples the bridge in green shade."

Felling notices were posted on the trees on 2 November 2020, saying that, in accordance with 2018 Planning Application 18/AP/4034, contractors FM Conway and subcontractors C S G (Ushers) Ltd were to remove the trees in the week commencing Monday 16 November 2020.

On Saturday 14 November 2020, local activists camped out in the woods and began a 24/7 vigil to prevent Thor and Odin from being felled, whilst the 38 Degrees petition, created by conservationist Pennie Hedge, was widely publicised in the media and doubled its signatories to over 6,000 in just a few weeks. Thanks to three ladies, including local activist Susan Donaldson, who physically stood in front of the chainsaws on Monday 16 November 2020, the felling of the trees was prevented.[3]

Activist Eliane Haseldine 0:58 - 1:08 Campaigner Pennie Hedge 1:23 - 1:43

Application to injunct

Activists "could face jail or fines"

On 23 November 2020, Southwark Council applied to the High Court for an interim injunction to stop campaigners blocking its plans to fell the two oak trees. If the High Court were to approve the injunction and the activists found in breach of it, they could face jail or fines.[4] A notice of the application, which has been tied to the trees, reads:

Dear Sir/Madam,

NOTICE OF APPLICATION BY SOUTHWARK COUNCIL FOR AN INTERIM INJUNCTION TO PREVENT OBSTRUCTION OF THE FELLING OF THE OAK TREES NEAR/ABOUT THE COX'S WALK FOOTPATH AND COX'S WALK FOOTBRIDGE

Please find enclosed the following documents in respect of London Borough of Southwark's application for an Interim Injunction filed at the High Court – Queens Bench Division on Monday, 23rd November 2020.

(a) Application Notice

(b) Draft/Proposed Order

(c) Witness Statement of Tony Coppock

(d) Exhibits to Tony Coppock's Witness Statement

Yours faithfully,

Adewale Ogun

Lawyer

Legal Services, Finance & Governance

Email: adewale.ogun2@southwark.gov.uk

On 25 November 2020, Southwark News tweeted:

Southwark Council is seeking a court injunction to end the stand-off @SaveOaks @wildlondon_SHW #Sydenham #Dulwich[5]

Application refused

On 1 December 2020, Save The Footbridge Oaks campaigners were jubilant when the High Court's Mrs Justice Cutts DBE refused Southwark Council's application for an injunction to stop activist sisters Colette Haseldine and Susan Donaldson blocking its plans to fell the two healthy, mature oak trees:

Before The Honourable Mrs Justice Cutts DBE

BETWEEN: THE MAYOR AND BURGESSES OF THE LONDON BOROUGH OF SOUTHWARK

-and-

COLETTE HASELDINE, First Respondent

-and-

SUSAN DONALDSON, Second Respondent

ORDER

This Application filed by the applicant (in the Administrative Court) has since been transferred to the Queen's Bench Division.

UPON reading the applicant's application

UPON hearing counsel for the applicant and counsel for the respondents

AND UPON thereafter having been listed for urgent consideration, service having been effected on the Respondents

IT IS ORDERED THAT

The application for interim relief is refused.

Reasons

1. The applicant has failed to identify any civil claim to which this application attaches or any civil wrong to be prohibited. No claim has been issued. Reliance was placed on s.222 Local Government Act 1972. This does no more than provide the Local Authority with the power to prosecute or defend or appear in any legal proceedings or, in the case of civil proceedings, institute them in their own name. It does not provide a cause of action. During the hearing reliance was placed on s.130 Highways Act 1980. Aside from the fact that the respondents had no notice of this and were unable to properly deal with it, this section does not assist the applicant on this issue. ln the absence of any civil claim or identified civil wrong I do not consider it appropriate to grant an interim injunction.

2. Additionally, I do not consider that an application for an emergency injunction, initially to be made ex parte, is necessary or appropriate. The only reason advanced for urgency is that the Local Authority's planning permission for the removal of the trees expires at midnight on 3rd December 2020. It was open to the Local Authority to make an application in the normal way prior to this week. That would have given better opportunity to those who oppose the application to make representations. It is open to the applicant to re-apply for planning permission should such expire before the trees are cut down.

3. The respondents have indicated that they wish to take legal advice on the prospects of judicial review of the decision of the Local Authority on 29th October 2020 to continue with the plan to cut down the trees following extensive consultation after the grant of planning permission in January 2019. They are still within time so to do. ln those circumstances the balance of convenience lies with maintaining the status quo. Were this application to be granted the trees would be felled. This action clearly could not be reversed.

Dated this lst day of December 2020.

Lawyers for Nature

Barrister Paul Powlesland, who set up Lawyers for Nature, and was the influential force behind Sheffield Trees Action Group's success, represented the Dulwich Oaks campaigners in the High Court.

In December 2021, Paul Powlesland published "Case Study: Save the Footbridge Oaks Campaign", which concluded:

"Now the trees are fully protected. So for me, this story encapsulates the ways in which Lawyers for Nature can work with local activists on the ground to get a great result for nature. We went from trees potentially being unnecessarily felled to allow work to take place, to those trees being not only saved, but protected into the future. That could only be achieved by a combination of peaceful activism and the assistance of Lawyers for Nature. And now, those trees will hopefully far outlive us all, which is a very satisfying outcome indeed."[6]

Peaceful vigil continues

A statement from the campaigners said:

“Had the local authority request been granted, peaceful protest to protect the trees would have been outlawed.

“As it now stands however, since the claim was rejected by Mrs Justice Cutts, the peaceful vigil will continue to defend the trees as it successfully did on the day, November 16 when chainsaws were turned around and left the site.”

The council’s two-year felling order expires later this week. The campaigners say this “will allow a fresh process that will fully engage with a public now well informed of the need to preserve this mature woodland”:

“Now that the planning permission to fell the trees is lapsing, we hope that instead of reapplying to get the trees down, the council will work with ourselves and other local interested organisations like the London Wildlife Trust, the Sydenham Hill Ridge Neighbourhood Forum, the Dulwich Estate and the Dulwich Society to find the most cost effective way forward to re-open and repair the bridge and safeguard the trees and protect the nature reserve they are growing in,” the campaigners said.[7]

New Planning Application

On 4 December 2020, the @SaveOaks campaign tweeted:

"The planning permission has now lapsed and the trees cannot be legally cut down...
"...at the moment.
"@lb_southwark's & @rosecllr's answer was to slap in a new planning application to cut them down.
"20/AP/3537: put in your Objections now!"[8]

On 7 December 2020, Southwark Council decided to withdraw Planning Application 20/AP/3537 without explanation.[9] On 9 December 2020, while campaigners awaited confirmation of the status of lapsed application 18/AP/4034, Southwark Council proposed a new Planning Application 20/AP/3632 for public consultation.[10] On 18 December 2020, the Save the Cox's Walk Footbridge Oak Trees petition was updated and showed over 6,500 signatories who were opposed to Southwark Council's tree felling plans on these grounds:

  • No evidence has been provided that the tree roots have caused damage to the bridge.
  • The trees are only an obstruction to the current repair design. There are alternative ways of repairing the bridge which do not require their removal and which would have a lower impact on the nature reserve altogether.
  • The value of the trees in terms of amenity (CAVAT value £242,000), biodiversity, carbon capture and sequestration, air purification etc has not been taken into account.
  • The effect of the removal of the trees on the stability of the slope has not been properly assessed, and is likely to cause further problems with the bridge.
  • Taking into account the above two issues, the removal of the trees would not be the best use of public money to achieve the long term repair of the bridge that the Council says it wants.

The petition update concluded:

The new Planning Application number is 20/AP/3632, accessed from the Southwark Planning new online register. Comments can be made until 10th January 2021. Over 180 public objections to the new application ensured it was refused on 19 January 2021, when the Council made a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) number 605 to prevent the felling of the trees. It was open to the contractors or others affected by TPO/605 to make objections or other representations to the Council within 28 days. According to a letter sent by Planning Officer Oliver Stutter to local MP Ellie Reeves, no objections to TPO/605 were made by the due date: 16 February 2021, while sixty comments in favour were received by the Council.[11]

Council caves

Southwark Council finally caved on 26 March 2021:

We've committed to honour the Tree Protection Order put in place by our Planning team and to pause any works on the footbridge. We'll continue to carry out inspections of the structure, particularly the underside, to ensure the safety of the public. The footbridge itself will remain closed to the public until a solution is determined to the address the essential repair works to the footbridge.

The Council is legally required to keep Cox’s Walk open and accessible as this forms part of the public highway. This means that a crossing, over the deep gully, must be provided and maintained as soon as practicable. We wholly recognise the deep concern for the future of two oak trees, adjacent to the footbridge, which have been previously identified as requiring removal to ensure that the repair works can be safely carried out.

We recognise the considerable time and effort made by the campaigners in working to find a solution that will fulfil the objectives of repairing the bridge whilst retaining the trees. Consequently, we'll be tasking our new structures consultant to review all available options, including those previously discounted on technical and financial grounds, such as a preliminary design submitted by a local campaign group. This consultants’ brief will identify any means of reopening an accessible walkway over the gully, which will enable the two oak trees adjacent to the footbridge, to stay in place.

The intention is to engage with the public once the consultant has completed this work.[12]

Background

In January 2019 Southwark Council gave itself planning permission to fell two mature, healthy oak trees growing close to the footbridge on Cox’s Walk. This is a footpath running from Dulwich Common on the South Circular A205 to Sydenham Hill, and leading to Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Wood, a conservation area of ancient woodland. The trees are growing in the Sydenham Hill Wood nature reserve managed by London Wildlife Trust (LWT), whose objections to the planning application were overruled (although 14 young oaks were planted as compensation – 2 of which have already died). Southwark Council argued that essential repairs to the footbridge could not be carried out with the trees in place. The public consultation over the removal of these trees was held for two weeks over Christmas 2018.

Unnecessary price to pay

Campaign founder Pennie Hedge explained:

The loss of these two trees seemed to many of us who love these woods, a high and probably unnecessary price to pay for repairs to the bridge. The trees have a value of over £240,000 as assessed by the Capital Asset Value of Amenity Trees (CAVAT). Their value as wildlife habitats and for carbon sequestration would take many decades for the young trees to replicate. The footbridge was originally built in 1865 to cross the High Level Railway to Crystal Palace, and although repaired and rebuilt many times, retains its main historic features. The railway is long gone and the cutting is now part of the LWT nature reserve. We started a petition, asking the Council to reconsider and to look for alternative repairs that would retain the trees. The petition has over 2,800 signatures.

Pennie Hedge interview (12:55 to 15:45)

Recognising the strength of public opinion against felling the trees, the Council obtained two design proposals from its consultants that would repair the bridge and retain the trees. However, it still concluded that they were too expensive and risky, and is currently persisting with its original plan. But Highways has said that it is open to other proposals, and this is what we have the opportunity to present to them now.

Halting the felling

In November 2019, Pennie Hedge tweeted:

"Temporary halt on felling the trees!!
"Tweet from Helen Hayes MP today:
"'Pleased to say that following further discussion and representations from me, @CatherineRose6 & @AndySimmons10 Southwark Council has agreed to halt the decision to fell two oak trees in Sydenham Hill Woods so that further options can be explored & community engagement take place'."[13]

Crowdfunding

The independent engineer volunteered his time to produce the outline proposals for the bridge repair. However, more detailed design work is needed to get the proposal to the stage where we can present it to the Council, and we need to recompense him for the time he would need to do this. We also need a full report from the arboriculturist to present as evidence that retaining the trees would not pose a risk to either the work or the trees themselves.

Surveying users

As well as the petition, which showed the strength of local feeling in favour of retaining the trees, we have also conducted a Survey on how people used Cox’s Walk and the footbridge, and their preferences for its future (the bridge was shut in January because some non-structural timbers supporting the parapet were rotten). This clearly showed that keeping the trees was of paramount importance to over 90% of respondees. Keeping the historic design of the bridge was also important to many. The design we are now proposing achieves both.[14]

Temporary solution

In October 2020, Pennie Hedge posted on Facebook:

We have this week emailed the Council to ask for the rotten timbers on the bridge to be removed immediately, so that the bridge can be reopened. This would be a temporary measure that would allow time for them to work with us for a cost-effective repair that retains the oaks, keeps the bridge and reinstates the timber superstructure.

We had hoped that the Council would engage with us sooner to work our design to construction detail in the most cost-effective way and enable all the repairs to be completed this winter. However, as it is now five weeks since the meeting on 22nd September and we are still awaiting responses to our questions and comments, it is clear that this is not going to happen. Added to that, Councillors have told us that the Southwark Highways network is principally funded by Transport for London, which has well publicised financial problems. Is this the moment to be spending over a quarter of a million pounds on a woodland footbridge?

What we are proposing is a temporary solution that would allow the footbridge to open again and also allow time for the best possible design to be worked out, which could be implemented once the financial situation has improved.

Re-opening the footbridge is obviously important for users, particularly with winter coming on and the paths through the woods becoming extremely muddy – already the case after all this rain! It is also vital for the health of the London Wildlife Trust Sydenham Hill Nature Reserve because of the impact trampling has had since the footbridge was closed, and particularly during the lockdown.[15]

Alternative to felling

On 6 November 2020, Pennie Hedge reported:

The Council intends to go ahead and cut down the trees, week commencing 16th November. We have one more week to Save the Oaks.

Cutting them down is not inevitable. 'Every effort' has not been made. It is Southwark Council's active choice to cut them down. There are alternatives.

If you're a Southwark resident and want to help, please contact your MP and local councillor to ask for the felling to be stopped and the Highways officers to work with us to produce a cost effective, sustainable repair to the footbridge that keeps the trees.[16]

Political tweets

Saw Point: Save Oaks refuse to make way

Lib Dems

On 16 November 2020, Southwark Lib Dems tweeted:

Trees have voices...and Residents too!!! @lb_southwark
@SouthwarkLabour time to remember your No 1 Fairer Future promise? Thank you @SaveOaks[17]

Green Party

And on 26 November 2020 Claire Sheppard, the Green Party candidate for Southwark and Lambeth in next year’s postponed London Assembly elections, tweeted:

Thousands of people stand with @SaveOaks
Thank you @Southwark_News for giving @lb_southwark yet another opportunity to change their minds.
Come on! 2020s been rubbish, don’t end it killing these ancient trees![18]

Claire Sheppard told Southwark News:

“I’m completely behind saving these ancient trees in this ancient woodland.
“I think it’s entirely possible that this bridge can be mended without causing destruction to these beautiful ancient trees, and I think Southwark Council should be doing everything that they can, given the climate emergency, to ensure that these trees can be protected.
“You can’t replace hundred-plus-year-old trees. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
“And our children’s future depends on us keeping old and ancient trees, not needlessly destroying them.”

Broadcast media interest

Television

On 21 November 2020, BBC News London region reported at 5:30pm:

Good evening. I’m Sonja Jessop.

Thousands of people have backed a campaign to save two oak trees in a nature reserve in South East London. Southwark Council says there’s no alternative but to cut them down so safety repairs can be made to a historic footbridge in Sydenham Hill Woods.

But campaigners disagree as Wendy Hurrell reports: [Bird song, canopy, trees]

Sydenham Hill Woods in South East London is a rare, ancient woodland. A nature reserve, home to 200 species.

[black box with image of bat on it]

Clumps of bamboo or hidden ruins are remnants of the Victorian gardens and villas long demolished. And this decaying footbridge, part of Cox’s Walk, was once over the Nunhead to Crystal Palace railway line. A campaign group is camped out to save two oak trees due to be felled in order to fix the bridge.

Ellie, one of the campaigners, says:

“They are chopping trees everywhere. Everywhere trees are going down and we say no, you start only with two, but it’s only the beginning and then it could be something else and something else. This is a nature reserve. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.”

[children signing banner]

Local people have offered support more than 4,400 signing a Save the Oaks petition.

Campaigners have even crowd-funded an alternative design by engineers, conservationists and tree experts.

Pennie Hedge, founder of the campaign:

“We had a good team. But the Council just sort of went ‘yeah’ and dismissed it. Why not remove the timbers now and just put in a temporary balustrade and then sit down and work with us and come up with the most cost effective way of implementing our design. You know we just keep saying to them ‘please talk to us’.”

Well, in a statement Southwark Council said:

“Every effort has been made to try and find a way to save this pair of oaks, maintain a safe route through the woodland and repair our historic footbridge. But no viable, affordable, alternative solution has been identified that will achieve all three objectives, in the time needed.” Cllr Catherine Rose (Leisure, Environment and Roads)

They say they will plant more trees, but for now the stand-off continues in the woodland. And, while with everything else going on, efforts to save two oak trees might seem inconsequential, perhaps local campaigns like this are an antidote to some of the powerlessness many of us feel.

Wendy Hurrell, BBC London[19]

Radio

On 23 November 2020, Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London devoted a 12-minute piece (35:38 to 47:56) on the Save The Footbridge Oaks campaign. Reporter Barry Caffrey was in Sydenham Hill Wood and spoke to campaign organiser Pennie Hedge as well as to Angelica, a protestor, who argued that the oak trees should not be removed.

At 42:28 in the recording, Vanessa Feltz interviewed Cllr Catherine Rose who explained that Southwark Council anticipates it will cost some £200,000 to restore the footbridge. Cllr Rose said:

“We have taken two years to explore other options, but, much as it saddens us, no viable alternative to our current plans has presented itself.
“We now need to safely complete repairs to the bridge, reopen the footpath and again make Cox’s Walk accessible to all.”[20]

Following the High Court's refusal to grant Southwark Council an injunction to remove the Save The Footbridge Oaks activists, BBC London reporter Barry Caffrey interviewed both Pennie Hedge and Angelique again on 4 December 2020 to 1:56:50). Pennie Hedge said the Council must adopt a two-stage plan by quickly taking down the rotten timbers, putting in a temporary balustrade and reopening the footbridge. Then a long-term engineering solution should be found which does not involve cutting down the two mature healthy oak trees. Angelique was asked what message she had for Southwark Council, which has undertaken to follow the letter of the law and to consult on any planning application. She said the Council should lose the name "protestors" and instead refer to them as "people that care, residents, voters and users of the woods" whom the Council should genuinely consult by coming and speaking to them.[21]

 

Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Peaceful Eco-activism & Lawyers for Nature are TriumphantArticle22 December 2021Paul Powlesland"We went from trees potentially being unnecessarily felled to allow work to take place, to those trees being not only saved, but protected into the future. That could only be achieved by a combination of peaceful activism and the assistance of Lawyers for Nature. And now, those trees will hopefully far outlive us all, which is a very satisfying outcome indeed."


References