The campaign to save the 136 mature trees on Plymouth’s Armada Way UPDATE: a scene of devastation

The very lungs of the city centre

The trees planted to symbolise Plymouth’s ‘rebirth’ after the devastation of WWII have been torn up, chopped down and destroyed overnight.

Luke Pollard MP:

Overnight Plymouth’s Conservative council chopped down nearly 100 trees in the city centre. It’s a scene of environmental devastation and utter council vandalism. I’m appalled at the actions of the Tory Council. Sad day for our city. #plymouth #ArmadaWay

Originally tweeted by Luke Pollard MP (@LukePollard) on 15/03/2023.

More to follow. Ed

Alison White explains why she set up STRAW to save 136 beautiful and much-loved trees in Plymouth city centre. All images show Armada Way as it is currently.

When I talk to passers-by on Armada Way – a wide pedestrianised street which runs right down the centre of Plymouth – and inform them that the council plans to cut down every single tree they can see from where they are standing, the overwhelming response is, “Why!?”. It’s a question I still find hard to answer, even having been asked hundreds of times.

As part of Plymouth City Council (PCC)’s plan to regenerate our city centre, it intends to cut down 136 mature trees on the 380m stretch of Armada Way, north of our famous Sundial. I started the campaign group STRAW – Save the Trees of Armada Way – in September 2022 after learning of the plan to fell our “urban forest”, as PCC describe it. I say ‘learning’ because it took some detective work to uncover exactly what the council planned to do.

The press releases and letters which the council put out gave no real indication of the extent of the work; in fact, they made no mention of felling at all. Phrases such as, “There will be an impact on the existing trees in the corridor” and “The number of trees on Armada Way will double under the new regeneration plans” appear very misleading once you understand that 136 of the 137 trees will be removed, and that the final number of trees on the whole stretch north of Royal Parade will be increased by only seven per cent.  Council officers provided the press and the councillors with facts and figures from the tree survey, but rather than these figures being exclusively from the trees on Armada Way – as officers declared they were – they actually came from the entire tree survey of nearly 500 trees, so in fact, they were false.

Other claims by the council fail scrutiny: “There will be a biodiversity net gain of 22 per cent”: this isn’t due to be achieved for decades, and the number of tree species will halve. “We will be moving some of the healthier trees”: at our meeting with the council in October we were told they will try to move 17 of the trees; but they are unlikely to survive. I could go on – it’s all very convincing until you scratch the surface.

Work was due to begin imminently, and I didn’t believe that I could be the only person completely unaware of what was about to happen to this much-loved area of our city centre. Plymouth is uniquely mid-20th century in style and most of the landscaping on Armada Way was installed in the 1980s. It’s a lovely, calm, green area with plenty of seating, and on a dry day will be full of people taking a break from the shops, having a coffee or a chat with a friend. No longer available to the public, the fences and hoardings continue to go up – so what happens next is now out of view.

The campaign to call on PCC to rethink the plan and incorporate as many of the existing trees as possible into a new one has become much bigger than I ever expected. We have formed a large group of passionate supporters and it really has brought the situation to the attention of a lot of Plymothians. Our petition has received coming up to 11,000 signatures – by far the biggest petition Plymouth has ever seen. Sadly though, I still regularly meet people who have no idea what the council plans are.

Public consultation by PCC has been worse than inadequate. The consultation carried out four-and-a-half years ago – before Covid, before the cost-of-living crisis (and this scheme is forecast to cost £12.7m of public money) – contained no mention of felling. Instead, as per the publicity for the scheme, it concentrated on the benefits of the design and how many more trees there would be. If you were told that your local park would be getting 50 per cent more trees or double the number of trees (PCC have said both!), would you assume that involved cutting down 99 per cent of the trees in your park first? I don’t think so. There were no questions on the survey regarding trees, new or old, so in essence nobody was asked what they wanted: there was, in effect, zero consultation on the trees.

The consultation received the grand total of 178 replies. We have regularly had double this number of people sign our petition in one day, but still the council refuses to speak with us. Recently PCC has declared “The plans have changed considerably since the public last saw them in a consultation event in 2018” (said Cabinet Member for Transport, Cllr Jonathan Drean). If this is the case, then shouldn’t it be consulted on again? Imagine if you “considerably” changed the design of your extension after you were granted planning permission: do you think your council would find that acceptable? The 2018 consultation event was promoted as an initial consultation but turned out to be the first and last. Neither the public nor the stakeholder groups were spoken to again.

In 2019, PCC declared that Plymouth was in a climate emergency and, together with local stakeholders, created the thorough and wide-ranging policy document Plymouth’s Plan for Trees, announcing, “Trees and woodland within Plymouth will be valued and cared for so they can play a fundamental role in the city’s future”. The Armada Way scheme goes against many of these policies. PCC has also secured €3.9m of funding for the Green Minds project, on the theme of sustainable land management, saying, “Why not join us to create a movement which helps grow a city that puts nature at the heart of our decisions.”

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. No bat survey has been carried out, and because PCC has used a planning loophole and put this scheme through as Permitted Development, (since Armada Way was in part a road up until the late 1980s), the council has been able to avoid doing an Environmental Impact Assessment.

The value of mature trees is becoming increasingly apparent and important. The carbon capture potential of the replacement trees will not be anything like that of the current trees for decades – at the very time that the impacts of climate change are starting to become severe. Other benefits, such as mitigating the effects of wind (Armada Way runs north-south, and to the sea), urban cooling (2023 is set to be even hotter than last year), the positive effect on our mental health, reductions in crime, and increases in spending – so important for our local shops – will all be lost for decades. Tree canopy cover is never likely to be the same, since the council’s preferred trees are predominantly fastigiate (tall and pointy, to you and me).

Our campaign has been growing and growing, as more local people find out about what is planned. Many are understandably very angry. We have been on the front page of our local newspaper four times. We have featured on BBC Spotlight, ITV Westcountry News, BBC Radio Devon, the Guardian website, and the BBC website. Local people have been flooding their councillors’ and MPs’ inboxes with objections. PCC has scarcely responded to any of our emails and when constituents write to their councillors, they are regularly fobbed off or ignored. Not by them all, I must say, but by many. STRAW has very rarely had responses from the council and even after we achieved a pause in the felling to review the plans in November, we have had no contact.

A phrase I have heard a lot recently from ‘Janners’ (the affectionate term for people who live in or are from Plymouth) is, “Oh, it’s Plymouth, innit”. It’s clear that local people have a deep distrust of the council, following years and years of not being listened to. The feeling that the council just does whatever it wants is depressing and deeply damaging for democracy. If only the council could see this rising up and coming together of the people as a real opportunity to repair some of the damage done to its reputation; to listen and be seen to listen; to properly involve local people on how Armada Way looks, and could look.

We are now supported by some incredible groups of experts in Plymouth – Plymouth Tree Partnership, and Environment Plymouth – and have had wider support from the Woodland Trust, the Arboricultural Association and the Devon Wildlife Trust, all of whom call for greater public involvement. In addition to two local Green Party councillors and many independent local councillors who have supported us from the start, there has also been a call from our MP Luke Pollard, who said plainly, “We all want to see improvements to Armada Way but removing nearly all the trees is a stupid idea”. We are also being supported by the Environmental Law Foundation.

Another tricky question I get – but usually from friends – is, “How is the campaign going?”. Well, only PCC can answer that, but the trees are mostly still there, and we won’t give up while they are.

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