Campaigners have won a bid to continue a High Court injunction preventing the further felling of trees in Plymouth city centre, as they accused a council of trying to avoid democratic scrutiny of redevelopment works.
An ongoing legal row over the controversial felling of trees in Plymouth last week has triggered the resignation of the city council’s leader, Richard Bingley.
Mr Bingley signed an executive decision that saw 110 trees cut down in Armada Way on the evening of March 14 to make way for a £12 million regeneration scheme in the city centre.
Contractors, security guards and the police sealed off the site for removing trees shortly after 6pm, within minutes of the decision being published online, a judge was told.
Campaigners tried to stop the felling and were successful in securing an after-midnight, court injunction.
They labelled the felling as “despicable”, arguing the trees – of which 19 remain standing – should be protected due to the wildlife and biodiversity they support.
Following a hearing in London on Friday, High Court judge Sir Ross Cranston said: “The injunction will continue, the remaining trees cannot be felled at least for the time being”.
In his decision, which was met by applause in the court room, the judge added that already toppled trees, fallen branches and stumps can be removed but subject to an expert report.
The judge said of the trees: “once they are gone they are gone”, adding that there was a “serious issue to be tried” over the lawfulness of the council’s decision making process.
Lawyers representing Alison White, the founder of campaign group Save the Trees of Armada Way (Straw), argued the injunction should continue pending a full, legal challenge over the council’s actions.
The court was told that Ms White will seek to argue that the council acted unlawfully by using an “urgency procedure” to drive through Mr Bingley’s decision to remove the trees and “prevent democratic scrutiny”.
She also challenges the council’s approach to assessing the environmental impact of the development and its response to advice about nesting birds.
Plymouth City Council, which opposed the injunction continuing, argues there was “no democratic deficit” over implementing the scheme, with there being a “clear need for regeneration” in the area.
The council says plans would see the planting of 169 new semi-mature trees.
On Thursday, Mr Bingley said he plans to step down next week as leader of the Conservative group on the council and head of the authority.
Richard Harwood KC, representing Ms White, told the court on Friday: “The council is now seeking to defend the decision which the politician who made it has resigned because of.”
In written arguments, the barrister said the council had wrongly decided it had to urgently get works approved because otherwise it would have to wait until after a pre-election purdah period from March 27 leading up to voting on May 4.
He claimed council officers were seeking to “bypass” plans being subject to a “call-in” – a procedure where an objecting councillor can have a cabinet member’s decision referred to a scrutiny committee.
In court, Mr Harwood alleged the council tried to “avoid the democratic scrutiny”, “prevent access to the court – by giving no warning” and “prevent the public being able to protest and express their views prior to any action”.
The tree felling appeared to have caused the death of one chick found below a tree, Mr Harwood added in written arguments.
Ranjit Bhose KC, for the council, said none of Ms White’s arguments had “a real prospect of success” at a full hearing, adding that the resignation of Mr Bingley “has no relevance”.
He rejected allegations over the council’s approach as “false”, saying plans were twice scrutinised by the full council, opposition councillors were briefed over Mr Bingley taking the decision, and the public were previously consulted.
The barrister said the Armada Way area had been described as a “tired dated landscape” that was “desolate after closing retail hours”, with concerns over the safety relating to lighting and “patchy” CCTV.
“None of these trees have any particular value,” he told the court, adding: “This is not tree wrecking.
“It’s cutting down trees in the wrong place, wrong time and replacing them with more in the future,” he said.
In written arguments, he added that the council had used “best practice” in its approach and that Ms White was preventing “the timely progression of improvements to the public realm in a key space of the city centre”.
He said fencing and security at the site were costing more than £20,000 a week, more than 500 local businesses backed the scheme and that the council had wider plans to plant a further 5,763 trees in the coming months.
After the ruling, Ms White said: “The decision to completely destroy our urban forest against overwhelming public opposition in a way that avoided public scrutiny is indefensible.
“The public outrage, local and national, has helped to shine a light on much wider issues. The total lack of respect some councils have for the environment, and more depressingly, their citizens.”
The Plymouth felling came days after Sheffield City Council was heavily criticised by an independent inquiry into the felling of thousands of street trees.
Ms White said: “It’s clear from what has happened in Plymouth, Sheffield, Wellingborough and now Cambridge that we need much stronger safeguards for our trees, rural and urban, from developers but more crucially from our councils.
“It’s just so easy for councils to disregard urban trees and they mean a lot to local people. They might not be a 200-year-old oak but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.”
A council spokesperson said it would abide by the terms of the judge’s ruling, which includes involving Ms White in plans for clearing stumps and debris.
“High streets up and down the country are struggling. Our decision to transform Armada Way was a mandated, democratic decision, agreed by Plymouth City Council’s elected members,” they added.
“Our aim was to transform a tired and run-down part of the city centre.
“While we acknowledge some people’s concerns about the loss of trees, others in our city are very clear they want this change.”