Plymouth chainsaw massacre: How the felling of 110 trees tore a city apart
“It’s beyond heart-rending.” “I am disgusted.” “Plymouth will not forget this awful act of ecocide.” These were some of the milder comments made this week by residents in the Devon city better known for gin and The Mayflower than for nighttime arboreal massacres. But when council contractors felled 110 city centre trees under the cover of darkness on Tuesday, they may have changed all that.
The works were halted at 1am by an injunction secured by a group called Straw (Save the Trees of Armada Way). Lynne Sears, one of its members, said that trees were pruned while protesters stood beneath them. “And everyone around us was saying ‘please just stop’,” she told The Telegraph.
By then, only 16 of the trees due to be removed still remained. Widespread condemnation of the felling swiftly followed, with wildlife television presenter Chris Packham branding it “despicable vandalism”.
In fact, the strength of feeling had been known beforehand: around 16,000 people had signed a petition to save the mature trees, which line Armada Way, a walkway between the railway station and the sea. Tree felling has got councils into trouble before – in Sheffield an independent inquiry has just heavily criticised the council over its removal of thousands of street trees, while in Haringey, north London, there’s a row over a plan to fell a 120-year old plane tree.
This week’s felling was part of a regeneration project, which the Tory-run Plymouth City Council says is “designed to transform this tired and dated city-centre route and to make the city centre an attractive place to be and encourage investment”.
It explained that the works were carried out at night “for reasons of public safety and impact on the city centre and given the size of the tree machinery”.
But Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, believes the felling will cost them dearly “in damaged reputations and visitors now staying away”. He added: “In one evening of chainsaw carnage, they’ve trashed our city’s reputation.”
So why did the council do it? Did it underestimate the strength of feeling about the trees – which have stood there for half a century – or did it simply decide to trample straight over it?
“If they didn’t spend the money they were going to use on this [scheme] shortly, they’d have to give it back to [central] Government,” says Pollard. “This is arrogant leadership, where you plough on regardless of public opinion or the environmental consequences.”
Of the constituents who wrote to him about the felling, he says only 2 per cent supported it. Of the rest, a number told him it was the first time they had felt moved to write to their MP; others said the pictures of the felled trees had left them in tears.
Posting on Facebook, Straw described how “lorries, heavy machinery … security guards, contractors and police officers” were sent to Armada Way on Tuesday evening. The campaigners claimed they were “mocked” and “sneered at” by security guards and that a young teenager was “dragged from a tree by three large security guards”.
The leader of Plymouth City Council, Richard Bingley, made national headlines last April when a video re-emerged of him saying: “I’m not really feeling that we should worry too much about climate change in itself.” He also noted in the video, from the YouTube channel of a think tank called the New Culture Forum, that “some countries … have adjusted for many years to living in barren, sandy landscapes”.
The council has been approached for comment on this.
Penny Tarrant, from the Plymouth Tree Partnership charity, suggests the wishes of the local business community may have been prioritised over other concerns – and says this will ultimately be counterproductive.
“The business community has been a big driver of this [regeneration] scheme but they don’t seem to understand they’ve really shot themselves in the foot because people are attracted to city centres that have a natural feel about them, including plenty of green trees.”
What the actual ? @plymouthcc what is the matter with you ? What do you not understand ? Despicable vandalism @Natures_Voice @DevonWildlife https://t.co/xb7XNdgEcq
— Chris Packham (@ChrisGPackham) March 15, 2023
Under the scheme, there will still be green trees. But, say campaigners, these won’t have the same value as the old ones for many years to come.
The mature trees that have been lost would have absorbed more pollution and more carbon, and supported more wildlife, than the 169 new semi-mature trees that will now be planted, explains Steve Marsh from the Woodland Trust.
But the environmental value of old trees was already well established, he says. What may have been less appreciated, until recently, is the emotional value people place on old trees.
“You don’t realise … until something like this happens,” he says. “The council in Plymouth has said, ‘we’re going to give you a really lovely city centre.’ But whatever happens now is tainted because [there are] never going to be the same connections people had to those trees.”
“The thing the council wanted to avoid – the death of the city centre – has indisputably happened,” is the verdict from Straw. “And at the risk of sounding dramatic, with it went our democracy.”
Approached for comment on the tree felling, Plymouth City Council said the regeneration project would not only include “extensive planting of 169 new trees, which are more resilient to an urban environment” but also “a host of features designed to attract families and visitors”.
Improved café seating areas and more accessible space “will help create a better environment for businesses and attract new investment”, it added.
All of which will no doubt be welcome to residents where “the Luftwaffe and postwar town planners destroyed most of our city centre”, as Pollard puts it. But how to deliver that vision appears to be increasingly fraught.