In 2018, a leafy suburb in north-east England became a scene of devastation. Now Michael and Angela Green are leading a fight to prevent further destruction of their local parkland.
Read this and take heart, if you fear for the woodland trees where you live in and around the borough of Waverley. Because our planning officers are turning a blind eye to numerous breaches of conditions, including those imposed on ancient woodland, and trees covered by Preservation Orders. Particularly those butchered by developers in Farnham.
Recently Surrey County Council was forced to abandon a council meeting and meet elsewhere when 35 climate activists sang Police’s number one hit song: “Every Breath You Take.”
They had been protesting outside the county hall as councillors arrived earlier that morning handing out flowers and letters to members asking them to “act now”.
They were singing the line “I’ll be watching you” repeatedly as they walked out.
Extinction Rebellion was asking the council to do three things: to declare a climate emergency; to divest its pension fund from the fossil fuel industry, and to refuse drilling licenses for oil companies in the county. One of which affects the Waverley village of Dunsfold.
Council leader Tim Oliver told councillors before the singing that he is setting up a working group to develop an environmental charter to include climate change issues. “As a county council we are clear as to our responsibility to our environment.
“This group will also review the causes of traffic congestion which we know has a significant impact on air quality.
“I’m sure they will want to engage extensively with external organisations as they draw up a deliverable charter. Let’s see what we can do together to make a positive impact in this area.”
Speaking after the meeting, activist Chris Neill, from Godalming, said: “We were pleased that many of the councillors engaged with us outside the chamber and spoke positively, recognising Surrey County Council needs to do much more to address climate breakdown.
“However, it’s clear that they are not acting with the urgency that is required. We really don’t want to disrupt meetings but we have to do what’s necessary to draw attention to this very serious situation”
Claire Matthes, a mother from Haslemere taking part in the protest, said: “It goes against my personality to disrupt formal meetings but the times demand it.”
Meanwhile in County Durham “We call the events of February 2018 ‘The Happenings'” says Michael Green. “It was a surreal and shocking moment for us. Nothing like this had ever happened before.”
His voice shaking, Michael (a resident of Darlington, County Durham) is talking about the day in 2018 he went for a run and came across a scene of devastation. A beloved grove of mature trees in his home town had been cut down.
In a matter of days over 200 established native British trees, including beech, oak and ash, were felled to make way for new housing development.
“It looked like a hurricane had struck. I was so distressed I came home and went straight to bed,” says Michael. “I couldn’t bear to tell my wife Angela.”
Native British trees are home to wildlife
The grove of trees was on the site of a former golf course, itself on medieval farmland, in the Blackwell area of town. As long as anyone can remember they marked the tranquil entrance to this historic market town.
The trees were felled during the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorm when temperatures hit lows of minus 6oc.
Local people told how owls screeched through the night for a week, presumably unable to find their nests, and that a colony of hibernating great-crested newts almost certainly perished.
Ancient hedgerows and a well-loved woodland path were lost, and two ponds badly disturbed.
That happened here in Waverley too – and the former Chief Planning Officer remarked – “they can always be replanted!”
Why trees are important
This tragedy for Blackwell’s residents shows how ideas of past and future can clash in communities across the country. And, it is happening to trees and hedgerows across our borough of Waverley.
The Georgian parkland surrounding the Blackwell Grange hotel – once the seat of the Baronetcy of the Havelock-Allans – has barely changed since the 18th century. But in 2012, news emerged that Darlington Borough Council had earmarked the former golf club site and part of the Hotel’s parkland for executive housing development.
One councillor in the community called the development “progress”.
Yet the woodland was cherished by locals precisely because it hadn’t changed. “We love the meadows and the parkland because they are timeless; the connectivity between these ancient green spaces, past generations and the present community is truly tangible,” says Michael.
We saw a community in crisis. A community which was bereaved.
Why we need trees in our lives
The Council ran a consultation in 2015 with some local residents, and planning permission was granted.
However, Michael and his fellow campaigners from the #LoveDarloTrees network say that the planned scale of the destruction of the woodlands was not made clear enough.
The group is also disappointed that the consultation excluded residents living on the opposite side of the road.
How often have we seen this in Waverley? Too frequently.
Of course, it’s too late for the felled trees. Many local residents have changed their daily routes to avoid having to repeatedly see the devastation.
And the story doesn’t end there. Darlington Borough Council still plans to open up the remaining historic parkland for development.
This area has a wild woodland, a pond, a grove of ancient lime trees and a ‘ha-ha’, a type of sunken fence which was used in 18th-century landscaping. A listed red brick wall runs along the northern limit of this parkland.
But the #LoveDarloTrees network is determined not to lose this cherished green space.
Save the Trees
The group has carried out an ethnographic study to understand how local people feel about their community green spaces. They’ve continued to tie green ribbons and posters to trees, and the community has held a number of protests.
The group has even managed to track down Sir Mark Antony Havelock-Allan QC, the 5th Baronet of the family who once lived in the Blackwell Grange. Sir Mark has thrown his support behind the campaign to protect the parkland.
Michael and Angela believe the loss has brought people together more than ever before in defence of a beloved landscape.“Residents have become rebels, voters to vandals,” laughs Michael.
#LoveDarloTrees is now campaigning for the remaining parkland to be turned into a permanently protected natural park for the whole town.
Michael and Angela’s efforts to save the remaining parkland were recognised with an award at Friends of the Earth’s Earthmovers ceremony in May 2019. The ceremony was held at Darlington Groundswell, Friends of the Earth’s regional climate action event.
Organised by Friends of the Earth and supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery , Earthmovers Awards recognise the inspiring work of local environmental groups in their communities.
If you’re inspired by Michael and Angela’s work and would like to campaign for urgent action on matters related to your local environment, why not consider joining one of our new Climate Action groups?