Still in my tree :-)
I thought it might be interesting to any readers who have been following the Bonn Square and Westgate Centre tree saga last week to put down what happened from my point of view, seeing as it was me that spent 24 hours up the tree outside the Westgate and even good journalists, let alone readers, are bound to draw conclusions that are wide of the true mark
On Wednesday 9th Jan, I received various invitations to come down and see what was happening around the Westgate Centre, where I was told that a number of trees were about to be chopped down. I was a bit dubious about going, as I was about to head off job hunting - my last job having finished just before Christmas - but I went down intending to give my support for a short while. All seemed pretty peaceful down at the Westgate and I felt that there wasn't much I could do as work appeared to have been stopped on the tree-chopping front. I was about to leave when there was a flurry of activity round the corner from where we were, between the Westgate Centre and the multi-storey car park. They had fenced off the area.
Workmen had begun chopping off the branches of one of the magnificent Plane trees next to the car park. Deborah Glass Woodin was visibly upset by this and was trying to prevent the workmen going any further. As a County Councillor she felt that she had been insufficiently informed that this was to happen. It was heart-wrenching to see a concerned five-foot female councillor being dragged off in tears by two carthorse policemen who seemed totally unconcerned that she was doing her duty. This was probably due to 'Operation Rumble' whereby the police are instructed to automatically arrest anybody interfering with council workers going about their job. However, as a councillor, Mrs Glass Woodin was going about her job by questioning the work that was going on as she had not been properly informed about it. Despite this she was dragged, tearful and wretched, into a police car and prevented from doing the job she was democratically elected to do while the police shoved the rest of us that were trying to help her out of the way.
Once this bit of excitement was over, a friend and I watched sadly as the first of three trees designated for the chop was sawn up noisily with chainsaws and then fed into a pulping machine. I looked at the next tree in the line. It is a magnificent London Plane, probably around a hundred years old. Its branches soar up over the top of the four storey car park and brush against the top of the Westgate centre. Each branch forks repeatedly into lesser branches and at their very ends are twin seeds that dangle down like spiky chestnut baubles. There are thousands of them decorating the extremities and the tree's elegant, stretching branches clawing up into the sky are more natural and beautiful than any spire and a welcome relief to the grey surroundings of the concrete blocks it separates. A number of people who live and work in the area have told me that they find them very comforting and I can fully appreciate why now that I have spent a couple of days in one. For anyone content with replacing them with saplings, I would say that they are decades out of date.
The first tree was removed in under half an hour and it was awful to think that this hundred-year-old example was about to follow it so efficiently into the pulping machine. There were policeman patrolling around the eight-foot fence in front of it and we watched as a ladder was rested up next to the tree, ready for the workmen to begin the job of sawing off the limbs. A little sunshine lit up the soft khaki colours of the patchwork bark in fawns, greens and browns. The policemen in front of the fence moved away and with the flash of a grin telling us we were doing the right thing, my friend and I sprinted spontaneously at the fence. Suddenly I was over it and running for the ladder before any of the workmen had looked round. Next thing I was scrambling onto the lowest branch looking down at the workmen who frustratedly removed the ladder from beneath me. I looked back in vain at my friend, who had sadly been pulled back off the fence by policemen. Unfortunately for me, he still had the backpack with a thermos of hot coffee in it on his back. Nothing, however, could deflate the triumphant sense of satisfaction I felt that, for a while at least this, exemplary Plane tree was free from the violent dismemberment that had just been visited on its neighbour.
Why have these trees been designated for hacking? The powers that be at Oxford City Council have seen fit to bless us with a brand new massive extensionto the perfectly adequate one we already have. The land itself is owned by the Council and is on a 150 year lease to Coal Pension Properties Ltd that started on March 3rd 1986. The original lease says that there should be “no more parking spaces” on the land than at present and somehow the planning department have interpreted this as to say that “it is incumbent upon the city council to provide at least the same number of parking spaces” there. Given that it is a residential area considered an 'Air Quality Management Action’ (AQMA) zone due to the illegally high level of pollutants in the air, then surely less parking should be provided there and perhaps more stories added to the Park and Ride car parks that are so often full on the outskirts of the city. This solution would endanger the local residents' health a lot less and benefit us all by letting fresher air sweep throughout the city.
There is some doubt as to whether the development will happen at all. Capital Shopping have said that if they are to go ahead than they also require the land at Abbey Place across the road from the car park, which at present is home to 18 vulnerable people in 14 houses. This more drastic part of the plan is still under review and could scupper the whole project if it is deemed a bad idea. So why are these amazing Plane trees, whose variegated bark actually absorbs air pollutants, being chopped down before it is sure that the development will go ahead? According to shopkeepers in the Westgate, some of whom have contracts for their businesses on the site until July 2010, Capital Shopping have given the Council half a million pounds to get on with the job and clear the way for the development. Could they have done this so that if the development comes up against any objections, then the developers will be able to say “..well the trees have all gone now so we have to get on with it anyway”? The very rushing of the job makes one suspicious.
Living in a tree is not a way of life I would recommend. Wedging oneself between two trunks so that one doesn't fall out at night is an exceedingly uncomfortable way of trying to sleep, particularly in winter. Our system of democracy is not perfect in that we only get to vote once every four years and are then obliged to hand over the decision making to a handful of people whose decisions we may often disagree with. What is known as 'protesting' is simply exercising our endangered right to disagree with these decisions and ask if there may not be a better answer to the question in hand. England has a proud history of protest that has brought about a number of great benefits to our society, including the emancipation of women.
The amount of support I received while up the tree from both friends and passers-by has been absolutely extraordinary. I have had more thumbs-up than Jenson Button in a race and it is heart-warming and magical to tap into the invisible solidarity of the usually silent public in this way. The most extraordinary event was on Wednesday evening when a group of 9 fairies skipped past in pink dresses and fairy wings. They looked no more than ten years old. They shouted up asking what I was doing and I answered simply that some people wanted to chop the tree down and I didn’t want them to. They waved their magic wands and skipped away chanting “Save the Tree! Save the Tree!” It was the sweetest moment. I only hope their magic holds and our wish is granted.
If the development is planned on ‘council land’ means that this is Oxford City land. That means that this is our land as residents and taxpayers and so decisions on cutting down trees should be decided by all of us. There are a number of aspects about the future Westgate development that have been unsatisfactorily concluded. To begin with, it does not meet a number of reasonable environmental standards…
Personally I don't think we need any more shops in Oxford. This is a small city with only 140,000 inhabitants. With all the wonderful architecture we have here it seems foolish to try and turn it into a shopping centre when that would risk spoiling the beauty of the city we already have. Oxford is not an ugly urban sprawl like Reading or Slough that can only attract visitors through offering ‘retail opportunities’. If we reduce the city’s attractive aesthetic then less people will want to visit here.. It seems detrimental, in more ways than one to give up precious city space and spend so much money expanding the Westgate Centre so that we can have more multinational high street chain stores that will drain money out of the local economy. Another view would be that we have enough shops already and do we really want to cut down 42 mature urban trees in order to make way for further retail outlets? How has it been established that new shops are needed? With the commonly accepted ‘credit crunch’ on the horizon, it would seem that what we need is not more outlets for our credit cards but more social spaces, which is what these tree-graced areas already provide. The argument for an expanded shopping centre is based upon the already discredited assumption that infinite economic growth is both possible and necessary. However, it is this assumption that has led us to the calamitous situation that we find ourselves in today: a world of deteriorating social and environmental wellbeing.
My foolhardy gesture of spending 24 hours in a tree was a personal challenge made in order to ask a question that on further investigation appears to have an answer in the negative: Is it absolutely necessary to chop these 42 magnificent Plane trees down? Well is it?
Personally, while I am in awe of Gabs Chamberlain who has spent over a week defending the beautiful Sycamore tree in Bonn square by living up it – and sadly both he and the sycamore have been brought down today - I don't intend to follow suit. I feel that I have made my statement and asked my question and if anyone would like to take over the defence of the Westgate Planes then I would enthusiastically encourage them to do so. While I have great affection for them, they are not mine to defend, they are everybody's. I hope somebody else will. Meanwhile I will take the advice so kindly offered to me by the one unsympathetic passer-by and “go and get a job.” After all, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to afford any of the doubtless fabulous products that the Westgate II will have to offer over the stumps of our beloved London Planes.