I made my first public protest for years last week. A neighbour told me the old copper beech outside our shops on our main road had suddenly been hacked down, nothing remaining but a stump. It showed no sign of rot, but a clear, accusing line of rings spelling out over 120 years of growth. I placed two bunches of flowers across it. People had put messages expressing their sadness. An elderly man told me he’d been sheltered by it in his pushchair seventy years ago.
Most messages asked why the City Council had done it, without warning, consultation or explanation. I contacted them, asking why and requesting them not to reply, ‘health and safety,’ that popular euphemism for fear of being sued. True some of the Tarmac around the tree has folded and cracked having been laid badly, but the path next to it is wide, and a quick glance at surrounding pavements and roads shows how pot-holed and dangerously broken up they are. It’s reckless for anyone to walk around here talking on their mobile and not looking at their feet. Many old ladies with brittle bones prefer not to venture out unless they have to. My own little street resembles the Menin Road by Paul Nash, on the Western Front in 1917, and it’s a continuing surprise that horses, mules and pensioners do not regularly disappear into the gaping pot-holes.
This destruction follows recent removal of trees along a popular tow-path, to protect cyclists, others vanished near the central shopping centre, where the council planted a large polluting car-park, an ornamental flowering cherry popular with tourists on Oxford’s famous High Street, and in the church-yard of grade II listed St John the Evangelist on the Iffley Rd, five large oaks vanished suddenly, replaced by lines of knee-high metal lamps. The reason given was that they threatened a nearby car-park, although only one of the trees hung over that area. Church-yards are now a major area for taming nature as defibrillator machines are installed and increasingly scarce parishioners must be protected at all costs from the risks and dangers of nature.
With the felling of this resplendent copper-beech the question remains; why do councils hate trees so much that they don’t prune back overhanging or dangerous branches, or, if the roots are affecting the ground, fence them off, usually preferring the executioner’s axe? Oxford’s seventy-three species of urban tree started to be seen as a threat about twenty years ago, accused of causing structural damage. Buildings constructed in the 1970s of low- grade materials are not expected to last, but when they disintegrate trees often get the blame. In January 2008, insurers demanded large amounts of money for Structural repairs to Cornwallis House, a poor- quality building off Iffley Road, Oxfordshire Primary Care Trust’s (PCT) HQ for district nurses and health visitors. The PCT immediately asked the city council to cut down three mature lime trees. That request was refused as there was no evidence linking the trees with damage to the property. According to a council report, structural repairs cost £28,157 and the building’s insurers demanded £15,000 from the trust.
Oxford’s seventy- three species of urban trees which absorb pollution and traffic noise, are increasingly pressurised by human greed; of those who threaten to sue if they have a minor accident, people using cheap, unsatisfactory building materials, poor quality road and pavement maintenance by councils, and insurance companies. Last May, the city regulator and the Financial Conduct Authority began moves to stop customers being exploited by greedy insurance companies. Their impact on the environment has not yet been assessed.
The public are now expressing their discontent at this type of crude miserly injustice. Oxford councillors, a Labour, Lib Dem, Green alliance, should heed the fate of Labour held Sheffield City council, uprooted and thrown out root and branch in 2018 after they felled thousands of trees as part of their £2 billion ‘Street Ahead,’ (Chop it down) project, to ‘improve’ roads and pavements. There are now votes in trees and only the most wooden headed official won’t see it.