The M32 Norway maples are, or were, a group of mature and majestic street trees on Lower Ashley Road, St Pauls. They were due to be felled as part of a development on the adjacent site, an action the Save the M32 Maples campaign group contend is illegal as the protected trees are on public land and not the property of the landowner.
In 2016 outline planning permission was granted to Mr John Garlick to build a four storey development, comprising ground floor offices and student accommodation above on the site of the former probation office, 31-45 Lower Ashley Road. Reports stated that the development required removal of five mature Norway maple trees. There was no mention in the application or the arboricultural report that the trees were protected by Tree Preservation Orders, a crucial consideration in any consultation, and the supposition was that the trees were sited on land owned by Mr Garlick. Full planning permission for this development was granted in May 2019.
In May 2019, a second application was submitted for construction of a 4-storey block of flats to provide 28 units including some affordable housing. Over 400 objections to this development were submitted, mostly citing the loss of trees, air pollution, noise and flooding issues.
The Bristol Tree Forum was one of the objectors on the basis that legally binding planning policies aimed at protecting green infrastructure (BCS9, DM15), protecting against air pollution (BCS23, DM33), addressing climate change (BCS13), reducing flood risk (BCS16), limiting noise pollution (BCS23, DM35) and protecting public health (DM14), were contravened in the proposal (https://bristoltreeforum.org/2020/07/09/bristol-city-development-where-did-all-the-green-go/).
Illegal tree felling
At 6 am on June 19th 2019, a crew of workmen arrived with chainsaws and proceeded to attack the maple trees on site. There were no safety precautions applied either for the workmen or the public. None of the required permits were in place and no pavement or road closures were implemented. Local residents stepped in and the police intervened to stop the illegal felling. However, two of the trees were severely damaged. This contravention of planning conditions was reported to the Council’s Planning Enforcement Officer, but no action was taken.
At 5.30 am on December 31st 2019, the felling crew returned. Again, no permit was in place and no safety measures were applied. Again, the public intervened, with some chaining themselves to the trees. The area tree officer attended, and members of the Bristol Tree Forum arrived in support. As previously, the police put a stop to the illegal activity, and Mayor Rees attended to witness the damage. Two of the 5 original trees had been felled. The contravention of planning conditions was again reported to the council Enforcement officer, and, as previously, no action was taken, on the basis that other unrelated enforcement issues were being investigated.
At 5.50 am on November 2nd 2020, an anonymous chainsaw crew arrived, and whilst still dark, during a storm and fully 2 hours before permitted construction hours, proceeded to fell two of the trees. As on previous occasions, there were no safety measures applied, either for the workers or the public. Local residents again intervened, and the workmen attempted to flee the site, which residents prevented, despite being threatened. Again, the police arrived to bring the illegal activity to an end, and the site was left in a dangerous state, with only one of the original five trees still standing. The contravention of planning conditions was again reported to the Council’s Planning Enforcement Officer, but no action was taken on the basis that this was an “isolated incident”. This was despite the fact that three previous illegal fellings, stopped by the police, had been reported to the enforcement office.
The legal case disputing the ownership of the land on which the five maples are located
Early in 2020, a local residents group, the Save the M32 Maples campaign, was formed to protect the trees. The group has been active on a number of fronts.
Challenging the legality of the developer to remove the five maple trees, as it has been demonstrated the trees are on public land not actually located on Mr Garlick’s property.
Building and occupying tree houses in the remaining trees.
Mounting a vigil to guard the trees.
Opposing planning applications for development on the site.
Community outreach activities and public protesting against the removal of the trees.
Local and national media campaigning.
The legal dispute is whether the five Norway maple trees were, and are, sited on public land or land sold to private landowners in 2005. The Save the M32 Maples group have presented substantial legal documentation showing that that the strip of land sold by Bristol City Council (BCC) to private landowners in 2005 did not include a strip of land on which 5 mature maple trees were located. These include the deed Register, Sale Contract (1), Heads of Terms, plan of Adopted Highway asset 384 (2), Deed of Covenant Release, BCC Corporate Estate Document, and BCCs Pinpoint map (3), all of which are in agreement. If the group’s contention is correct, it is illegal for the landowner to fell the trees as part of this development.
However, BCC Development Officers refused to accept legality, accuracy and validity of these documents, instead presenting a Registry Transfer document overdrawn with a thick black line (4), claiming the thickness of this line undermined the accuracy of all legal documents. On the basis, therefore, that all drawn boundaries are unreliable, BCC regard that text in some documents referring to “trees” is proof that the 5 maples are part of the land sold in 2005.
Accurate measurements from all the above legal documents showed the land transferred was 180m2, in agreement with the 180m2 cited in the Heads of Terms. That this 180m2 excludes the five trees is not disputed by either party.
In response, BCC undertook a survey in 2020. The area in question increased to 210m2 with no reason given, transferring some of Asset 384 to the landowner and depleting Adopted Highway accordingly.
Thus, the campaign group contend that BCC has illegally given away 30m2 of public land without legal sale/transfer, and that it is on this land that the five maples were located. This has led to a long running dispute and police investigation, and incited illegal felling of publicly owned and protected trees.
The Save the M32 Maples group have instigated a formal complaint about the BCC’s alleged misconduct in dealing with this case. This complaint was not upheld by BCC, and therefore the group began proceedings to mount a Judicial Review, with the help of Paul Powlesland, barrister and environmental rights activist. BCC resisted the move to have the case heard in a court of law, and the group ultimately had to abandon the case because BCC threatened imposing punitive costs. Alleged misconduct by Council Officers has been investigated by the police, who recognised “irregularities”, but were unwilling to pursue the case until the council’s complaints procedure had been exhausted. There is currently an appeal being prepared for the Local Government Ombudsman.
There is a strong possibility that the 31-45 Lower Ashley Road site is contaminated. The adjacent property is the site of a former petrol station which suffered a major contamination event in the 1990s in which a long-standing leak from fuel storage tanks was detected. A confidential report, commissioned in 2003 by the former owners, revealed that a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including lead, chromium, benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene and MTBE, a lead replacement, soaked into the ground over at least five years. Many of the chemicals are associated with neurological disorders and can cause miscarriages and severe learning disabilities in children.
Despite a statutory requirement, the latest planning applications for the 31-45 Lower Ashley Road site did not include a ground contamination report, and referred only to a “desk report” prepared for the 2016 application. This report makes no mention of the documented contamination event, despite this report being copied to BCC and the Environment Agency, and no samples were analysed for pollutants. The Councils Public Protection group has insisted that a full investigative survey is undertaken, but this has still not been carried out.
Because of the likely contamination of the site, and the threat this poses to the public, the Bristol Tree Forum have advocated that this site is allowed to recover naturally through the actions of the trees on site removing toxins from the soil.
The campaign continues
Though there is only one of the original five maple trees remaining, the Save the M32 Maples group continues to campaign, in part to save the final maple tree, but also as a matter of principal that the council and developers should not fell mature trees unless absolutely unavoidable. In this case, as the trees are, at worst, on the margins of the development, efforts could and should have been made to incorporate the trees in the construction. The council and developers regard that planting replacement trees, in accordance with the Bristol Tree Replacement Standard (BTRS), is adequate mitigation. However, recent work by the Bristol Tree Forum (https://bristoltrees.space/trees/tree-benefits/interactive-1.xq) demonstrates that, even with the BTRS applied, the carbon (also representative of the other benefits of trees) will not be recovered for 40 to 60 years.
The one remaining tree has been reinforced by layers of protection around the trunk, and a daily vigil has been mounted to guard the tree, should the illegal felling crew return. The media campaign continues, and local support for the group continues to grow. The group has also begun coordinating with other tree protest groups nationally, to share experiences and effective campaign strategies.