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‘Can you stop them, Mummy?’: tears as trackside trees cut down on edge of Heath

Network Rail work sparks upset and fury among neighbours

12 March, 2021 — By Harry Taylor

Sarah Gottlieb and her son James [Sarah Gottlieb]

A DEVASTATED four-year-old boy burst into tears as dozens of trees on the edge of Hampstead Heath were sawn down, asking his mother: “Can you stop them?”

The roar of Network Rail workers’ chainsaws could be heard in South End Green and Gospel Oak on Monday as they cut down trees, foliage and shrubbery between London Overground tracks up to residents’ fences.

The clearances have led to questions over how the operation squares with air pollution and environmental policies, and whether birds and animals had lost habitats.

Ellie Roche, an interior designer who lives in Constantine Road with her husband and two children, said: “They seemed to be selective at first, not every tree was going. [On] Tuesday morning they turned up and everything goes.”

She added: “The trees were full of birds and nests and squirrels. We used to sit and watch them all the time. They were home to countless amounts of wildlife – I know that because my two cats were constantly trying to kill it. Now there’s nothing.”

Wood chippings in part of the area that saw trees chainsawed down this week

Network Rail, the government “arms-length” body responsible for Britain’s railway tracks and trackside management, wrote to neighbours in December saying work would take place between Kentish Town West and Hampstead Heath stations.

It said the “essential” work would go up to residents’ fences and boundaries in “some” locations. It added that only dead, diseased or dying trees would be removed, but now whole stretches of greenery appeared to have been cut back.

Ms Roche, who has lived next to the track for seven years, added: “I never thought this would happen. Camden were doing this Camden Trees project in schools that means we’ve got this pathetic twig in my garden, because Camden said they wanted to plant 40,000 trees. Instead I’ve had 10 mature trees chopped down at the end of my garden.”

Sarah Gottlieb, who witnessed the felling with her four-year-old son James, said: “When we realised they were going, James was in tears saying, ‘Can you stop them, Mummy? Please stop them!’ And I said, ‘Well I can’t’.

“It’s the fact that the authorities that are supposed to be protecting trees are destroying them. We’ve seen it with developments locally and HS2 – that mature trees are being felled with no reason.

“We’re in such a high area of air pollution, we know that. So one of the things that mitigates that is trees. I know this has happened in other areas, but in somewhere like London, where air pollution is so bad, something like keeping the trees that are the lungs of the city is vital.”

An environmental report ordered by Network Rail found that the vegetation could support nesting birds, but found none there as it investigated the area in October, outside of the March to September nesting period. In its summary, it said work could have a “high impact” on birds, but said works were set to be carried out outside the nesting season.  Yet works were extended into this period, and Network Rail has not confirmed whether the necessary follow-up checks were made, as was recommended in the report.

There had been calls for emergency tree protection orders (TPOs), including from Gospel Oak Labour councillor Jenny Mulholland. But in an update sent to Tory group leader, Councillor Oliver Cooper, the council’s enforcement officer said: “We have no scope to save any trees, as even if we served TPOs on any remaining trees, this would not prevent their removal.”

Cllr Cooper said: “Given the sensitivity of the site, it seems inconceivable that this was not properly discussed with residents. While maintenance of trees is important, felling every single tree does not come close to balancing the need to maintain the railway with minimising harm to the local area.”

Before and after: the scene from the bottom of Gabriele Arend’s garden in Constantine Road [Gabriele Arend]

A Network Rail spokeswoman said it understood some residents may have been surprised but said the work was necessary for health and safety reasons, and to ensure that trains run promptly. They are also investigating concerns over possible loss of wildlife habitat.

A Camden Council spokeswoman said Network Rail has legal exemption over TPOs as part of Town and Country Planning Regulation and does not require permission, adding: “The council has planning policies which seek to ensure the retention of protected trees which includes those in conservation areas or those subject to Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs).

“However, Network Rail as a statutory undertaker have certain powers to carry out tree works on operational land whether or not the site is a conservation area or the tree is protected.”

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