In Plymouth, a determined group is fighting to save trees from being cut down in the city centre. They’re called STRAW, an acronym for Save the TRees of Armada Way.
A small and local campaign it may be, but we recently noticed that it was sending a significant number of people to our ‘contact your representatives’ site WriteToThem. Curiosity piqued, we got in touch to find out more.
Ali from STRAW was glad to talk to us. “The campaign started last September”, she explained, “when I learned that Plymouth City Council planned to regenerate Armada Way, a wide pedestrianised area which was covered in trees and runs through the heart of the city. It’s an area I live near, and was very fond of.
“It was clear that some of the trees would have to be cut down in order to implement the design, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this plan before, since it looked like it was definitely going ahead, and quite soon.”
A campaign is born
What do you do when you find out that an unwanted change is planned in your own neighbourhood? Gather other people who feel the same, and go on a fact-finding mission, that’s what!
And indeed, Ali explains: “I realised that I had no power on my own, so I decided I’d try and find out if other people knew about the plan and whether they were happy about it.
“Not long after, we discovered it wasn’t the case that some trees would be felled in order for the council to realise their new design. It was 99% of the 137 trees!
“Most of them were healthy, and most had been planted in the 80s, so they were trees which people had a real connection to. They’d grown up with them. They were like a little green oasis from quite a harsh urban landscape – an urban forest.”
Democracy in action
Once these startling facts had been pinned down, the group needed to take action. Their website provides multiple opportunities for activism: posters you can print out, a chance to donate, a petition to sign, and facts about the trees. Oh, and that link to WriteToThem!
“The campaign was really one of public awareness”, says Ali. “But we also asked the people of Plymouth to contact the decision-makers and let them know how they felt about what was planned, and that they were unhappy that they had not been consulted on it.
“We figured that if enough people wrote, they would realise what a bad decision it was. Democracy in action!”
First steps into politics
Since it’s a local campaign, STRAW encourages supporters to contact their councillors rather than their MP. WriteToThem doesn’t need you to know who your reps are before you email them, which proved very useful.
“Many people had no idea who their councillors were, and had certainly never written to them before. If nothing else, the campaign has got a lot more people in Plymouth to pay attention to local politics,” says Ali.
“The thought of having to look up who your councillor is before writing to them is a real barrier for people. WriteToThem makes it so easy, I really think it made a difference.
“We saw it a bit like a protest. Rather than blocking the streets, we filled councillors’ inboxes with passionate messages – not to be vexatious but to show our strength of feeling. We heard that Plymouth City Council have never had anywhere like the amount of correspondence as they had on this issue. We didn’t get many responses but we knew we’d got our message over.”
An ongoing campaign
STRAW had a significant initial success: “In November, at a council meeting, the council passed a motion to pause the project to review it, to determine whether any more trees could be worked into the design.
“This was two months before we presented them our petition, and was directly as a result of their being inundated with emails!”
But unfortunately, there was a huge setback when the plan went ahead regardless.
“We’re now in a legal case with the council over the way the Armada Way project has been handled,” says Ali, “and we are fighting to save the 20 trees which weren’t cut down in March as a result of a last minute injunction we managed to obtain.”
Sad news, but it’s great to hear they’re still fighting on. and Ali reckons that even if STRAW didn’t achieve everything it had hoped for, their actions have still had a net positive effect.
“We’re hoping that the campaign will mean that there’s better public consultation in the future. We’ve demonstrated that local people really do care about how their city looks; they want a voice and they care about urban trees and the many benefits mature urban trees bring.
“We’d like the council to better consult not only with local people but local stakeholder groups and local experts, most of whom have been overlooked in recent years.”
There’s been a growing understanding of the importance of trees within the urban landscape, and particularly in the context of the climate emergency.
They provide useful shade as the temperature rises; they decrease carbon, help mitigate flooding, increase biodiversity by providing homes for insects, birds and other creatures; and of course they simply make harsh city streets seem more appealing. A tree provides a natural place under which to place a table and chair, for example, reclaiming street use for people rather than traffic.
A tool for campaigners
With all this in mind, small neighbourhood campaigns to preserve trees seem all the more vital, and we’re pleased that our services can help. Would Ali recommend that others use WriteToThem as part of their campaigning toolkit?
“Absolutely. WriteToThem really is so useful; it’s a wonderful tool.
“And if you’re campaigning about a situation that lots of people feel passionately about, it can only help if we make our elected officials aware of how we feel.”
Many thanks to Ali for sharing STRAW’s story. If you’d like to get involved, you can find out more on their website.
Friends of the Earth are on a mission to double the number of trees in the UK: we’re sadly lacking on this front compared to our European neighbours, and of course, we’re all well aware of the part that trees play in helping safeguard the climate and encourage wildlife diversity.
As they point out, it’s not all about planting new trees: it’s just as important, and perhaps more economical, to preserve the ones we have. And we were delighted to see that FoE highlight FixMyStreet as a way to do so.
They suggest that you make a report to request a new TPO — Tree Preservation Order. If granted, this will make it a criminal offence to damage or cut down the tree without written consent from the local authority.
Generally, TPOs are used for trees that are providing a particular benefit to the local community (although it is, of course, possible to argue that pretty much every tree is doing this!). FoE guide you through the report-making process in the section of their page titled ‘How to request a TPO’.
As they make clear, not all councils are the same. Categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. So for some, you will find ‘trees’ as a category (and some even mark every tree on the map, making it very easy to pinpoint the one you are referring to). For others, you may have to choose a wider category such as ‘highways’. If all else fails, there’s always the ‘other’ category.
Once you’ve requested your TPO, it might help to get some support from your representatives. We’re glad to see FoE also suggesting the use of WriteToThem to contact local councillors and bring them onside. Maybe even your MP as well?
It might seem like a small thing, but we think if more people requested TPOs up and down the UK, it could make a real difference. So, if there’s a tree you really appreciate in your local area, you know what to do. Fire up FixMyStreet and get requesting!
Image: Bert Sz