Councillors challenge one another over Bretton Oak tree felling 'evidence'

Two independent structural engineers confirmed the tree was causing subsidence – said councillor Nigel Simons

By Robert Alexander, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Friday, 29th July 2022, 5:08 pm
Updated Friday, 29th July 2022, 5:14 pm

Two Peterborough City Councillors were at loggerheads this week over the controversial Bretton oak tree felling – which led to campaigners sleeping in the tree to try and save it.

Councillor Nicola Day, Leader of the Green Party, expressed her despair at the felling of the Bretton oak tree while claiming it was axed without the "real evidence" needed.

The Bretton oak tree – said to be 600 years old – was the last remaining of a row of similar trees all now cut down – on Blind Lane at the back of Barnard Way, Bretton.

A small encampment pitched up near the tree in Bretton and a man from Extinction Rebellion took up residence in the tree (image: David Lowndes)

In 1970, long before any houses were built, the trees were protected with a covenant stating that future properties should not be built too close to them, avoiding potential issues with the roots.

In 1998, Peterborough City Council granted a planning application and the houses on Barnards Way were built with full consideration of the covenant.

All except one house on Barnards Way, which had a conservatory added to the rear of the property, significantly reducing the distance from the house and its’ extension to the tree.

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'Shrike', an Extinction Rebellion campaigner, pictured in his hammock (image: David Lowndes)

During the Full Council meeting on 27 July, councillor Day asked: “Why did this council fell this tree without any real evidence?”

Responding, councillor Nigel Simons, Cabinet Member for Waste, Street Scene and the Environment, said: “To be honest I’m a bit surprised about this question. Councillor Day and I have worked on several issues and she is very good at acknowledging the environment

“Did you not read all the evidence? Did you not seek expert advice? Did you not talk to all of the officers involved? Did you not do any research?

“Our tree officers assured me that the expert opinion in this matter was correct and the insurance company structural engineer confirmed that the tree was the cause of the subsidence."

The felling last month led to campaigners sleeping inside the giant oak for two nights while security guards from Business Watch, employed by Peterborough City Council, cordoned off the area.

A County Court judge also dismissed the case of the protesters to save the tree due to a lack of jurisdiction to make a ruling on the case. The campaigners were ordered to pay £5,000 to cover the cost of court proceedings.

‘Beyond belief’

Councillor Simons added: “Two independent structural engineers confirmed the tree was causing subsidence. One expert suggested ‘heave’, but we all know now that this has been discounted.

“On top of that, our officer confirmed to me that I had to be fully aware of the financial implications.

“I think you know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t have signed this decision without concrete evidence that this was the only course of action, and for you to suggest that there was ‘no real evidence’ is beyond belief.

“I honestly thought you were better than that and you do disappoint me – the most important thing here is that we put the correct procedures into planning so that we are not in the same situation in the future.”

Depth of feeling over loss

In response, councillor Day said: “There wasn’t any DNA evidence, and it was clearly identified as the cause of the subsidence and the reports clearly showed that there were issues with the foundations of the property that were not a standard required.

“Therefore, there was probably an issue with planning and the developers that built the property so close to an ancient oak tree.

“There is a real depth of feeling in the Bretton community about the loss of this oak tree and a meeting was convened to ensure that issues such as the Bretton oak tree do not occur again in the future.”

The roots of that tree – the last oak standing – were interfering with the property to the extent that the home insurance company said they would not insure the building.

The homeowner wanted the council to cover the cost of his insurance but the council cut down the tree on 29 June 2022 and the wood has been given to Flag Fen.