Campaigners have called for increased protection for a proposed 30-acre park in Lewisham after a private developer was caught allegedly trying to fell trees on part of the site.
The strip of land owned by the developer is part of the ambitious Railway Children Urban National Park plan which takes its name from the book by writer Edith Nesbit, who lived in the area and is said to have drawn inspiration from it for her classic book, The Railway Children.
Last week, owner of private development company 3242 Investments, Stuart Oldroyd – who owns access land within the proposed park area – was stopped by Lewisham Council officials from apparently trying to clear trees which are covered by Tree Preservation Orders.
The planned park includes both public green space and privately owned land, the owners of which are in talks with Lewisham council who want to acquire it for the park.
Oldroyd, who claimed he was there to clear some brambles, was alleged by campaigners to be trying to cut down protected trees and damage the natural environment in an “atrocious way”.
Councillor Liam Curran, chair of the council’s sustainable development committee and one of the campaigners for the park, told Eastlondonlines: “He [Stuart Oldroyd] turned up with a machine which just shreds everything in its path. So clearly, he was [trying to clear] more than just brambles.”
Curran is co-founder of the Baring Trust which is behind the plan for the park. He added: “[Chair of Baring Hall Trust] Stephen Kenny, Councillor Suzannah Clarke and lots of others went down there and physically stopped them damaging it by blocking their plant with a car among other things, so that allowed a temporary reprieve.”
“We are now urging the council to put in strong protection for that site so as to leave the owner and everyone else with no doubt that’s it’s fully protected under the law and shouldn’t be developed.”
The concern stems from the fact that less than three years ago, 3242 Investments were investigated by the Forestry Commission for illegally felling trees at an ancient woodland site in Crawley.
Cabinet member for housing and planning, Councillor Paul Bell said in a statement: “In October, the Council made an area Tree Preservation Order (TPO) on the land in question, preventing any work from being carried out to the trees without the Council’s consent.”
“When the council was made aware of allegations of unauthorised tree works, officers visited the site to investigate and contacted the landowner’s representative to seek assurance that no unauthorised works would be undertaken.”
The current status of a section of the future park is a ‘local nature reserve’. However, the adjoining areas do not yet enjoy a similar protection and as a result are vulnerable to damage.
‘Jewel in the crown’
At the recent Mayor and Cabinet meeting, Councillor Curran warned that the project, described as the “jewel in the crown of Lewisham”, was “actually on the verge of failing”. The plan is part of a green infrastructure plan being put before the council,
He said: “Unless metropolitan importance [is granted] for the whole of the site, and a woodland Tree Protection Order” it would be hard to prevent the “imminent destruction” of the site by the developer.
Oldroyd has not responded to requests for comment.
Plans for the park, which would capitalise on the area’s links with Nesbit, were first proposed back in 2011, when Curran started the Grove Park neighbourhood forum with fellow resident Kenny, and there is hope the park’s path to approval is close to completion.
Borrowing its name from Edith Nesbit’s 1906 book The Railway Children, the historic site is said to have inspired Nesbit, who was a resident of Grove Park between 1894 and 1899 and lived in a house called the Three Gables which overlooked the railway line, which is now disused. In the book, the children lived in a house called the Three Chimneys, which also overlooked the railway. The book was turned into a much loved 1970’s film of the same name, starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins.
The park would span a 4.5Km continuous stretch down from the South Circular, which includes nature and heritage walks alongside rare and protected wild habitats, and runs parallel to the railway cutting that inspired Nesbit. But, currently the proposals remain a “patchwork quilt” of different sites, including Northbrook Park, a former riding stables, land owned by Network Rail, Grove Park nature reserve and private-owned land and allotments.
Part of the at-risk land – the former riding stables – is actually of vital strategic importance for flood prevention in the area. A large amount of water drains from here into the River Quaggy and eventually into the Thames. If it were concreted over this could have serious environmental repercussions.
Lewisham Mayor Damien Egan has thrown his weight behind the scheme, making it clear the project has the backing of the council. “I fully support the urban national park. I think it’s a genius idea… I know there are some tree protection orders and that officers have been in correspondence with the developer to explain that if there is any illegal activity that we will then take action.”
As an ‘Urban National Park’, the scheme would fall in line with London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s stated aim of turning London into a ‘National Park City’, and making the city greener, healthier and wilder whilst working within an urban context. It would enjoy status as a protected area managed mainly for landscape protection and recreation’.