By Lizzie May
Campaigners are fighting against town hall officials who they claim are set to spend £232,000 to cut down two healthy oak trees.
The Save the Footbridge Oaks Campaign wants to stop Southwark council, which says the two mature oak trees are a risk to the condition of the Cox’s Walk foot bridge in Sydenham Hill Wood.
Almost 4,000 people have already signed a petition against the chopping down of the trees – claiming the bridge has been undermined by ivy roots, not oak, and that previous repairs in the 1980s were carried out without felling the oaks.
The bridge needs repairs to its walls and timber superstructure, which Southwark council says would require the removal of the two trees to provide enough space for heavy machinery to work.
Pennie Hedge, 65, one of the founders of Save Oaks, said: “We had hoped that the council would welcome this positive input from the community, but we have been met with resistance and reluctance to engage.
“These are difficult financial times for councils. Is it appropriate to be spending nearly a quarter of a million pounds on repairing a bridge at the moment?
“I just feel very sad that they’re willing to sacrifice both of the trees and the good will of the community when there is an alternative.”
Several campaigners have been camping out in front of the trees to meet the council when they are set to begin works this week.
Council officials held a meeting in September where councillors talked to residents about the project, but members of the Save Oaks team argue that none were actually addressed.
Southwark’s head of highways, Dale Foden, emailed campaigners that the risk to the public was relatively minor in 2018, but the deterioration in the condition is such that the safety structure is significantly compromised.
Mr Foden said: “We have no option but to close the footpath across the bridge until full repair works can be undertaken.”
The campaigners argued their calls for an interim repair have been ignored and offered to work with the council to mitigate the risks without losing the mature trees.
The oak crusaders have been collecting signatures, conducting surveys and crowdfunding to prevent the action, as well as providing alternative engineering designs, created by a registered conservation architect, to save the trees.
Their survey of 160 bridge users found 70 per cent chose a new design of bridge if it meant the trees were retained.
The superstructure of the bridge has been replaced three times since 2000 due to rotting in the wood.
Cllr Catherine Rose, Southwark council’s cabinet member for leisure, environment and roads, said: “We regret that after every effort to try and find a way to save this pair of oaks, and repair our historic footbridge, no viable solution has been identified.
“We thank all of those who have attended our meetings and shared their ideas over the last two years. We have investigated many of the suggestions put forward, in addition to employing a contractor to come up with more.
“However, we are working against a number of constraints; the first is our responsibility to spend public funds fairly and wisely. But there is also the risk associated with delaying this scheme for another year and the impact this would have on the woodland.
“We too had hoped to save the oaks, but we will continue to work together with The London Wildlife Trust and campaigners, to plant two new, large oaks and many more trees, in addition to those already agreed.”
Pictured top: Susan Haseldine, campaigner with Save the Footbridge Oaks
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