Canterbury District Green Party

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Update - Whitstable Tree Clearance - a geotechnical report shows Network Rail seek to misinform and mislead - meeting 21st September

The fight against tree clearance on rail embankments by Network Rail has been in abeyance since the protests in May, but this important campaign is now gathering strength owing to a geotechnical report into railside embankment maintenance which has just been released. Although this was completed in regard to Whitstable, it has clear ramifications nationally. It shows that Network Rail has sought to misinform and mislead, and that there are viable, safer and more ecologically sound alternatives to blanket destruction of railside trees and wildlife corridors.

After much resistance from the company, a public meeting has now been secured with Network Rail in Whitstable on Friday 21st September, at 6.45pm in St Peter's Church, Sydenham St. Please put the date in your diaries and try to come along.



The fight to stop Network Rail destroying trees on the Cromwell Road railway embankment went directly to the government this week, as campaign spokesperson, Julie Wassmer, and Canterbury councillor, James Flanagan, met with Transport Minister, Norman Baker MP. (NB Full title - Parliamentary Under Secretary for State for the Dept of Transport).

The half hour meeting took place on Monday 10th September at the Dept of Transport, after which Ms Wassmer said "campaigners and residents are very grateful to Cllr Flanagan for securing this meeting as it capitalised on previous contact made with the Minister in May."  On that occasion, Cllr Flanagan had written to Norman Baker on the campaigners' behalf when residents were urgently seeking to prevent tree felling during the bird breeding season. Cllr Flanagan explained, "at that time, Mr Baker met with senior officials at Network Rail and delivered a letter for us on behalf of 7 year old Cromwell Road resident, Maya Mills, who had written to Network Rail CEO, David Higgins, but had not received a reply. Monday's meeting was a further attempt to help residents find a lasting resolution to their concerns about clear felling on the embankment."

On 28th May, during a protest at which three women, including Ms Wassmer, chained themselves to a tree on the embankment, Network Rail finally agreed to defer the work until 'after the end of September'. "But time has moved on, "said Ms Wassmer, "and so has the campaign."

Monday's discussion covered Network Rail's general conduct in Whitstable during the past six months, concerns over the potential loss of an important wildlife corridor on the embankment as well as raising a challenge to the technical reasons offered by Network Rail for the tree clearance. Peter Johns, a respected engineer with a special interest in soil mechanics has been researching data about the Cromwell Road embankment and has now completed a 42 page report, "Railway Trackside Vegetation in Whitstable. A Geotechnical Appraisal of Maintenance Options", which Ms Wassmer put before the Transport Minister. "The report responds very specifically to evidence presented to residents in Network Rail's Technical Presentation at the Umbrella Centre on 3rd May and warns that Network Rail's plans to clear fell trees on the embankment, as well as lay poison to prevent regrowth, could have exactly the opposite effect of stabilising the clay embankment." Instead, Mr Johns proposes an alternative solution involving the pollarding of mature trees and replanting of evergreen trees and shrubs. Cllr Flanagan said, "I have read the report and understand that this solution is loosely based on London Underground's vegetation policy, which seems arguably superior to that employed by Network Rail as it appears to have resulted in fewer land slips. I am hoping we can use this as a basis for negotiation."

Ms Wassmer also brought up residents' concerns about the lack of accountability of Network Rail, which is a private company funded by the taxpayer, but not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. She says, "I also informed Mr Baker that I have made recent requests to three parliamentary select committees to report on the conduct of Network Rail over its tree clearances and that those letters have been co-signed by members of five other communities: Walsall, Enfield, Rickmansworth, Dronfield and King's Lynn. I am on record as having said that the company is not accustomed to being challenged by small town communities but our own continuing battle in Whitstable has acted as an example to others, especially in Drayton Park, Islington, where Network Rail were forced to abandon tree clearance in June pending an investigation by the RSPB and the British Transport Police."

Ministry officials confirmed to Cllr Flanagan and Ms Wassmer that Network Rail has now agreed to a public meeting in Whitstable which is due to take place on 21st September at 6.45 at St Peter's Church in Sydenham Street. Ms Wassmer said, "the meeting is to be Chaired by our local MP, Julian Brazier, to whom I am very grateful, not only for securing the meeting but for understanding that this is nothing less than the community deserves. In June we were given a commitment by Network Rail to a series of meetings but the company has been refusing until now to name a date for any public meeting before the work is re-scheduled. Last Friday they refused to pay a venue fee for St Peter's but fortunately, the Rev Simon Tillotson has been very understanding." Ms Wassmer says she has personally guaranteed a fee for the church and, if necessary, hopes to re-coup this from donations from the community. "The Minister listened very carefully to our concerns and told us that he would be writing to Network Rail's CEO, David Higgins, about the issues raised as well as handing over Peter Johns's report on our behalf. She and Cllr Flanagan also handed Mr Baker another letter from 7 year old Maya Mills, as Network Rail's CEO has still not replied to her. Says Ms Wassmer, "it was addressed to 'Norman Transport'".

Peter John's report "Railway Trackside Vegetation in Whitstable. A Geotechnical Appraisal of Maintenance Options" can be accessed on the following link (together with Network Rail's Technical Presentation from 3rd May 2012):-

(The previous article on this subject can be found here.)