Canterbury District Green Party

Friday, 21 December 2012


Julie Wassmer from Whitstable shares her good news . . .

Canterbury Greens,

This is to let you know that Network Rail and their contractors, Capel, returned to the Cromwell Road embankment on Sunday 11th November at 8am to recommence the tree felling work which they had been forced to call off by Whitstable's protest on 28th May.

They were accompanied by a considerable contingent of Kent Police and British Transport Police - who brought with them police CCTV. Clearly, it was expected that another large public protest would take place again, but Network Rail really should have known better since our campaign had won important concessions regarding the tree felling . . . .

. . . and had only ever opposed unnecessary tree clearance - while trying at all times to convince Network Rail of its responsibilities to:-

 Refrain from work during the bird breeding season - unless an emergency public safety isssue. (And this was clearly never the case in Whitstable in April or May since the company had no special Section 16 licence in place and deferred the work for a further seven months with no resulting safety concerns arising from the deferment).

 Undertake a sensible and sensitive tree management programme which would allow an important wildlife corridor to remain - even if in limited form.

 Take proper heed of the findings of engineer Peter Johns in his report ("Railway Trackside Vegetation in Whitstable - a Geotechnical Appraisal of Maintenance Options" available on this link, which questions Network Rail's technical rationale for extensive tree clearance while warning that such work could destabilise the Cromwell Road embankment.

I can now confirm that although residents were notified that contractors were scheduled for embankment clearance work for a full 19 days from November 11th,
 all the major tree felling was completed in one day and was monitored carefully by Cllr Ashley Clark and Cllr Phil Cartwright, who are local ward councillors for either side of the embankment (Gorrell and Harbour Ward respectively), and have specialist knowledge of tree management. The campaign is extremely grateful for their help, expertise and cross party cooperation on this issue.

If you care now to walk along Cromwell Road and take a look at the embankment (from the access points of three residents' car parks: Bissons, Rye and Albins) I think you may be forgiven for thinking that no trees have actually come down, as Network Rail (while having agreed to leave the bottom 1/3rd of the embankment trees untouched), also left a large number of tall trees standing from the middle third too.

This surprised Cllr Clark and Cllr Cartwright who were both present at a meeting in London with Network Rail representatives on 16th October, which was also attended by Cllr James Flanagan (West Gate Ward, Canterbury) and Peter Johns himself. At that meeting, Peter Johns took issue with Network Rail's geotechnic 'experts' and presented statistics with which Network Rail found it very difficult to argue. Peter effectively challenged the company's data while producing evidence from RAIB accident reports to support his conviction that a lack of proper awareness from Network Rail of the benefits of tree roots in contributing to slope stability has in fact caused several derailments.

Peter Johns
 lives in Winchmore Hill and became involved with the N21 campaign group when Network Rail conducted a shockingly extensive clearance of hundreds of trees on the embankment in Grange Park. One thing that stayed with Peter at that time was the misinformation given to the local MP, David Burrowes, by the Network Rail community team that had been present at a meeting attended by Burrowes and Network Rail CEO, David Higgins. Once those technical inaccuracies had been pointed out, David Burrowes MP demanded another meeting with Higgins where contrition was expressed about those failings.  It was from this instance that Peter Johns learned to view with suspicion any information coming from Network Rail and, wherever possible, to fully investigate it.

I was extremely grateful therefore when Peter came to visit our embankment this summer and agreed to write a report for Whitstable in which he identified a catalogue of misinformation, misrepresentation and manufactured data that had been given to us by Network Rail in a Technical Presentation on 3rd May.

Thereafter, Cllr James Flanagan gained important access for me to meet with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker MP, in September - when I duly handed over Peter Johns's report and explained our very real concerns relating to the embankment's stability - concerns which Network Rail seemed to be wholly disregarding. 

That same attitude from Network Rail was also evident at the public meeting that took place in St Peter's Church on 21st September. However, in the follow up meeting at Waterloo on 16th October, I believe it became impossible for Network Rail to continue with this stance. The number of trees now left on our embankment, (which far exceeds the number expected to be saved by our councillors,) is testament, I think, to Peter Johns's work in presenting evidence that Network Rail simply could not ignore. The company may not admit this openly but I believe that Network Rail simply could not risk the possibility of another embankment failure after so much technical evidence had been given to them by Peter Johns. 

What is certainly irrefutable is that a concerted effort by the very many people involved in this campaign, since its outset in April, has meant that trees destined for wholesale clearance on April 17th now remain as Christmas draws near - and they will continue to remain.  Not only that, replanting has been promised by Network Rail to fill in gaps on the lower 1/3rd of the embankment and will take place in January/February under further supervision from Cllrs Clark and Cartwright, who worked tirelessly on 11th November to ensure that Network Rail contractors did not exceed instructions. This can be viewed as no less than a great victory for the people of Whitstable in conserving our natural environment and the local wildlife that can continue to live and breed here. 

Attached to this e-mail is a letter I would like to share with you that was sent very recently from Network Rail's CEO, David Higgins, to Transport Minister, Norman Baker, which mentions the meeting I, and Cllr James Flanagan, had with the Minister  and states that Network Rail will now be 'making its route teams more accountable for any work of this kind', while explaining that the company has 'learned lessons during their engagement with residents at Whitstable and will continue to engage with the community during the planning of any future works.'

I welcome these statements although I am reminded that over a year ago David Higgins also told Grange Park's MP, David Burrowes, that he apologised for the 'mistakes' made at Grange Park while confirming that Network Rail would 'learn from this incident and adapt their community engagement and consultation.' That certainly did not happen with Whitstable in April, nor in Drayton Park this summer, nor in the Wirral...oh, the list goes on, so it is important to note that, although Whitstable has won its battle, the war goes on elsewhere and Network Rail needs to be monitored carefully at all times. 

Peter Johns contends that in 'continuing with this vegetation management policy Network Rail are building up huge problems for themselves or for future owners (should the industry be re-privatised) unless somebody can hold them to account. Moreover government is, unwittingly, building up a huge financial liability for itself and the taxpayer in years to come.' I fear he is correct. 

However, it is important to balance this with the positive aspects of our campaign: we
 have won, we have cemented links with other agencies like the RSPB, we have shone our own spotlight on this important issue, worked together and shown the power of community. Our Wildlife Crimes Officer, Michael (Geordie) Laidlow, has put forward proposals on a national level to make sure that Network Rail does not breach the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (well done Geordie!) And we have, perhaps, become stronger as a community as a whole since there has also been cooperation between other campaigns that are being fought in our town over equally important issues. 

However, I do not believe that local people should have to work so hard on solving local issues themselves and I am reminded that until Canterbury city councillors James Flanagan and Paula Vickers came on board to help us on May 3rd, we were very much working alone. I now believe that the formation of a town council might help local people to solve local issues more readily and if you believe the same, I suggest you might like to sign this e-petition that requests Canterbury Council to make the necessary arrangements for a Whitstable town council.

Finally, I had been planning to dismantle my e-mail circulation list now that the campaign is won, but I reconsidered after many people expressed an interest in being kept up to date regarding re-planting or further work that takes place on the embankment or even regarding further developments relating to Peter Johns's research.

I have also been contacted by another campaign, supported by the RSPB, to fight the possibility of an airport in the Thames Estuary - which would certainly devastate environment and wildlife if allowed to go ahead. I met with the RSPB recently and I am hoping to hold a public meeting
 early in 2013 to increase awareness of this issue. I have therefore kept my distribution list intact and will let Canterbury Greens know about this, along with a campaign being fought in Whitstable to prevent our postal delivery office being moved to Canterbury which, if allowed to go ahead, would mean 50 postal workers making 4 trips back and forth in vehicles each working day, adding to traffic congestion and pollution in an area already flagged for diminishing air quality. I will keep you posted.  

But for now, to all of you who supported the Network Rail campaign, if only by the reading of updates on the Canterbury Greens blogspot, I thank you. Our local MP, Julian Brazier, once told me that 'you can either make a protest - or you can make a difference' but I firmly believe that sometimes you can do both. And we did. Together.

(The attached photo shows from left to right in front row: Kas Kasparian, Julie Wassmer, Andy Finch, Cllr James Flanagan, Penny Crowther with Cllr Phil Cartwright and Cllr Ashley Clark in the background - in hard hats.)

A mini documentary of our May protest, "To The Whitstable Station", has been made by former BBC and Channel 4 journalist, John McGhie, and I will forward a link to it as soon as it is uploaded to the internet - which I gather will be soon.  We had a screening of it in Whitstable recently and I later learned that this was attended by an Inspector (no less) from the British Transport Police so we must have been doing something right. But if we wanted confirmation of that, we need ask only the birds that are still singing on the embankment trees outside my window.

Once again, my thanks to you all and season's greetings.

Yours sincerely,

Julie Wassmer
36 Cromwell Road
Whitstable CT5 1NW
(01227 266910)
 Everything you do, or you don't do, makes a difference.

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