I recently attended a full moon party in a forest. A romantic idea, you might think, but what if I told you this forest gathering was in the middle of an innercity housing estate? In Elephant and Castle, SE1 to be exact?
I tell you, it was romantic…..perhaps even more so than if it had been a wood in the countryside. You see, this estate has only a few residents left, the rest having been strong-armed and intimidated into leaving, and in 2015 the whole area will be demolished. Two years ago most residents left, and since then nature has taken over. There are bats here, birds, and 450 magnificent mature trees, some of them exotics. More than that, at night there is a secret greenwood world of light, shadow, whilst a quietly rampant carpet of green tears up the tarmac.
Forest. The word itself is romantic. It can mean different things to different people, but I think this site is entitled to bill itself urban forest as it fits the definition of ‘a large area chiefly covered with trees or undergrowth’. Moreover, forests have long been places with their own rules, and where commoners have had special rights. I found something of this character here in the Heygate Estate, just as there is in Epping and the New Forest. A special bond between people and place, forged over time.
All these mature trees have finally reached the optimum height and size envisaged by the architect, Tom Tinker, when he dreamed up the site in 1969. He designed all these trees, shrubs and green space into the plans, arranged with low-rise housing inside a ‘heartland’ protected by larger blocks on the periphery from the surrounding traffic and noise. His plans belong to a more visionary, egalitarian time, when architects and developers built high quality housing estates for all classes of people, not just the worst off, and when government set money aside to maintain them. (For more on this I recommend Tom Cordell’s excellent documentary Utopia London).
Allegations of profiteering are backed up by the fact that there is nothing structurally wrong with the buildings. Private investors will make a fortune from replacing family housing with up-market units packed in like sardines. Of course they don’t want a few trees getting in the way of those profit margins! Original plans of the redeveloped space showed that most of the trees would be lost.
A community of over three thousand people has been decimated, sent to different corners of the borough, most never too return. It’s too late to save that community, but an inspiring and determined group of activist residents hope it is not too late to save the trees.
Earlier this year they conducted a CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees ) study into the value of the trees, believing that Southwark Council had badly undervalued them as collectively being worth £700,000 – the same value as a single plane in Westminster! According to the CAVAT valuation, which is backed by the Forestry Commission, the true value is in fact £15m.
To quote one of the activists, Guy Mannes-Abbott: ‘Imagine trying to plant a 450+ forest of large trees which have a life span of at least 2 or 300 years anywhere else in Zone 1. ..imagine transplanting it, transferring its priceless canopy and ecosystem to another part of Central London… Itʼs impossible! This impossibility is a very convincing reason why we need to look after this existing forest. The GLA and Mayor want to increase canopy cover as a major part of meeting the real challenges of climate change in London by 5% before 2025 …Southwark Council and [the developer LandLease] want to destroy this mature forest so reducing canopy cover in the area by something like 50 %…’
It might seem sad that we have to express the value of trees and green spaces in financial terms – part of a wider trend to equate cash values with so-called ‘eco-system’ services. Yes – but it’s also a pragmatic response to the fact that money is the only language our current system understands. If you want to protect something, you have to put a price on it. Unfortunately developers and bankers have been better at doing this than environmentalists.
I took part in a CAVAT training workshop recently, where I met the creator of the valuation system, Christopher Neilan. He conceived of CAVAT over 12 years ago after becoming increasingly frustrated at the disposable way in which trees are treated in urban areas. He wanted a valuation system which would reward tree officers for maintaining trees, and which would enable them to argue for greater budgets and investment in their tree stock – just like officials negotiate for budgets to maintain other assets, such as roads and property. Accountants reckon that 10 per cent of any asset should be spent on maintanance – but traditionally tree officers haven’t been viewing at their trees in this ‘asset’ type way.
CAVAT is interesting in that not only does it measure the value through factors such as species, age, health, canopy, and size – it also takes into account the ‘ecosystem services’ of a tree – things like stabilising temperature, preventing flooding, cleaning the air and benefiting the mental and physical health of residents. Unlike other systems which tally the tree’s value to the price of land (which would mean that trees in richer areas are worth more than those in poorer areas) under CAVAT, the more people who live or work near the tree, the more it is worth (which means that a tree in poorer, higher density areas like the Elephant and Castle will be worth more than the same kind of tree in Bromley, Kent, for example.
CAVAT was envisaged as a tool to protect trees, and it has already been used successfully . Recently in Bristol a number of mature trees were damaged when utility pipes were laid, and the tree officer there used CAVAT to successfully argue for adequate compensation – which enabled him to not only replace those trees, but invest in others elsewhere.
Let’s hope that CAVAT can help the Elephant and Castle Urban Forest. The Council has already acknowledged that its original valuation was wrong, and it seems that the developers are promising to retain more trees under amended plans. Meanwhile, the activists are doing amazing things, including guided walks every Saturday, Bat Walks and other community-based activities. Watch this space and support the campaign here.