Cherrygate – Cllr Joanna Biddolph’s statement

When ‘Cherrygate’ blew up last weekend, after the planting of 16 cherry trees was stopped by Cllr Joanna Biddolph at short notice, leaving a bunch of bemused volunteers spade in hand, many on social media thought the councillor had had dug an even deeper hole for herself by not explaining her reasons publicly. On 20 February (a full six days after the cancellation) the leader of the Conservative councillors in Hounslow issued this statement:

I have deliberately not commented before now as I have not wanted to influence, interrupt, or in any way affect, discussions that were taking place within the Friends of Turnham Green (FOTG).

Along with Cllrs Ranjit Gill and Ron Mushiso of Turnham Green ward, and Cllr John Todd of Chiswick Homefields ward, I attended the AGM of the Friends of Turnham Green on 14th January. Proceedings at the AGM were more complicated than has been reported. Concerns were raised during the meeting and afterwards. Later, members of FOTG’s landscape committee contacted us raising concerns about the decision making process leading up to and at the AGM and providing background information that gave the issue more weight. As councillors, it is our duty to take up concerns raised by residents and to ask officers to investigate.

First, and of course, I talked to my councillor colleagues about the legitimacy of the concerns and concluded that they were significant. As one of the ward councillors, I raised the issue through the leader of the council, Cllr Steve Curran, who asked officers to postpone the planting so discussions could take place. I was glad that the council, specifically the leader and officers responsible for managing our open spaces, took the concerns seriously. They were about internal issues that everyone believed could be resolved internally and amicably, and hoped would be resolved internally and amicably.

The request was to postpone the planting so discussions could take place. This point – postponement – was clear in the statement made by Cllr Samia Chaudhary, cabinet member for leisure services including our open spaces, who said the planting had been “put on hold”. It was never “blocked” as all those involved in the discussions knew. Using the word “blocked” unfortunately raised the temperature of the issue and caused unnecessary and unfounded alarm outside the Friends and gave a wholly misleading picture to Chiswick residents and beyond. The postponement was to allow time for discussions within FOTG to agree a way forward that put the long-term future of Turnham Green centre stage.

I had several discussions with officers, all of us seeking an amicable resolution. They acted fast taking steps to organise meetings and talk to all those involved. I was impressed by their knowledge
and their deep wish to enable a proper and fair outcome. After an exchange of emails, I met Rebecca Frayn, chairman of FOTG, and Ed Stanley, secretary of FOTG, to explain why I had intervened and to try to persuade them to meet the members who had raised concerns and to discuss those concerns with them. Rebecca and Ed said they did not think it was right to listen to the voices of the 20 per cent of those present at the AGM who disagreed with the decision when 80 per cent of those present had agreed with it. It was undemocratic. I explained that the process leading to that vote was in question and that discussing it with the members who had raised them could lead to an outcome all could agree on. We also discussed the merits of holding a meeting with council officers and an extraordinary general meeting.

Other discussions took place. I was glad to learn that Rebecca and the FOTG members had arranged to meet and a meeting took place. It covered the full range of issues that had led to the
postponement of the planting and arrangements are in place for a further meeting with council officers next week to try to resolve them. At the heart of this issue is trees. Everyone is alert to the current climate change emergency and the enormous value that trees have in removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, improving our air quality and reducing global warming. There is no disagreement about that. The type of trees, their location and the long-term biodiversity of Turnham Green are issues that did not get a fair hearing at the AGM which was presented with one option. That was undemocratic and of concern to members.

Much has been said on social media, and in emails, about what has been seen as a high-handed and undemocratic attempt by me to overturn a democratic decision. The issue was never as simple as voting percentages. It was about the decision-making process before and at the AGM which had not been made democratically. In contrast, councillors are elected by residents in a democratic process and are expected to represent residents and their concerns, uncomfortable though it can be. It was extremely unfortunate that this arose just before planting was due to take place, and we are sorry that the planting event was cancelled at such notice. We are glad that most people who had planned to come to the planting found out it had been cancelled before the event. We are sorry that some turned up only to find they had wasted their time.

We are very grateful to the Friends and other volunteers who work so hard to keep Turnham Green looking so lovely all year round. It is Turnham Green ward’s premier open space, at the heart of the ward and of Chiswick High Road, a welcoming spot that speaks of home to so many residents as they travel through and within Chiswick. It takes a lot of work to keep it to its current extremely high standard and perhaps the publicity it has received during what has been referred to as #CherryGate will bring others out and onto Turnham Green volunteering, not just at tree planting time.

We look forward to hearing about the suggestions the FOTG landscape committee makes later this year for the long-term ecology, biodiversity and enjoyment of Turnham Green. And we look forward to working with FOTG to enhance this special part of Chiswick. They and Chiswick residents can count on us to continue to arrange community clean-ups on Turnham Green and to support requests for more or better bins, improved paths, repairs to railings, help with planting and generally to work hard alongside them to look after this very special green space at the heart of
our community.