Photographs above: Cllr Joanna Biddolph; Karen Liebreich MBE
Whatever Doris Day or Johnny Matthis might have thought, life is not always just a bowl of cherries. Certainly not for Karen Liebreich of Abundance London, who had to stand on Turnham Green on a wet and windy morning last Saturday explaining to volunteers who turned up, spade in hand, why her widely advertised cherry tree planting was not happening.
That is to say, she told them it was cancelled, but not really why, as she herself doesn’t know. All she knows is that the leader of Chiswick’s Conservative councillors, Cllr Joanna Biddolph, complained to Hounslow Council and demanded that it be stopped. The council’s officers were legally bound to take notice.
Photograph: Friends of Turnham Green Chair Rebecca Frayn (left) putting up a notice about the cancellation
“High-handed and anti-democratic”
In the ensuing row which erupted in social media over the weekend, the councillor has been called ‘high-handed and anti-democratic’ and residents have demanded she break her silence and explain her action.
The residents group Friends of Turnham Green decided at their AGM on 14 January that the 10 cherry trees should be planted. The vote was carried by an overwhelming majority. Hounslow parks department had signed off on it, the trees bought and paid for, but in a last minute intervention the councillor called a halt to the planting and has so far refused to explain why. So what’s gone on?
It all started back in November, when Karen met with other residents to discuss how they could work with businesses to get more trees planted in Hounslow. Everyone agrees we need more trees. Hounslow has committed just over £2.2million to be spent on ‘community led sustainability projects’ which include ‘improvements to green spaces’ and ‘tree planting’. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to plant 30million trees a year, with the Environment Secretary adding on 8 February: “Trees are vital in the fight against climate change, to tackle air pollution and help us achieve our net-zero target by 2050. But for local communities they are so much more.”
So far so good.
She discussed it with Rebecca Frayn, Chair of the Friends of Turnham Green, who have 160 members and over the past 14 years have improved the Green in a number of ways, including renewing the pathways, sowing a patch of wildflower meadow and replacing the grotty old public loos with a rockery. A few days later an anonymous donor offered £5000 for trees on Turnham Green, especially cherry trees, to fill the gaps in the existing cherry tree avenues along the paths and the edges of the Green.
Enter the members of the Landscape committee. Friends of Turnham Green have a Landscape committee, of which both Rebecca and Karen are members. Jan Hewlett, another member, expressed the view that the new trees should not overshadow the rockery or the wildflower meadow.
‘I like the cherry avenue especially in spring’ she wrote. ‘I suggest at our next AGM … we might ask people what they would like and where. Let’s try to keep up the democratic approach’.
Photograph above: avenue of cherry trees on Turnham Green – Andy Murray
Consultation with the membership
And so to the AGM on 14 January. The proposal put forward was to plant seven cherry trees along the path at the north west end of the Green and three more along the path east of the Church and parallel to the High Street. ‘However’, the minutes of the meeting record, ‘the choice of cherry trees proved controversial. Various people noted that the falling fruit causes a mess on the paths; the floor of the church hall had been stained by people who had trodden on fallen cherries’. One woman was concerned about security, with the suggestion that muggers might hide behind the trunks.
It was then put to the vote, with everyone present (28) unanimous that the donation should be used to pay for trees, and 21 people voting for the planting of cherry trees.
Consultation with the council
Karen talked to Stefania Horne, Hounslow’s Head of Parks, who was delighted that the Friends group was not only in favour, but would be providing the trees. The council runs the parks but doesn’t have the budget to do all they planting they’d like. Karen walked round the site with Dave Horgan, Parks officer, to work out exactly where they should go. Ten Prunus avium Plena were ordered, which do not fruit. Tough on the birds, but good for the church floor. She then walked round the Green again, with the council’s Events officer Sonia Ferdousi, to make sure the new trees wouldn’t impede the positioning of the funfair’s generator.
The event was organised for Saturday 15 February and widely publicised, on The Chiswick Calendar amongst other places. The council was providing a digger. Chiswick Rugby Club were putting together a team to come and help dig. A group of runners were coming. At the previous community planting event organised by Abundance London with a Friends group, 200 people turned up to help out, in a jolly community day out.
On Thursday there began to be indications of trouble. Rumblings that a couple of the members of Friends of Turnham Green who had opposed the cherry tree planting but been outvoted, had collared their ward councillors to complain. Cllr Biddolph wrote to Stefania Horne, Head of Parks. She replied, explaining that every hoop had been jumped through.
Not satisfied, Cllr Biddolph escalated her complaint to the council leader Steve Curran, who passed it to the Head of Environmental Services, Wayne Stephenson. When a councillor ‘calls in’ a decision made by a council officer, they have no choice but to pause and reconsider. So they stopped the planting on Friday afternoon, too late to stop all the volunteers turning up on Saturday morning.
Photographs above: Disappointed volunteers; notice of cancellation
I wrote to Wayne to ask for an explanation. I asked how much time and expense was being wasted on reconsidering? What would happen to the trees? (which need to be planted by the end of February) and how did this fit in with the council’s environmental plan and promise to plant trees? This was the answer I received.
Cllr Samia Chaudhary, Cabinet Member for Leisure Services, said:
“Hounslow Council has ambitious plans to see thousands of trees planted across the borough. We were aware of the tree-planting event organised by the Friends of Turnham Green, and like to support community initiatives such as these which really enrich our local areas.
“However, Ward Councillor Joanna Biddolph has raised some concerns from the community and requested the planting be put on hold. Hopefully a meeting can be held to resolve these concerns as soon as possible and we will then happily support the Friends group in their efforts to plant more trees.”
I wrote to Cllr Biddolph for an explanation. She replied:
“When I have something to say please be sure that I will let you know”.
‘High-handed and anti-democratic’
On Saturday it all kicked off on social media.
Paul Campbell: ‘Why is this happening? Why is a Councillor opposing Friends Of Turnham Green and objecting to trees being planted? I think the electorate needs to know that their representative is attempting to wield their power to veto the decision of a local organisation’.
Edward Seaton: ‘If this is true it is atrocious’
Ken Munn: ‘I wonder what the rest of Chiswick’s Tories think of Biddolph’s high-handed and anti-democratic behaviour’.
The flak is not reserved only for the leader of the Conservatives.
Edward Seaton: ‘Is this Chiswick’s equivalent of Cummings and Johnson stopping ministers going on the Today Programme? It is a strategy? … Her colleagues are also pretty quiet’.
It does call into question the power a local councillor wields if they are able to overrule a majority decision made by a well-run, well-regarded and long-established community group. Councillors surely also have to be accountable. It is not good enough to trash a community event without giving any explanation. Whatever the explanation is, it had better be good when it comes.