Saturday, 17 April 2010

Legalised vandalism

We have written about historic Bronpadarn Mansion woods in the past. The last two weeks have seen a number of trees cut down, undergrowth ripped up, and all done despite Tree Protection Orders (TPO) and Conservation Area status. Which shows how little value those 'protections' offer in reality. As Antony Gedge, Cambrian News writer, told us in an email: "the council [said] that the works being carried out were all authorised and given permission by the council."

Map showing the conservation area which includes these woods, to the right of centre

Back to the beginning

The warning sign

Over the weekend of 2-4th April a number of Llanbadarn Fawr locals became extremely concerned when they noticed that a large number of trees in the Bronpadarn Mansion woods had been marked with yellow for felling and a public right of way had been closed. There were no notices explaining what was going on.

Trees marked for destruction

Monday 5th April was a bank holiday, so no-one at the council could be contacted.

On Tuesday 6th April the private contractors, Canopy and Countryside, turned up with chainsaws and started cutting. All they said was that a number of trees were going to be cut. Attempts to get information from Ceredigion County Council's Planning Department were fruitless. Many people were extremely upset by this and found it hard to believe that such a beautiful habitat, with so many protections, was going to be damaged in this way. By now a number of locals and concerned parties had left multiple urgent messages with Ceredigion County Council's Planning Department asking what was going on, and they had still not had a reply (even as of the date of this posting CIN has not had a reply to any of its emails or phone calls). Some locals managed to get hold of Ceredigion County Council Parks and Gardens Officer Peter Matthys, who said he had visited the site months ago with James Prior, the head of Canopy and Countryside. A written report was sent to Paul Evans at Ceredigion County Council Planning Department, and they would have made the final decision on what would be cut. Peter Matthys confirmed that he had no idea who had marked trees with yellow for cutting, since that wouldn't be necessary. Unfortunately the only person at Ceredigion County Council Planning Department with all the information on what was happening was Paul Evans but he was not going to be in work until the next day, by which time as far as locals knew, the woods might be gone. No-one else in the Planning Department was able to say which trees would be cut.

Bye to the tree

On Wednesday 7th April a large mature sycamore was felled, in addition to canopy cutting of a gingko. At this point it was discovered that the land owner, Mr Fenton (who has tried many times to get planning permission to build in those woods) had made a request to fell trees in the area months ago, and it had been granted. A Llanbadarn Fawr Community Councillor confirmed that the Community Council had been approached with regard to some trees at Bronpadarn in January 2010, and had replied to Ceredigion County Council stating that "the Community Council has always been in favour of the preservation of the natural beauty of this area and was totally opposed to any works being carried out unless expert advice was sought and it was absolutely necessary for the safety and wellbeing of the trees and the general public using the public right of way." So it was even stranger that now many trees were apparently going to be felled.

One of the trees cut down

On Thursday 8th one of the local residents spoke to the relevant planning officer, Paul Evans (who deals with tree works in Conservation Areas) on the phone and on site. Paul Evans said he had met the contractors a few months ago and agreed that a number of trees could be felled and others cut back. Paul Evans confirmed that it was the landowner who had marked the trees with yellow for felling, and many more trees had been marked than had been agreed a few months ago. It appears as if the landowner is keen to get rid of as many trees as possible (see 'Laying out the course for destruction' below). Paul Evans had returned and spoken to the contractors, and said they could cut c. 10 trees, but definitely not all of the ones that had been marked.

If all the trees marked in yellow were to be felled then the woods would have become just a large open space. Mr Evans agreed, and also agreed to only allow the cutting of five more in total (rather than the plan for seven), followed by some small trees (below a certain circumference) as the landowner wished. It was agreed that although the trees might not be perfectly straight and manicured specimens, they were no danger to anyone, and they made a big and positive impact on the look and feel of the area.

However on Thursday 15th April at least one of the trees which Paul Evans had agreed should not be felled was cut down. It was a tree right in the middle of the space, so by removing it the whole feel of the area has changed. Why was it felled? This has yet to be confirmed. What else is going to be cut down?

Some of the complaints and suspicious happenings

No consultation or communication
Because there was no local consultation prior to granting permission, the Council was not aware of the strong feelings locals have about these woods. Although it is privately owned, the land is a de facto community woodland with a public right of way. Local groups regularly collect litter and clear the stream, and the area is well-loved by locals and dog walkers as a green haven, as well as having value for its nature and wildlife properties.

The controversy and confusion over this work in the woods could easily be avoided and ameliorated in future applications for tree felling and cutting in conservation areas if the Council consulted with locals and interested groups such as the Greener Aberystwyth Group and Caredig I Natur. At the very least they should post details of applications for tree felling on site, with actual detail of what has been asked for - not just saying to 'visit the Council to find out more'. In this instance it was only the eagle-eyes of one local resident that alerted others to the potential felling.

Further, as stated above, the Council did not reply to emails and phone calls on this topic that were obviously urgent and important to the callers. We have been informed that to date there are still outstanding communications - despite all the cutting in the wood, some people still have not been told what is happening, or had a reply to their questions to the Council. This is a very poor service.

Trees were felled and cut because of a nearby housing development - yet the planning application specifically stated that none would be
On Wednesday 7th April a large mature sycamore was felled. The tree was cut on the pretext of disease and safety to the house. However in terms of disease it turned out to be just a minor hole and the tree would have been fine.

And the 'house safety' claim was inaccurate and misleading. The planning application for that building was specifically only granted on the grounds that no trees would be cut - see extracts from the actual planning application decision below (application no. A080487, 'Conversion of old garage and extending along part of the footprint of the old greenhouse to form a dwelling, inclusive of forming a new path'):
"There is a tree preservation order in place on the dingle opposite the site and the site itself falls within a conservation area so that the trees within the garden area of the proposed dwelling are similarly protected."
"Llanbadarn Fawr community council offers the following observations
No trees should be cut down or removed as part of this development.
The development should not in any way affect the historical gardens and historic glass/green houses of Bronpadarn."

"The sensitivity of the site is also represented in policy in that the site falls within a designated conservation area and forms part of a garden that is included in the register of parks and gardens of special historic interest in Wales."
"One of the points raised by the objectors to this scheme is that the proposal would alter the ambience of the area at present, which is one of a secluded glade and dingle, to a more residential and urban feel. This indeed is a concern and is something which is reflected in the comments of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust with regard to the amenity area of the proposed dwelling which, if not controlled by conditions could soon become an enclosed urban garden which would be detrimental to the present ambience of the area and to the historical setting of Bronpadarn mansion."
"There is the apprehension that these protected trees (including the rare and exotic gingko biloboa) would be damaged and threatened both during the construction and renovation work, and subsequently once the dwelling had come into occupation. The application states clearly that no trees will be felled"
The Greener Aberystwyth Group were helpful and made representations too. As their Chair said about the original planning application: "The conditions are clear, notably numbers 4, 5 and 7, ie. the recommendations of the Tirlin Barr arboricultural consultants will be strictly observed, no mature trees to be felled."

Is it a coincidence that the sycamore would have cast a shadow over the verandah of the house Mr Fenton is currently having built in the woods? Either way, the landowner Mr Fenton had originally put in an application that stated no trees would be cut for the new dwelling; then later put in an application to cut trees because of the new dwelling. There is a discrepancy there.

Note the mature tree cut down on the left, and all the sunlight that now shines onto the new verandah on the right. Ironically, wood-framed.

The house being built by Mr Fenton, imposing itself on what had been secluded woodland. Compare it to what was there before: here and here.

Hack and slash at the wrong time of year
It is bad enough to hack away at the woods, but this work was done at the wrong time of year. There will have been nests in the undergrowth and trees which have been cut away. Also the undergrowth would have offered vital protection to fledglings - now it is all gone, leaving bare earth and woodchips, putting the fledglings in greater danger. This kind of work should have been done earlier or much later, not at such a sensitive time.

All the undergrowth has been stripped, leaving no protection for the soil. Note the tracks in the image on the right - the work was done by an industrial digger (seen being delivered on Monday 12th April), rather than sensitively by hand. Compare that to how the woods were a few days ago in the images below.

Purposely misleading signage
Note the Forestry Commission sign below, to make things look all official and deflect criticism. However it is misleading, since this work is nothing to do with the Forestry Commission, it is actually a private commercial cutting firm. They should not be putting up signage claiming that the work is being done for the Forestry Commission.

The sign says Forestry Commission Wales - but they weren't doing the work!

Update, 19 April: The Forestry Commission Wales Design and Interpretation Manager wrote back to us about this, saying: "I can confirm that whilst the contractor is displaying the correct industry sign warning about forestry operations, our logo and telephone number should not be on that sign."

Ceredigion County Council ignoring people's concerns
We are aware of a number of people, including some CIN writers, who even two weeks later have not received a reply to any of their urgent requests for information about what was going on. And now a number of trees have been cut down already, with more presumably to follow. This lack of courtesy and decision to ignore urgent messages is a disappointing failure on the part of Ceredigion County Council.

Laying out the course for destruction
The landowner, Mr Fenton, has put in many applications to build houses in these woods. They were turned down because of the simple fact that the developments would destroy the woodland environment. Now the landowner has put in a request to fell trees and clear undergrowth, and marked more trees than was agreed. Now that the work has been done the woodlands have been denatured to a great extent, and trees that had been instrumental in stopping previous applications have now been felled. One local described the area now as "looking like a bomb had hit it". Any intelligent person might conclude that by removing what had been obstacles to previous applications, the landowner hopes in future to be able to get a further application to build there through, which would destroy the character of this historic wood forever. After all, the objections to building in a wood are likely to be less when that wood has been hacked and chopped in this way and a significant number of trees are no longer there. It could be construed that it is in the landowner's interests to have as many trees felled as possible.

This could be easily prevented if the Council enforced a requirement that trees felled for safety or sickness reasons were replanted (with native species). This would prevent the landowner from making requests to fell trees with any kind of underhand motive - since in that case it would not help him with his planning applications if every tree felled was replaced. However any legitimate safety or conservation concerns could then still be acted on, so all would benefit. Only then are things taking place in the spirit of the Welsh Assembly Government woodlands strategy. If the felled trees are replaced with new ones and the undergrowth replanted then things can still be rectified to an extent.

Mr Fenton's contractors leaning fences against trees that have already been weakened by fire. This casts doubt over how safe the woods are once his planning applications are approved. No surprise bearing in mind previous incidents.

The cutting continues
As stated, on Thursday 15th at least one of the trees which Paul Evans agreed would not be felled was cut down, altering the feel of the whole woodland area. Why was it felled? Why was it felled? Was it dishonesty on the part of Ceredigion County Council (who promised it would not be cut), or ineptitude on the part of the contractors, or tree-rage on the part of the landowner? This has yet to be confirmed.

Update, 22 April: Paul Evans confirmed to one resident that the tree should not have been cut down - he had talked to the contractor and then marked trees to be felled with a pink spot. This was not one of them, and therefore it was a case of the landowner ignoring what was agreed with the Council and illegally felling trees.

The tree that was not to be cut - now just stumps and sawdust

Before and after
The cutting in the woods is apparently still going on. The woods before had been green and verdant - see some of the images here.

Update, 20 April 2010: See photos below.

Half of the public footpath being removed by Mr Fenton, completely altering the look of the path and forcing pedestrians to the edge of a steep ravine. Again there was no public notice that this was going to happen.

Bare earth - ground cover removed, exposing the soil to erosion

Bare earth - the ground cover that would have protected fledgling birds was removed by Canopy and Countryside

Note the central treestump - Paul Evans (Ceredigion County Council) had refused permission for that tree to be felled, but Mr Fenton and Canopy and Countryside cut it down anyway

Update, 2 May 2010: See photos below.

The old community woodlands being blocked off from the community by Mr Fenton. After he had cut down a large number of trees and had ground cover ripped up, what next? His many planning applications to build over this area may be a clue...

Rural woodland glade becomes an empty area bordered by industrial fencing

Note the damage done by Mr Fenton's contractors in putting up his ugly fences which are totally out of keeping with the conservation area

Wood nailed to a tree with extra-long nails - over time this can kill the tree

Sensitive woodland work? We think not. However Ceredigion County Council have done nothing about this.

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