Things already look brighter on the Black Path

A fortnight ago WHL asked, How can you help lighten the Black Path?, ending with an invitation to come and help start sorting it out. Those of you who use the Black Path will have seen the difference, for the rest of you, here’s what happened next.

A group of West Hampstead residents, fed up with having to duck under overgrown foliage every time they used the Black Path, turned out on Bank Holiday Monday with secateurs, shears and loppers in hand to tackle the problem. They started at the worst section, a proliferation of ivy towards the Thameslink station. After two hours of hard labour we turned this:

Before ...

Before …

into this:

... after!

… after!

Aside from the satisfaction of sorting out a local problem, highlighting the issue has generated other benefits. Former councillor John Bryant got in touch to say that the path is in fact the joint responsibility of Camden Council and Network Rail, and that they tackled the issue a few years ago. It seems that the institutional memory had been lost. Someone from Network Rail also got in contact to offer help reaching the right person.

Many hands did indeed make light work

Many hands did indeed make light work

While we were working, many passers-by were delighted this was being sorted out, and in fact most helped too. Each was asked if they wouldn’t mind carrying a bag (or two) of green waste to the collection point at the Bloomsleigh Street end. They did, and by the end there was 43 bags of the stuff!

43 bags full, sir.

43 bags full, sir. Image: Penny Liechti

There is still more to be done, so a second sessions is planned for September to tackledthose overhanging shrubs. If you want to join us please email .

Tree debate moves to Network Rail

If anyone still sent actual letters, then the local back-and-forth about the chopping down of the trees on and near the Ballymore site would have accounted for a small copse all by itself.

Mercifully, it’s only been everyone’s inboxes taking the strain as councillors, concerned locals, residents associations, the Neighbourhood Development Forum, council officers and the developers have been trying to establish clarity on the subject. The one group conspicuous by its absence from these discussions is Network Rail and yet it is in their hands that the fate of many of the remaining trees rests, along with the views of many future West Hampstead Square residents.

One of the issues seems to be that it’s not easy to determine from the ground (without access to the building site), precisely which trees are on the Ballymore land, and which are on the railway embankment by the Overground lines and owned by Network Rail.

These must be Network Rail trees, right?
(photo via Candice Temple)

This story first came to light about six weeks ago, when it appeared that Ballymore was going to cut down all the trees on its West Hampstead Square site. This was in line with its planning permission, but there had been some hope that a small handful of trees might be spared.

One communication from Camden, which followed a meeting between a Trees and Landscape Officer and Ballymore, says “The large sycamore at the top of the site and trees at the other end of the site can and will be retained.”

If this is the case, then this is already better news than we had back in August (if you’re in the pro-tree lobby). Ballymore has planning permission to cut down all the trees – although the report it’s using does suggest that some could be spared.

If Ballymore does the right thing and saves the trees it doesn’t need to remove (and plenty of eagle-eyed locals will be watching very carefully), then the issue then becomes the trees that fall outside the Ballymore footprint. These are Network Rail trees and are highly likely to be removed when the new station or access point from West Hampstead Square is built.

Neighbourhood Development Forum member Mark Stonebanks manage to dig up the document that summarised the key themes that emerged as the views of participants in the main public consultation for West Hampstead Square. It dates from July 2011, and says: “The development should retain the existing trees along the boundaries of the site where possible to help soften the proposals”. It even includes a direct quote: “People won’t mind the height so much if there’s a lot of green grass and organic things growing up the building.”

There was a brief flurry of interest on Friday when it appeared this might open up a loophole to save more trees, but the document states clearly that this is simply a summary of participants’ views, not something the developers should adhere to.

Another school of thought suggests Camden hasn’t enforced its own planning guidance to Ballymore, citing one sentence: “Ensure appropriate relationship to adjoining open space and ecological corridors and provide new open space”. Again, it strikes me this is all open to interpretation. What’s an “appropriate relationship”? Nor is it saying Ballymore must provide its own ecological corridors.

If it is indeed correct that Ballymore is able to retain a handful of trees on site, that is good news. If it can now be persuaded to engage with its development partner Network Rail to protect as many of the trees that are in the line of fire when the new station is built, even better.

Remember these are trees that screen the railway lines from the expensive flats and if you think it’s just quiet London Overground trains on those lines, think again. Tomorrow alone, 24 freight trains are scheduled to use that line between 6am and 8pm. If I’d paid north of £700,000 for a 2-bed flat with a balcony on that side of the building, I think I might expect a few trees between me and the freight trains as I sat outside with glass of Chablis and farmers’ market goats cheese.

Who’s saving which trees now?

The saga of the Ballymore trees has been clogging up my inbox over the past week or so. It feels like there’s some confusion as to which trees it is exactly we’re all hell bent on saving. What’s becoming clear though, is that Network Rail is likely to be the destroyer or saviour of the trees that really matter.

In my article the other day, I focused on the trees at the westerly end of the West Hampstead Square site, which were the ones assessed as being in the healthiest condition – the ones that didn’t have to be felled.

Campaigners have (more optimistically?) also been arguing that the trees nearest the Overground station on the other side of the site should be kept. They got a reply from Ballymore’s construction manager Peter McCall, which was fairly clear on both:

“Our development will require the removal of the trees along the track side as it is extremely unlikely that the trees if left in place would be viable with the proximity of the new development.

The trees which you were most concerned about will not be affected by our development but it is our understanding that these are to be removed in conjunction with the improvement works associated with the station itself. These works will be under the control of Network Rail / LUL”

Those last two sentences are really the important ones. If we accept that the trees on the Ballymore site are doomed (I for one have no plans to chain myself to them), then perhaps it’s worth turning to the trees off the site.

What’s also interesting is that Ballymore appears to be using some of the “offsite” trees in its West Hampstead Square marketing pitch. See those trees at the top of the picture below? They would seem to be trees that are now in danger of disappearing. “A natural place to live“, says the caption, not “Panoramic view of freight trains“.

This takes us back to an entirely different conversation during one of the early public consultation meetings about this proposal. Here’s what I wrote in November 2011 following that meeting, along with an artist’s impression designed to show how the large tower blocks would be all but invisible:

“[the developers] argued that the trees that flank the site (none of which are actually on the site and thus their long-term future cannot be guaranteed) give adequate screening for the larger buildings, although the photographs that tried to prove this were taken before the leaves began to come off the trees – they said they would be taking pictures again in winter”


I’m not sure whether those winter picture ever came, and you’ll notice that even then I pointed out that as Ballymore didn’t own the trees in question, it was not really their place to guarantee their future. Bear in mind, however, that Ballymore is in partnership with Network Rail so it’s not without influence, and there is that marketing pitch to its wealthy buyers (it issued the first press release today ahead of sales formally starting this weekend – studio flats start at £405,000).

Does Ballymore really want flats that look out over train lines, or would some nice mature greenery be more in keeping with that neighbourhood vibe it’s plugging hard?

It would be fantastic if Network Rail (or whoever owns the land, which can be harder to determine than it should be) could already begin building in tree preservation, or at the very least replanting, into their plans for the redevelopment of the Overground. Here’s an area where our (up-for-election-next-year) councillors should weigh in and discuss the matter with Camden planning officers early.

As a reminder for them, there’s been a strong “green spaces” lobby at most local planning-related meetings over the past couple of years. The placeshaping document published by Camden last year says: “Existing green ‘chains’ and habitat corridors along the railway tracks and existing sites of nature conservation… are highly valued by residents and need to be protected and enhanced.”

So, who’s going to stand up for the trees? Local councillors? Camden planning officers? Ballymore? Or is it going to be down to locals to make a fuss.

Related articles:
West Hampstead Square: All trees to be axed
West Hampstead Place Plan progress report
187-199 West End Lane: The Ballymore proposals

West Hampstead Square: All trees to be axed

West Hampstead Square, the Ballymore development on West End Lane, is still in the site clearance phase. The trees on the site will be removed very soon, but at least one group of residents wonders whether such drastic measures are necessary.

Removing the trees was all part of the original planning application, so it’s not like people weren’t warned. However, with a focus on building heights and overall design, less attention was probably paid to the fate of the trees.

This overlay shows a section of the site. The grey dots are the trees that will be removed and underneath you can see the foliage that forms part of the raised gardens for each block and trees along the access road. Click to see the full site image.

There are 32 trees on the site, according to the tree survey that was carried out two years ago. All were rated category “C”. This means that they are deemed to be of low quality or value.

Here’s the map of all the trees from the survey. Click for the large version. The trees that some locals think could be spared the axe are those to the north on the Overground railway border, which form a screen, and those at the far west of the site, which the survey suggests do not need to be removed

Looking west: taller trees to the left could be retained.
These are G1-T5 (see below)

It is of course hard to dispute the experts’ view without some experts of your own. However, it is worth looking at the detail of the text (although it does appear to be confusingly contradictory) [my emphasis].

Considering the trees collectively, they form something of an intermittent visual screen between the railways and the site, but due to the proximity of the trees to the railway lines and to walls and fences, their safe useful life expectancy is unlikely to be great – for the most part less than 20 years.

It may be possible to retain a small number of trees such as G1, G2, T3, G4 and T5. G4 has the potential to grow significantly larger as do many of the other sycamores. Coupled with their poor form they are best removed and replaced with more modest landscaping proposals, consistent with the shape and size of the site.

In line with the proposed scheme plan (Appendix A), this assessment suggests that all trees other than G1-T5 will need to be removed; whilst theoretically some further tree retention could be attempted the benefits arising from such tree retention are considered to be small in relation to the costs and difficulties arising.

The main message seems to be “remove everything”, with all but five trees needing to be removed and those five “best removed”. Those five trees are all at the very far end of the site, so would have no impact on the screen from Iverson Road.

There’s been a strong “green spaces” lobby at most local planning-related meetings over the past couple of years. The placeshaping document published by Camden last year says: “Existing green ‘chains’ and habitat corridors along the railway tracks and existing sites of nature conservation…  are highly valued by residents and need to be protected and enhanced.”

Not a lot of protection going on here.

Sycamore trees on southern boundary as of June 2012
(from Google StreetView)

The document also says,

The railway embankments are important parts of the green chains and biodiversity corridors in this area particularly due to the number of railway lines that pass through this area. It is important to ensure that these are protected and enhanced, particularly where developments are proposed alongside the railways.

The Council are also seeking to encourage partners, such as Network Rail, to ensure these lands are actively managed to ensure they help support the biodiversity of the area as a whole and work together to improve the missing green habitat link

WHGARA, the residents association for the area south of the site, has contacted Camden to see whether a stay of execution might be granted so that not all the trees are lost. After all, it points out, although the new development will have some green space (see map below, click for large version), the vast majority of this will not be of much benefit to non-residents, or even visible to them.

 Camden’s response:

This part of the railway embankment does not form part of the railway corridor open space or nature conservation designation.

There will be a number of trees planted as part of the redevelopment proposals and a number of other biodiversity enhancements such as living roofs and new landscaping. The overall balance of tree and other planting was considered and accepted … as part of the planning permission.

To me that reads like a “we’re not even going to look into this” answer, and I suppose the argument is that this was all in the public domain first time around and was passed so what’s the point.

Aerial view before demolition began (via GoogleMaps)

This leaves the tree defenders with one (not tree lined) avenue left – appeal directly to Ballymore to retain those five trees that its own survey said have the “potential to grow significantly” and do not need to be removed. Failing that, at least Ballymore will know that locals will be carefully matching up the trees that are eventually planted with those that appear on the map to make sure there’s no shortfall.

Full overlay of existing trees and proposed new trees