So how did Seven Dials and city politics suddenly start revolving round a single tree? Looking back over the past few months and the past week’s excitement, I think I can see how we got here.
During the consultation process, what caught many people’s eyes was the proposal to block road access from Vernon Terrace. It became a focus for objections, and in due course was dropped. At the same time, the scheme as a whole provoked furious opposition from a group of people living to the north-west of the Dials who objected to every aspect of it they could think of, and launched a campaign based on their fear that the scheme would increase traffic in their streets. With all this going on, nobody was paying the tree much attention.
Although a number of meetings took place during the consultation, it was essentially a one-round process. The planners revised the scheme in the light of public responses, but not in the light of responses to the revision. The proposed felling of the elm was announced at the meeting in St Luke’s Church at which the planners presented their response to the consultation feedback. One man did bellow that he wouldn’t stand idly by while a magnificent English elm was cut down, but by that stage there had been a lot of bellowing, jeering and abuse in response to one aspect of the scheme after another. The elm still didn’t stand out.
Things went quiet after that – until the schedule of works was published. It pushed the elm right out in front, the felling timetabled as the preliminary to the road works. If the council had started by digging up the road, the works would have been the natural target for the objectors’ complaints. Instead, the schedule presented them with the tree as a focus for their resentments.
The demonstrations were only called a few days before the advertised felling date, and for several days were a protest against it – a ‘vigil’ to mark the tree’s death – rather than a campaign to save the tree. By delaying, possibly as a tactic to avoid confrontation, the council gave the protest time to snowball into the ‘Save Our Tree’ campaign.
Then late on Wednesday afternoon, Caroline Lucas turned up and, in the nicest possible way, pulled the rug out from under the feet of her fellow Green Jason Kitcat, local councillor and Council leader, with her call to suspend the felling for further consultation. A few hours later, Tom Druitt (who had apparently been planning his action for some time before the ground-level protests) and Stephen Hendry went up the tree. There, at the time of writing, they remain, in an uncomfortable position, but not half as uncomfortable a position as the one they and Caroline Lucas have put the council in.