by Fiona Moore
Our beloved Thames Path willows will stay – for now. The work to save them isn’t over.
A proposal to fell the graceful row of willows along the Thames Path north of Morden Wharf went to Greenwich council’s planning board last week. It formed part of a plan to redo flood defences.
After questioning from councillors and objections from EGRA, the Greenwich Society, Greenwich Greens and individuals, the board voted unanimously to send the proposal back for a two-month reworking, to explore options for saving the willows and widening the footpath.
This story started with waste company Sivyer, who rent the area behind the wall on your inland side as you pass the willows. Sivyer applied to remove public access to the big jetty and bring in barges to offload construction debris. They claim this would reduce their filthy lorry traffic, but the debris would travel on two conveyor belts over the Thames Path.
Over 140 public objections were sent in, citing danger, noise, dust and loss of trees.
The site as it is now, outlined in red:
Then it emerged that the flood defences are deteriorating. The landowners, property developers Landsec / their subsidiary U+I, need to rebuild the revetment; their plan includes felling all the trees and slightly widening the footpath. Greenwich planning officials recommended this to the board. But their paper belittles less tangible factors: the environmental and recreational value of the path, the beauty of this rare green stretch, lack of tree cover in East Greenwich, and local residents’ views. No recognition that this iconic national footpath is now much walked, cycled and photographed.
The willows are categorised as ‘low quality’, ‘unremarkable’ – an act of verbal vandalism, perhaps to make real life vandalism acceptable?
Luckily a tree expert who works with Natural England was in the room. He’d been down to have a look. Only three of the 11 willows, he said, might damage the revetment. Most looked good for some years yet. When will planners stop calling saplings ‘replacements’ for mature trees? These ‘replacements’ are a meagre row of six in boxes on the top shelf of a new, layered revetment: white and grey willow and osier, of which only white willow would grow to a substantial tree. No weeping willows whose low fronds make lovely reflections in the water. (Previous papers said boxed-in trees would be unstable and need coppicing.) Lower down the revetment, blackthorn and alder buckthorn bushes would be planted, at the mercy of Uber boats’ wash that’s ruined the reed-beds downstream.
Officials had the nerve to write: ‘the green character of the existing application site is considered to be maintained’.
Maybe they were misled by their own presentation’s CGI picture (below) of the future riverfront, showing the Sivyer site bursting with imaginary trees – that’s all the trees behind the wall. They were told off in a running gag of sarcastic questions.
As for the narrow footpath, widening would be welcome. But the plan limits itself to between wall and river, too narrow for good practice, with a dangerous 2.34m pinch point at the bend. Sivyer and various authorities would have to be consulted to move the wall inland, because their site is protected for wharfside activities. So no-one tried. Would U+I and the planners sacrifice our public realm for an easy life? (Para 13.13 of document 22/3460/F.)
East Greenwich residents say: Sivyer have already encroached beyond their back boundary so let’s take something off the front!
Council officials and U+I were visibly unhappy with the vote. To be fair, they have a difficult job satisfying everyone from Port of London Authority to Environment Agency. But that’s no excuse for a plan that treats our treasured path like an industrial back alley. Why were they so far from understanding how councillors would react?
Several councillors including Peninsula ward’s David Gardner and chair Gary DIllon asked questions that officials and developer struggled to answer. Perhaps planning officials might change behaviour if the new board, in place since May 2022, continues to show its teeth.
The planning department reportedly suffers from low morale and high turnover. How was the young official managed, who presented the plan? Did anyone coach him that the letter of planning law is not sufficient? Surely the top role of our expensive Greenwich chief executive is to lead and manage the staff. Is she value for money? Are senior Greenwich planners practising what they preach?
Anyone who’s walked the Thames Path westwards, on either bank, will know the infuriating lack of access to the riverbank – 80’s & 90’s developments with exclusive river fronts, a legacy of Thatcherism yet also of Labour councils. In Greenwich in the 2020s, public access is mostly good.
Our section is in transition from industry to national trail. The planning board postponed Sivyer’s request for jetty and conveyor belts, which depends on the riverbank repairs (and may be linked to Silvertown Tunnel waste). Councillors did mention the pitfalls: conveyor belts rattling overhead, potentially leaking poison dust or even masonry, above a path with cyclists, pedestrians, pushchairs… This already happens at the waste site downriver beyond the Yacht Club, though with lower footfall and wider path. Once there was industrial activity all round Greenwich Peninsula, some of it scary, and few path users; now, overhead conveyors look like a dangerous anomaly.
Sivyer are not popular locally. Unlike modern waste processors they work outdoors without proper precautions for potentially harmful dust, in a now densely inhabited area. They pile stuff up above the footpath wall. This may flout height limits – imposed to stop excess weight damaging the embankment!
Everyone agrees the river bank must be secured. U+I, ordered to act by the Environment Agency, said their plan would cost £3-4m. (Landsec made £875m profit before tax in 2022.)
There’s got to be a risk they will return after two (or more) months wringing their hands, claiming there’s no other viable solution. Or they offer cosmetic changes.
What could or would the planning board do then? A cynic might claim the board’s vote of resistance was for show. We and other local groups will stay with the issue. Watch this space.