The Tooting chainsaw massacre: Angry backlash over plans to fell row of 150-year-old trees

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One of London’s most historic rows of horse chestnuts is set to be felled because it poses a “public threat” — but campaigners claim there is nothing wrong with them.

Wandsworth council plans to chop down 54 trees on picturesque Chestnut Avenue, which has graced Tooting Common for up to 150 years. It claims they are dangerous due to old age and disease. But one of Britain’s leading tree risk assessors says almost all are perfectly safe.

Local MP Rosena Allin-Khan claims the council is being “economical with the truth about the health of the trees” and more than 5,000 people have signed a petition against the planned “chainsaw massacre” of the avenue, which was first planted around 1870.

Protesters behind the Stop The Chop campaign have threatened to chain themselves to the trees. London town halls have cut down tens of thousands of street trees in recent years. Campaigners say council chainsaw gangs are stripping leafy areas to cut management costs. 

Chestnut Avenue is popular with joggers and cyclists, and Tooting resident Sadiq Khan who said he takes his daughters there. This month Lonely Planet cited the common as it named Tooting one of the world’s top 10 coolest neighbourhoods. Stop The Chop spokeswoman Francine Forde said: “This is health and safety vandalism.”

Council criticism: Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (PA)

One report commissioned by Wandsworth found almost all the 67 chestnuts in “good” or “fair” condition. Another two reports by tree risk assessor Jeremy Barrell say they are surviving the bleeding canker disease the council has claimed is killing some.

Mr Barrell, a columnist for Horticulture Week, said: “I inspected the trees this month and I would stake my professional reputation on there being no valid reason to fell them.”

He calculated they are worth up to £187,000 each and £2.6 million in total as public assets. “Some are 150 years old but the bulk are younger and have the potential to live another 50 to 100 years. No more than two or three of these trees are dead or dying and need to come down.  The rest are perfectly safe. With normal pruning, they pose no more risk than any other mature street or park tree in London. The council is hiding behind a health and safety excuse.”

​Wandsworth plans to use £45,000 out of a £1.4 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant awarded to improve the common to fell the trees and plant new ones.

Ms Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, said: “The council’s wish to cut down this beautiful avenue was motivated by money. Because a grant to fell and replace the avenue was available, the council thought it could save a quick buck rather than use council funds to properly maintain and preserve it.”

Wandsworth denied this and said it would “create another great avenue for future generations” by planting 62 new trees: “Sadly … the great trees move into old age with some dying and many more requiring severe pruning as disease and decay mean they can no longer safely support heavy limbs.”

Another report commissioned by the council, by Kim Gifford of Gifford Tree Service, concluded the avenue was in a “dilapidated state”. He wrote: “It may be appropriate to consider complete avenue replacement.” A tree on the avenue collapsed last year and one was removed on safety grounds this June.

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