THE London Mayoral candidate and MP Zac Goldsmith has said that he is “appalled” that Southwark Council diggers have started cutting down 12 acres of consecrated woodland without the permission of the community, or the diocese.
His letter to the campaign group Save Southwark Woods (SSW) came after reports that this month Southwark Council had “unlawfully” started felling trees in Camberwell Old Cemetery on One Tree Hill, a nature reserve in Honor Oak, to make way for a new road and 4800 burial plots. The first 740 plots were due to be excavated before the end of the year, but were delayed by the dispute (News, 1 January).
The council is required to gain permission from the Diocesan Chancellor before carrying out the plans — which involve removing thousands of gravestones — because the area is consecrated ground. It is also a Grade I Site of Importance for Nature Conservation. More than 700 objections were sent to the diocese from campaigners in November and December.
Mr Goldsmith, who is a signatory of the SSW campaign, said in a statement enclosed with his letter: “I understand the need for more grave-spaces in London, but it would be a terrible mistake to lose what has become a much loved local nature reserve in this old cemetery, and I strongly urge Southwark Council to think again.”
Campaigners are reported to have chained themselves to council diggers in protest after ten “mature” trees were axed to make way for a new drainage system across two acres of the woods, at the beginning of this month.
The Labour party MP for Camberwell and Peckham, Harriet Harman, has since written to the Council calling for “an expert on drainage and surface water” to produce a report on the current drainage system. She also said that the planning application was “not accurate”, as it did not show the number of trees that would be removed from the area.
A spokesperson for the diocese of Southwark said that since the proposals had been handed over to the Chancellor in November, the dispute was a legal one, and that the Church was no longer involved.
“The legal process for consideration of the Council’s Faculty application is in the hands of the Chancellor,” the spokesperson said. “We understand that the Chancellor has written to the Council asking for clarification on certain matters, including some which have been raised by Save Southwark Woods.”
Southwark Council has denied that the woods are being “unduly cleared”. Southwark’s Cabinet member for environment and recycling, Cllr Darren Merrill, said in a statement last week: “Put simply, our aim is to bring Camberwell Old Cemetery back into full use. For years now, sections of the cemetery have been fenced off and left in disarray.”
Cllr Merrill has previously maintained that burial space in Southwark will run out in 2017 if the plans do not go ahead. SSW says, however, that 73 per cent of those who die in the borough ask to be cremated, and so the new plots are an “unnecessary addition”.
SSW has called on its supporters to write to the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury in protest. On Sunday, the group held a candlelit vigil for the felled trees and for the dead buried beneath.
A spokeswoman for SSW, Blanche Cameron, said: “We are sad that we have lost the trees and people’s history and heritage in this first phase.”