City centre audit is a small victory

May 01, 2007

URBAN Eden – the movement I started almost accidentally to promote a sustainable extension of the original masterplan for Milton Keynes – has had its first success.

We appear to have forced Milton Keynes Partnership to admit that it does not know what the situation is with the trees in the city centre.

While accepting that “trees will require removal”, MKP proudly trumpets that it has “recognised for some time that a robust programme of tree conservation and maintenance is required”. Such a pity that they’ve not done anything about it until now.

For MKP has appointed RPS Group plc, an international natural resources, land and property consultancy to conduct a full audit of the trees in Central Milton Keynes.

MKP does not know how many trees there are in the city centre nor what species they are nor where they are. It does not know the trees’ health or condition nor how many will need to be cut down to realise its unwanted programme to destroy the boulevards. It does not know how many we’ve already lost.

Urban Eden does know about the trees and we’ve told MKP on several occasions. We’ve publicised the numbers, the species and the locations. Maybe we’ve shamed them into action.

It is truly breathtaking that Milton Keynes Partnership has been acting from an apparent position of total ignorance. Did it hope, by not knowing the truth about what they were doing, to pull the wool over the eyes of Milton Keynes’ citizens? Did it think we and, indeed, they didn’t need to know what was really happening? Did it think that stakeholders had been consulted properly when the partnership couldn’t have known what its plans would mean in terms of our green environment?

This would all be risible if it were not too late for more than 1,000 trees and if the shadow of the woodsman’s axe were not looming over another 3,248.

Our experts have offered to share our data with RPS but it has refused. RPS would prefer to do this alone and, as a result, the audit findings won’t be available until later in the summer, by which time they may be academic for many more trees.

In the meantime, the chainsaws have been out elsewhere in Milton Keynes, this time at Junction 14 and the Northfield roundabout. According to one particularly eloquent member of Urban Eden: “What has been destroyed [here] was a carefully thought-out and integrated composition of road and landscape at one of Milton Keynes’ principal gateways. Every tree and shrub performed a role: to direct sight lines, obscure unsightly buildings, provide visual punctuation marks and to balance the visual impact of large areas of tarmac, signposting and lighting columns.

“In addition to the destruction at junction 14 and Northfield roundabout, mature pines have been felled in front of the DHL warehouse, which means that there is now nothing to ameliorate the negative visual impact of the rear of this building.

“The integration of highways engineering with landscape design is one of Milton Keynes’ greatest achievements and it is precisely the opposite that we now face here and elsewhere in the city. The separation of design responsibility and decision-making, where highways engineering overrides all other concerns, is one of the main reasons why many parts of Britain have become visually unsatisfactory.”

I understand there is no landscape scheme to replace what has been lost at junction 14 and a CCTV camera will be the proud visual centrepiece of Northfield roundabout to greet incomers to the ‘City That Thinks Differently’.

Urban Eden has some urgent questions for those responsible. But first here’s a bit about planning law (I’m learning fast). These are highway works and are within the limits of highway land. They are therefore likely to be considered by Milton Keynes Council to be Permitted Development, not requiring planning permission.

The works would only require planning permission if an Environmental Impact Assessment was required. However, as they are Schedule 2 works, the question of whether an EIA is required – which it would be if the works result in significant impact(s) – is up to Milton Keynes council as determining authority to consider.

Permitted Development rights are lost if an Environmental Impact Assessment is required.
Was there a Screening Opinion to confirm the view of Milton Keynes Council planning that this is Permitted Development and that it did not require an EIA? If so, where is the public record of this decision and the basis upon which it was made? Indeed, is there in existence a document outlining the council’s policy in relation to PD rights and has this policy been properly applied in this case?

If not, did such Screening Opinion demonstrate no significant impact and that an EIA was not required? In which case how could the council ignore not only the considerable visual impact but also the pollution impact?

However bad those aspects are, many may consider the environmental impact of even greater significance. We are well into the nesting season, which officially started on March 1, and trees, scrub and woodland should not be cleared unless an ornithologist on site advises that there are no nesting birds in each area to be razed.

More alarming, there is a badger sett close by within the Scots pines immediately to the south of Junction 14, documented in an EIA submitted in December 2005 to both the council and Milton Keynes Partnership for the Brooklands development between A5130 and the M1. Surely the council is aware that the habitat of badgers is protected and no development is permitted within 30 metres of an active badger sett unless Natural England / DEFRA have granted a licence.

Please chew on these questions, Milton Keynes Council. We look forward to your answers.

Love Milton Keynes, Love Urban Eden. Cheerio.

For more information, visit www.urbaneden.org
Theo Chalmers is managing director of Verve Public Relations. Tel: 01908 275271 or visit www.vervepr.co.uk

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