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Poet Zephaniah roots for tree activists

Last-ditch bid to prevent environmental loss as part of housing development near Highbury Corner

02 October, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Benjamin Zephaniah and the trees at Dixon Clark Court that are set for the chop

CELEBRATED poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah has joined the widow of an environmental campaigner in a last-ditch effort to save a group of ancient trees from being felled by the council.

A sign has appeared near the mature trees just off Highbury Corner alerting residents that work to cut them down will begin on Tuesday.

It comes after planning permission was granted for a nearby development which will provide 41 homes, two-thirds of which will be let at affordable rates.

But award-winning writer and performer Mr Zephaniah this week backed efforts to save them from the chop.

He said he remembers sitting under the trees “with a group of other poets before a gig in a pub nearby”, adding: “People really need homes, but people really need trees. No trees mean no people. So, we must find ways of building homes and preserving as many trees as possible.

Conor McHugh, pictured with wife Brenda and daughter Jessamine

“I know those trees at Highbury Corner, and I really can’t see why the they can’t be allowed to stand alongside this new development. In time the people living in these new homes will love those trees as much as we do.”

Brenda McHugh is hoping she can convince campaigners to gather one last time to try and save the ancient chestnut, sycamore and Norwegian maple trees at Dixon Clark Court after her husband Conor spent the last months of his life fighting to save them.

“As soon as I start hearing those trees going down it will be like the day he died,” she told the Tribune. “Let’s come together one last time to try and stop this.”

Mr McHugh passed away after a sudden heart attack earlier this year.

Protesters have previously climbed the trees in order to protect them

The 73-year-old started and led the campaign to save the trees last year as he went around his neighbourhood with a petition to raise awareness. Eventually hundreds signed up and scores of protesters held regular demonstrations.

Throughout this period the council has insisted that the loss of the trees will be balanced with newly planted saplings and that it is necessary in order to build more homes to ease the council’s housing waiting list.

Ms McHugh said: “I fear we may have lost the battle of the trees, but maybe we have won the battle to change the council’s approach to planning. I don’t think there is any reason we can’t have both social homes and the trees.

“I think the council have set up a false dichotomy.”

Town Hall housing chief Councillor Diarmaid Ward said: “When building new homes difficult choices sometimes have to be made about removing trees. The council does not take the decision to remove trees lightly; a thorough assessment is made of each tree before permission is given for removal and the council pledge to always replace more trees than are removed.

“At Dixon Clark Court, although 18 trees will be removed to enable us to build these much-needed new homes, 12 will be replanted on site and a further 15 trees will be provided off site to help replace canopy cover.”

He added: “Further, as part of the council’s commitment to clean up the air we breathe, the Dixon Clark Court scheme has a number of landscape improvements including wild grasses, a hedgerow and indigenous plants, which will help to promote local wildlife as well as combating the effects of air pollutants.”

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