Woodman, spare that tree: A draft plan to change the face of Hampstead Heath has eminent residents shooting from the lip. Helen Nowicka reports

It seemed reasonable enough - the Corporation of London, owners of Hampstead Heath, asked the public to comment on its proposals for the 800-acre estate's future.

Much of the document dealt with straightforward ideas such as encouraging native flora and fauna, and reducing vehicle access. However, the wider discussion was sidelined as attention focused on the suggestion that major tree clearance on East and West Heaths would return them to their 19th century appearance.

Faced with a barrage of criticism from north London's chattering classes, the Corporation emphasised that it was merely floating an idea, not announcing a policy.

This failed to satisfy critics who accused them of plotting 'botanical fascism' and 'vandalism'. As the debate raged around dinner tables throughout NW3, litterati and glitterati lined up to denounce the proposals, or to counter-attack with allegations of scaremongering.

On Monday the Heath management committee is expected to agree that any plans for 'significant' tree felling be dropped. Some local people are relieved, others remain unconvinced about the Corporation's intentions. Independent London spoke to the key players.

Desmond Wilcox - Television producer and author, married to Esther Rantzen:

We are privileged to live right on the Heath. Our front door is 10 steps from it and the views from our house are of trees. The mixture of woodland and open space is right as it is now.

Much of the Corporation's motivation was not only about managing the Heath but also cutting down grown trees in order to restore heathland to grass, because 100 years ago the Heath didn't have so many trees on it and had a view over the City of London. The plan was to restore that ancient view, but in our opinion it's not worth restoring because it's no longer the view of Wren spires it was. There is the Royal Free Hospital, which is appalling, then the NatWest tower and a whole series of monuments raised to Mammon.

I am opposed to the idea of major tree felling but it does seem that, as a result of quite a number of articulate people protesting about the original proposals, the Corporation has modified its position.

I appear to have angered Bill Oddie (Wilcox said he would sit in the path of any bulldozers used for tree felling) but I feel part of the process of becoming a Hampstead resident is to be 'beaten up' by Bill Oddie. Every area gets hot under the collar about its local issues, and Hampstead more so than most.

Bill Oddie - Broadcaster and conservationist:

A lot of people have been hijacked by the extreme brigade who have fed them total codswallop. It is not the case, and never was, that all the trees are going to be cut down.

There are a lot of conspiracy theorists, like OutRage] saying tree clearance was primarily anti-gay. I support the gay lobby but they are making themselves look stupid.

The irony is that people who call themselves conservationists say to leave the trees alone, but the real conservationists are saying we should thin the trees out and perform coppicing. Without management the Heath will deteriorate.

Considering what a big area it is, there is less and less diversity; in some parts it is so dark there are barely any wild flowers. Most of the public who go to the Heath would like to see more flowers, birds and butterflies. You gain something for the loss of a few trees. I would also argue for some specially designated wildlife areas where schoolchildren could go.

If the Heath management committee stick to their guns, and I hope they do, it is incumbent on them to explain what they are doing.

Paul Gannon - Hampstead Heath Defence Association:

We have been pretty much at loggerheads with the Corporation. We feel that the plans were not publicised properly, and that we contributed a lot in raising the public's awareness of what was happening. We estimated around 20,000 trees could have been felled if all the Corporation's suggestions were followed.

The Corporation appears to be taking account of people's responses, although we still have worries. There is some prettification going on which is ruining the illusion of being in countryside in the middle of London.

I don't think that increasing the diversity of butterflies is worth reducing the tree cover for - there are plenty of open spaces on Hampstead already. The tree cover and undergrowth provides a sanctuary for foxes, which reduce the rabbits. If the foxes go they will have to use ferrets. There is a tremendous diversity of wildlife on Hampstead Heath as it is. Only in London would the authority consider cutting down this unique woodland, in Paris it would be unthinkable.

A lot of special interest groups support different ideas, the butterfly watchers want coppicing because it encourages butterflies, the twitchers like Bill Oddie want more open spaces. Personally I would like more woodland but I'm not going to push for that.

Glenda Jackson - Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate:

I have had a lot of letters on this issue, not only from my constituents but from people around London, because Hampstead Heath is regarded by all London with great affection. The Corporation is genuine when they say they want to consult the public.

There has to be a balance struck in the management of places like Hampstead Heath, but we can't look with equanimity at the felling of trees.

I am not completely anti the idea of tree felling - some trees are a danger to the public. One doesn't want to contemplate a situation where everything became so sacrocanct that a child could be injured by a tree falling on their head. But what appeared to the general public to be a plan for the major felling of trees was unacceptable.

The Heath has to be managed, it has to be accessible. On the issue of whether trees should be felled to restore views, the general public say that's not what they want - their needs have changed.

Ralph Gaines - Head of conservation, London Wildlife Trust:

We don't support everything that the Corporation suggested in the management plan, such as clearing trees from West Heath, but we do support a reasonable number of their proposals.

We are pleased there has been an opportunity to comment and are delighted that the Corporation is drawing up a strategy for the Heath because it needs a long-term vision. There are dark and impenetrable areas of woodland where it is too dark for other plants to grow. There are areas of grass which, if left unmanaged, will become woodland. We want to keep the mosaic of habitats which there is now and encourage species such as bats, woodpeckers and butterflies.

For instance, if the grassland is managed properly it will encourage small mammals, which will provide food for tawny owls and kestrels. There are frogs, toads and newts which depend on proper care of ponds.

Dame Judi Dench - Actress:

I would never support the mass felling of trees. Some thinning out is fine but cutting down trees that are 150 years old is total nonsense, especially on the Heath. It is available as an area where you can go to forget being in London; it's a beautiful place. We live very near and when my daughter was young we went very often.

There is so much of the Heath I would have thought there was a cross-section of everything there already, and it should stay that way.

I have been following the arguments. I haven't had the chance to speak to Glenda yet about it, but I will.

Everything is being attacked now, with roads driven through conservation areas. It's a great pity. I think leave well alone.

Peter Tatchell - Of OutRage]:

We opposed the clearing of trees because of the threat to gay cruising and to the environment.

The plan to fell trees on West Heath, which for gay men is the equivalent of a heterosexual Lovers' Lane, was part of a much broader anti-gay agenda. This includes restrictions on nude sunbathing at the men's pond and heavy-handed policing of the cruising area. The Corporation gives the impression that it wants to drive gay people off Hampstead Heath.

The authority has said there will be no 'significant' tree felling, but what does that mean? Will they only cut down 1,000 trees instead of 5,000? Their assurance is flatly contradicted by their extensive clearance of undergrowth and shrubbery, which makes it more likely that members of the public might witness gay behaviour. It is also contributing to massive soil erosion.

If the Corporation succeeds in discouraging gay men from using the Heath they will go somewhere else, but it may not be so easy to locate them to hand out safer sex advice and condoms as currently happens with great effectiveness on West Heath.

Anna Farlow - Chairwoman of Friends of Hampstead Heath:

The Friends were formed in July by people who use the heath every day but didn't feel there was any organisation to represent their views.

We want a retention of the status quo. We accept the trees have to be managed but it is how they are managed which concerns us. The people we represent value the wooded area of the Heath, which is only about two-fifths of the total. They describe the trees as London's lungs and don't want to see them decimated. They are not idiots; they have seen the proposals and have made a decision.

The Corporation's plans were not interpreted as suggestions, but as them saying 'this is what we are going to do but before we do it let us know what you think.' It upset people a lot that they could be considering so much felling, especially the proposals to clear West Heath which is densely wooded.

The Corporation hasn't decided what it is going to do, as far as we are concerned it is not certain that there won't be widespread tree felling. We need to see definite plans and until we do we will give them the benefit of the doubt. Then we will make our representations accordingly.

Helen Marcus - Chairman of the Heath and Old Hampstead Society:

We want a management plan for the Heath, it has been neglected for too long. We are delighted that the City has come forward with a management plan and are in favour of most of what it says. The Corporation is the best manager the Heath has had.

The society was set up 100 years ago to try to protect the Heath and see it properly cared for. It is quite upsetting when people who don't know anything come in and misrepresent the situation. There has been no tree felling, the Corporation has not steamrollered anybody and it is quite clear that at every stage there was consultation.

Some people are saying, 'leave the Heath as it is' but that's impossible. For it to stay as it is it needs management. Nature is aggressive, any gardener will tell you that. If the Heath is neglected it will become impassable, there are already some paths which disappear into the scrub.

We are very distressed about what's been going on, principly because most of the adverse comments have been based on misinformation. These people are just looking at the trees, but Hampstead Heath has lots of different habitats. It's a heath not a wood, but that is what it could become if we leave it alone.

Douglas Woodward - Deputy chairman, the Corporation of London's Hampstead Heath management committee:

For the first time in history people living around Hampstead Heath were consulted about what should be done with it. That was the object of the management plan. As an individual I was extremely hurt that a number of people decided to hijack it and pretend we were in some sinister plot.

I deny strenuously that we have a policy to drive any people from Hampstead Heath. There have been allegations regarding the gay community which, as far as I can see, are totally unfounded.

The draft plan said quite clearly that it was a draft. Controversial aspects such as major tree clearance of West Heath were thrown up as possibilities, and the Corporation tended to accept that no change was wanted. Maybe we didn't emphasise that enough and suggestions were interpreted as statements of intent.

One of the problems of managing the Heath is that every policy upsets some people, while others want it.

On Monday I am sure our meeting will confirm that, from the responses we received, we should only be looking to do things where the public has been enthusiastically in favour. We aren't going for wholesale tree clearance: the removal of trees on West Heath; or clearing East Heath. These things have to be put aside because of the opposition.

On the other hand we have to continue managing the Heath and that means there's bound to be some selected tree clearance. The final strategy will only be decided when the revised plan has been consulted on and agreed next year.

(Photograph omitted)

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