Developer ignores poplar demand

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The Independent Online
IT WAS not the promised air-raid siren that woke us up yesterday morning, but the incessant whirr of a police helicopter.

The eco-protesters down the road from our house in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, promised that when the bailiffs came to evict them we would be roused by a klaxon. In the end, it was the drone of a police surveillance unit, just hovering and watching, that shattered our tranquillity.

All winter, along with our neighbours we have given money and signed petition forms in support of the eco-warriors trying to stop the felling of 56 poplar trees in a public park adjoining the River Thames.

The issue was simple: Fairclough Homes had built luxury townhouses on the private land behind the trees; in order to sell them as having "river views", down the trees had to come. The local council, in a fit of madness, agreed; and down they must come.

These are trees in Canbury Gardens, a quiet, peaceful stretch of river bank close to Kingston town centre. My children play there. Stand in my road and look towards the river and the trees are there, where they have stood since anyone can remember, a splash of nature amid an encroaching urban landscape. Not for much longer.

Yesterday, at an estimated cost to the local council of pounds 500,000, a huge police and security operation swung into force. Its target was our heroes, people who have made us feel embarrassed and more than a little ashamed these past few months; who, while we cosied up in our warm, snug homes, were prepared to camp out, to live in tree houses, to dig tunnels, to save our poplars.

Not their trees, notice - most of the protesters are not from Kingston, but are veterans of similar campaigns at Newbury and Manchester Airport. This one, though, is different: those efforts were about stopping a road and a runway, which at least would be used by everyone; this is about saving some trees so that some well-off people can have a better view.

The madness that has gripped elsewhere yesterday descended on our own patch of suburbia. At first light, a flotilla of police and security guards in rubber dinghies sailed up the Thames and landed on the area where my five-year-old likes to play football.

Joined by back-up support - "120 police and 140 private security", said Kingston under-sheriff John Hargrove, in charge of the operation, proudly - they erected security fencing all around. The public river walk was cordoned off, nobody could get near the trees.

Then they started the slow, laborious ritual of hauling the protesters out, one by one. In all, seven people were arrested. More, surely, will follow, as they begin the serious task of clearing the tunnels and bring in the "cherry-pickers" to get them down from the trees.

These events have their own rhythm and strange, twisted, language. Everything was being done for our "safety" and the safety of the protesters, we were told. They kept saying it over and over again. But we were not consulted. Nobody asked us what we thought about the trees; nobody listened when thousands of local people signed a petition asking they be saved; nobody wondered if we minded paying for yesterday's insanity.

Behind the guards with eyes too close together who looked as though they had been bussed in for the two or three days of the clear up, stood a security man brandishing a video camera. When asked what he was doing, he said he was filming because they liked to learn from each protest, to get it right next time.

And there will be next times - for our own safety, of course.