A Hollywood star, an aristocratic photographer, a millionaire philanthropist and others from the great and good of one of the most select neighbourhoods of London have become embroiled in a dispute over the future of a chestnut tree.
They talk, supposedly, of nothing else in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Dustin Hoffman and Lord Snowdon are among those who object strongly to the proposed plans of Vincent Meyer, the president of the Philharmonia Orchestra, to develop his £6.5m mansion which could imperil a tree that has been happily growing in his back garden for decades.
They made their representations when Mr Meyer, who is Swiss, put forward planning applications for renovations, said to cost £4m, that would have included chopping down the 70-year-old tree, forcing the council to take out a tree preservation order.
Now, residents fear, the construction work at the site threatens to kill the tree's roots, amid counter-claims that the the tree is shutting out light and undermining neighbouring properties.
The residents' concern has been intensified by the demise of another tree in the area that led to celebrity protests earlier this year. A 100-year-old horse chestnut was cut down in Bury Walk, Chelsea. Among those angered on that occasion were the designers Theo Fennell and Anoushka Hempel who had business premises but did not live on the road. Mr Fennell said, "The entire neighbourhood is feeling bereft" while Ms Hempel said: "The council does not care about trees. Sometimes they fine builders but what does that matter when the extra footage the builders have achieved by knocking down the trees is worth so much to them?"
On this occasion, the council says, all they can do is try to ensure that Mr Meyer does not break their tree preservation order. "We are keeping a close eye on the old chestnut. We shall see if it is abused," a spokesman said.
Nick Eden, the technical director of the Arboricultural Association, said: "We have got reams and reams of correspondence on this. This is, however, a rare occurrence in this borough. The fine imposed for the destruction of the tree can be twice its value and it could also be one tenth of the value of any construction that replaces the tree. It also carries a criminal record. But the chances are that the penalty would be imposed on the contractors rather than the homeowner."
Yesterday, a neighbour of Mr Meyer whose grandfather Andre was one of the founders of Lazard-Freres bank, said: "This is a highly emotive issue around here. We are all very upset this tree may disappear. It is nothing personal, but he must understand the culture of this neighbourhood."
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