The cherished willow trees on Greenwich’s Thames Path should stay in place a little longer after a decision on rebuilding flood defences at Morden Wharf was deferred last night.
Landsec, the developer which owns the site, had submitted plans to fell the 11 trees and replace them with six new ones as part of plans to shore up the riverbank against the increased risk of flooding.
But while the Thames Path was due to be widened under the proposals, Greenwich councillors objected to plans to widen a pinch point from 1.5m to just 2.34m, saying this was not wide enough in an area popular with cyclists. One resident branded the plan “pathetic”.
The scheme is linked to a proposal to expand a facility for Sivyer, which deals with construction waste. It wants to reuse an adjacent jetty to expand a waste transfer station – which it says will take many lorries off local roads – but the proposal cannot go ahead without the improvements to the foreshore.
Council planning officers had recommended the plans be approved. But in scenes reminiscent of a high-pressure TV game show, Gary Dillon, the councillor who chairs the planning board, offered Landsec’s representative the chance to defer the application so the pinch point could be looked at again, along with the level of tree cover.
Malcolm Hockaday, the planning director for Landsec’s subsidiary U+I, eventually agreed to a two-month delay to attempt to find a solution.
The 11 willow trees, which sit by a small sandy beach, have formed a local landmark for decades. They are not protected under law and could be removed at any time without having to ask for permission.
Landsec says that the retaining wall is “degraded and a failing flood defence”, and that it is being damaged by trees that will be dead in ten years.
Hockaday told the meeting that the weeping willows had been planted 40 years ago by a caretaker who still looks after the trees today. “They weren’t planted very well, so several trees have fallen into the river or across the Thames Path,” he said.
The work had been ordered by the Environment Agency, Hockaday said, and included raising the height of the river path so it would meet flood threats until the year 2100.
While residents and councillors complained about the loss of the trees, Hockaday said the Environment Agency would be likely to object to any plan to build the path outwards to protect them.
But it was keeping the pinch point on the Thames Path relatively narrow that angered both. At present there is a blind bend on a 1.5m path – and while this would be widened to 2.34m, that is below the 3m recommended by Transport for London.
Greenwich Council would be “failing in its duty” to address an “unsafe” section of the path, said Patrick Ives of the East Greenwich Residents Association. “This is our once in a lifetime change to get this right,” he said, calling on the planning board to throw the scheme out.
Sheila Keeble of the Greenwich Society called the proposals “pathetic”, adding: “A chance to make substantial improvements to a national trail with thousands of users has been thrown away.”
Hockaday said that while the Environment Agency would object to building the path outwards, there would also be issues expanding the path inwards to further widen the pinch point, as that was owned by Sivyer and had protected status as a wharf.
“It means taking land from someone with the right to use it and it’s safeguarded land – there’ll be trouble with the Port of London Authority and the landowners one way, trouble with the Environment Agency the other,” he said.
Hockaday admitted that the possibility of widening the path further had not been considered. He added: “We don’t really want to do this. We don’t want to spend three or four million on a revetement because it’s fun, we’re doing it because the Environment Agency says we have to do it.”
David Gardner, a Greenwich Peninsula councillor, said that the linked jetty development “would be a big leap forward” because it would “reduce the huge number of Sivyer lorries around the area”, and suggested that Hockaday withdraw or defer the application so look again at the path issue and tree cover, suggesting that trees be planted on Sivyer’s land.
Dillon put the question to Hockaday, throwing him in the spotlight. But there was no phone-a-friend moment to help the developer, as other key parties – the Environment Agency and Sivyer – were not present.
Hockaday said that after three and a half years of planning, he was nervous that “it might take another year to get Port of London Authority agreement. We might have the Environment Agency objecting. I do not believe it’s a simple ‘go away for six weeks and sort it out’.”
Dillon responded that council officers would also be involved in an attempt to solve the issue.
Finally, and faced with the possibility that councillors might reject the plan, Hockaday yielded. “We will take a deferral of two months to find out whether we are going to get there,” he said.
Councillors are now set to reconvene in the spring to decide on the application – although they will also be left asking why their own planning officers recommended such a poor solution for the Thames Path in the first place.
In September 2021 U+I won planning permission to build 1,500 new homes and towers of up to 36 storeys in the southern part of Morden Wharf on the casting vote of the former chair of planning Stephen Brain. The company was sold to Landsec a few months later and the site put up for sale.