Weeping willows on the Thames Path in Greenwich were condemned to the axe last night after councillors approved revised plans for new flood defences.

Plans to remove the 11 trees, just north of Morden Wharf, and raise the path originally went to the council’s planning board in February, but were deferred after councillors said plans to widen the path were not good enough.

Now the 11 trees will go and be replaced by seven new trees, while Landsec, the developer behind Morden Wharf, has agreed to widen the path to a consistent 4.5 metres. Currently the path is 1.5 metres at its narrowest point.

The path has been widened because the aggregates company Sivyer agreed to give up some of its land to allow more public space.

But a nearby jetty, which has been open to the public since the 1990s, will be closed permanently as part of linked plans to allow the Sivyer aggregates work to take materials from the river. 

The jetty was originally part of the Tunnel Refineries plant, which closed in 2009. Now a pair of covered conveyor belts will be installed and will run over the Thames Path. Both the flood defence works and the conveyor belts were approved by Greenwich’s planning board last night.

Objectors pushed the council to go further on the width of the path – pointing out that it is six metres wide through nearby new developments.

Greenwich Thames Path willows
The Thames Path is just 1.5m at wide at its narrowest point. It will now be 4.5m wide.

Patrick Ives, of the East Greenwich Residents’ Association, said: “The Thames Path is the main active travel route between the peninsula and Greenwich. The council has one chance to get things right.

But pressed by Majella Anning, a Creekside councillor, on whether more land could be taken from Sivyer to expand the path, Ed Koops of Landsec said: “This is safeguarded wharf – the Port of London Authority is keen to avoid precedents where developers can take land from safeguarded wharves. It’s also strategic industrial land, which is a [Greenwich] planning policy.”

The 11 willows are not protected so could be knocked down at any time.

Chris Lloyd, a West Thamesmead councillor, said: “I will miss those trees. I think what we’ve got before us, we’ve got a win for sensible challenge and consideration. We are going to need better flood defences but this represents as good as we’ll get.”

Councillors also approved the plans for Sivyer to take over the jetty, which would enable the company to switch some of its deliveries from HGVs to the river.

View of the River Thames from Morden Wharf roof
Sivyer will take over the old Tunnel Refineries jetty so it can unload aggregates. Credit: The Greenwich Wire

A resident from the Isle of Dogs, Ralph Hardwick, complained that the Sivyer works was causing “exceedingly bad air quality” across the Thames, leaving outdoor furniture covered in dust.

“We talk about trucks versus tugs, but tugs are deeply polluting. They have next to emissions regulations, unlike  HGVs, they pollute far more,” he said. I agree that taking trucks off the roads is a good idea but we shouldn’t introduce it onto the river.”

Questioned by Pat Greenwell, a Conservative councillor, the company’s head, Simon Sivyer, said that his operations were heavily regulated by the environment agency. “I’m aware of some of the subjective comments about emissions, but I refute them. We have a very sophisticated air quality monitoring system on site, the enture boundary is subject to a modern and extensive barrier with a water vapour system. We don’t want to impair our neighbours’ quality of life.” 

He pledged that the conveyor belts would be “fully covered”, and said: “Nobody comes to work to covered in dust all day.”

Seat on jetty in the Thames
The old Tunnel Refineries jetty has been open to the public since the 1990s (photo taken July 2022). Credit: The Greenwich Wire

Sheila Keeble, of the Greenwich Society, said that losing public access to the pier would result in “a significant loss of public realm in an area where there is a significant lack of open space”.

She said the plans would “compromise the Thames Path with conveyors for very little actual gain”.

“We have 150 vehicles, mostly HGVs, We’re going to switch some of that to  water transport which we think will  have considerable benefits,” Sivyer said, 

“To us, it makes great sense. Trucks are dangerous. We do consider water transport to be a safe, environmentally positive move. To my mind it’s essential that the safeguarded wharf is used and it’d allow us to work more easily with other businesses along the Thames.” 

Councillors were assured that the work on the flood defences and the conveyor belts would take place at the same time, but could take two or three months to complete with pedestrians and cyclists having to use Tunnel Avenue instead.