A planning application to cut down 25 elm trees from ‘one of Europe’s last elm tree tunnels’ to create a farm access road along Braaid Road in St Marks was debated in the House of Keys this morning amidst multiple protests, a petition and national media attention to opposition to the plans.
Environment Minister Geoffrey Boot had previously said that he would engage with the landowner to seek a different solution to their access problems and reiterated this during the contentious debate, adding that there was nothing else he could legally do now as nobody had objected to the application in the official window.
He said: ‘No appeal was made within the 21 day period, Malew commissioners had interested party status and I understand Mr Cregeen [MHK for Arbory, Castletown and Malew] did bring it to their attention but they declined to appeal. The only way to set aside the decision is either by a petition of doleance which examines procedure rather than principle, or negotiations with the applicant.’
When asked about an inaccuracy around field report numbers on the application, Boot said that this was not enough to question the process as the plan made it clear which site was affected. His comment that ‘most people don’t know what field numbers are anyway,’ was met with groans from the public in the packed chamber who converged on the sitting after protesting outside.
There were also concerns raised by various MHKs on the presence of protected bats in the trees to which Boot replied ‘that may be something we could use to delay the process,’ as well as other apparent inaccuracies in the process, although the planning officers and overall process were defended by the Minister.
The issue was brought into the spotlight last week after the Manx Wildlife Trust posted about ‘the felling of one of Europe’s last elm tree tunnels’ on their Facebook page, which was called ‘sensationalist’ by Mr Boot. The Trust’s post, which designated the trees as ‘internationally important,’ spurred a petition on change.org which, so far, has garnered over 37,000 signatures.
Douglas Councillor Devon Watson, who started the petition, said outside Tynwald: ‘The response has been a great display of community action… we have to protect the island’s environment over interests of wealth, it doesn’t just belong to landowners, it belongs to all of us.’
Since the Trust brought up the issue, it has also gained the attention of The Independent and BBC nature presenter Chris Packham who called the plans ‘an absolute disgrace’ and shared a letter which he wrote to Martyn Perkins MHK, Chairman of the Planning Committee, saying ‘in this current situation of biodiversity loss and climate change we should be doing all we can to retain what we have.’
The outrage had culminated in two protests over the last few days with hundreds gathering at St Marks on Saturday and again in front of the Tynwald building today, both organised by the ‘Protect the St Marks Elms Positive Action Group’ who are calling for the plans to be halted.
One protestor, Katharine Watling of Ballaugh, said: ‘This situation shows that we and our politicians need to think more about climate change in general on the island.’
Similarly, Jenni Smith of Douglas said ‘Considering the island’s Biosphere status, it seems a little on the nose to be cutting down 100 year old trees, who are we to decide that they deserve to come down.’
Whilst he was unable to provide a conclusion today, the Environment Minister said that his meeting with the landowner on Friday will hopefully provide a satisfying conclusion for all involved.