Network Rail jeered at angry meeting over Whitstable tree felling
A PUBLIC meeting descended into chaos as angry residents repeatedly shouted and jeered at staff from Network Rail, which wants to chop down trackside trees.
At least 100 protesters arrived at Whitstable's Umbrella Centre on Thursday to try to persuade rail bosses to leave the trees alone, or at least wait until after the bird breeding season so nests, eggs and chicks were not destroyed.
However, Network Rail's local maintenance manager, John Burrows, revealed trees would be felled on Wednesday, May 16 and said letters would be sent to residents the day after the meeting.
He said: "We will be removing selected trees that are having a drying impact on the embankment. This is not a complete clearance. About two-thirds of the trees will be removed."
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
One of the youngest campaigners, seven-year-old Maya Mills, read a letter at the meeting, which she asked Mr Burrows to give to Network Rail chief executive David Higgins.
The hand-written letter concluded: "I have two special friends, a little wren who sits on our fence and a robin, like the one in the film Secret Garden. Please don't take their homes away."
Tempers flared as it became clear the small function room Network Rail had booked for the meeting was not big enough, and people were forced to stand in the corridor or outdoors where they could not properly see or hear presentations and speeches.
A woman in a bright scarf shouted: "Why do you talk about trees as if they are inanimate objects? Don't you understand that without trees you would have no air to breathe?"
An elderly woman from Cromwell Road said: "If we have a derailment and there are no trees the train will tumble down the embankment and into our gardens."
Mr Burrows said: "I can give you categoric assurance there's not expected to be a derailment."
Another Cromwell Road resident said she had been trying to get Network Rail to cut back a tree near her home for years and described the company's safety policy as "inconsistent."
Howard Farmer, of Suffolk Road, asked if Cromwell Road residents would be compensated for loss of privacy, additional noise and devaluation of their properties caused by trees being cut down.
Mr Burrows said no.
A man from Railway Avenue said: "You give us enough notification when you do track work. Why have you got it in for the trees?"
A young man asked: "Do you have a licence to kill birds?"
When Mr Burrow said the company was not killing birds he was met with a loud chorus of: "Yes you are!"
Cries of "shame on you" could be heard from the back of the room throughout the meeting.
Campaigner Julie Wassmer opened the meeting by quoting MP Vince Cable describing Network Rail in 2003 as having "a complete absence of environmental sensitivity and a complete absence of public consultation." She asked what had changed today.
She added: "I would like Network Rail to know it has underestimated the power of a community that has come together with a combined purpose."
Environmental surveyor John Ford described the threatened trees as a "wildlife corridor" containing many endangered species that is a vital tool for bringing adults and children closer to nature.
Mr Burrows said it was not company policy to release the results of an Environmental Impact Assessment which he assured residents had been carried out. But he agreed to find out when it was done and by whom.
His colleague Glen Brown added that Natural England had been consulted.
Mr Burrows said: "Network Rail policy is for the safety of the travelling public."
Network Rail chartered geologist Simon Abbot said Kent's soft clay soil was susceptible to shrinking and swelling as the seasons change, and that this was made worse by vegetation.
The movement of a railway embankment, he continued, caused the track to bend and could cause a train to derail.
He concluded that, in addition to obstructing drivers' views and dropping leaves on the lines, "trees are dangerous."
Mr Burrows admitted to one Network Rail failing.
He said: "One thing we have not done as well as we could have done is communicate with all of you."
PJ Taylor, head of national news at Network Rail, said: "I think the meeting was constructive. We made it clear what we needed to do and we said we would be responsible. We are always open for having meetings like these."
Speaking after the meeting, Miss Wassmer said: "The meeting hasn't altered anything. The whole thing was a mockery. I can understand why residents were angry, I was angry myself.
"We are awaiting official notification that the trees will be cut down on May 16, and in the meantime we are looking into making a Freedom of Information request to get the results of the survey and talking to lawyers.
"I have had hundreds of messages of support since the meeting. This isn't going to go away for Network Rail."
RSPCA spokeswoman Klare Kennett said: "The simple fact is, they are not allowed to cut trees down when there are birds nesting in them. If they do they could face prosecution. The residents should report it to us if they see this happening."
The RSPCA's Cruelty Line number is 0300 1234 999.