Hornchurch residents face down diggers to protect beloved woodland

A woodland off of Copthorne Gardens is under threat

Left: Freya and Alice O'Neill play in the woodland off of Copthorne Gardens in 2020. Right: Residents block workers trying to chop down trees. - Credit: Left: Chloe O'Neill. Right: Sarah Salvage.

Hornchurch residents stood in front of diggers last week, in an effort to save a “lovely” woodland.

But the Romford Recorder has learned that the landowner will now renew a prior attempt to develop the green belt site, off of Copthorne Gardens.

A planning consultant said the path to building the development may have been eased by the government restricting Havering Council’s planning powers.

However, permission has not yet been sought and the council is investigating whether the works on Saturday, March 6, breached a Tree Protection Order (TPO).

The landowner said he believed he had done nothing wrong.

What happened? 

“It’s a lovely piece of woodland,” said Suzanne Hatwell.

Her house in Copthorne Close faces the site. So does her neighbour Sarah Salvage’s.

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“I walk through it all the time with my kids,” said Sarah. “Particularly in lockdown, we walk through it daily for the trees and the wildlife.”

Woodland off of Copthorne Close

A photograph of the woodland last spring, during lockdown. - Credit: Claire Thacka

But now, said Sarah, “it’s devastated". 

"They turned up at about 8am on Saturday with two diggers and chainsaws and just flattened everything," she said. "It was panic stations. We all came out of our houses. People were stood in front of the diggers.”

Having fended off prior plans to bulldoze the land for housing, residents were aware of a TPO covering the site. They called the police.

Officers attended, a Met Police spokesperson confirmed, but decided, "the trees were being cut down legally... No further action was taken.”

Before long, councillor Bob Perry was on the scene, along with David Godwin and Laurance Garrard from the Havering Residents Association.

“We got the council enforcement officer down there, who confirmed the TPO and ordered them to stop," said Cllr Perry. "But by then, most of the place had been destroyed.”

“I really support our local police, but I feel really let down,” said Suzanne. “I’m looking right now at a tree sliced in half. You can’t superglue it back together. They just didn’t want to listen to us.”

Councillor Bob Perry

Emerson Park councillor Bob Perry arrived on Saturday to find residents 'standing in front of the bulldozers'. - Credit: Bob Perry

A ‘prime candidate’ 

The last proposal to develop the land was in 2017, when consultants DHA Planning wrote to the council on behalf of then-owner Terry Clemence, saying it could accommodate 30 to 40 new homes.

“This site is a prime candidate for development,” they wrote. “[It] would not be intrusive or out of character”.

But the council blocked the plan, saying the “exceptional circumstances” required to develop green belt had not been demonstrated.

This week, new owner Richard Clemence told the Recorder that his brother Terry had since died, leaving the land to him.

Asked about his intentions, he referred the Recorder to a planning consultant, Chris Burton.

Diggers clearing a woodland at Copthorne Gardens in Hornchurch.

Diggers on the site on Saturday. - Credit: Sarah Salvage

“Mr Clemence’s intention would be to develop the site,” confirmed Mr Burton. “I believe we will see an application for nine self-build units. It feels to me like quite a useful infill development for an authority that’s struggling in their housing target.”

The Recorder reported last week that after delivering only 36 per cent of its three-year house-building target, Havering Council’s planning powers had been curtailed by government, making it harder to reject planning applications.

Asked whether he felt this would aid Mr Clemence, Mr Burton said: “It would impact any planning application across the borough.”

He said there was a “small connection” between the felling of the trees and the intention to develop the site, but added that Mr Clemence had received a letter from the highways department, asking him to trim some trees.

He said Mr Clemence would seek to "formalise" public access and leave a "maintained public space".

Woodland clearance at Copthorne Gardens in Hornchurch

A photograph of the Hornchurch woodland being cleared on Saturday. - Credit: Sarah Salvage

The Council

Havering Council confirmed it had asked Mr Clemence to “trim back” some overhanging trees, which had been “affecting lorries during their waste collections”.

However, it did not say it had asked Mr Clemence to cut trees down.

Residents claimed the overhanging trees were in fact untouched, despite others being felled.

"I think the works were stopped before they got to those," said Mr Burton.

A council spokesperson said: “An officer visited Copthorne Gardens on Saturday morning after residents alerted us to trees being cut down.

“After assessing the situation, the officer asked the contractor to stop work, which he did.

“The land is subject to a 1987 TPO and we have since issued a new order while we carry out an investigation.”

Tree Preservation Order at Copthorne Gardens

Havering Council has displayed a new Tree Preservation Order on the site since Saturday. - Credit: Sarah Salvage

“The position of the landowner is that the TPO wasn’t breached,” said Mr Burton. He said he did not believe the trees chopped down on Saturday were covered by the TPO.