Campaigners are guarding two healthy oak trees 24 hours a day in a bid to stop Southwark Council from chopping them down.

The trees in Sydenham Hill Wood in Dulwich, thought to be 155 and 115 years old, sit on either side of the western end of a footbridge on Cox’s Walk – the council says they must be felled so the bridge can be repaired.

But campaigners, who have been guarding the trees for a week and have racked up more than 5,000 signatures on their petition to save them, say it is “not inevitable” that the oaks can't be saved and felling them is an “active choice” by the council. 

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The bridge, built in around 1865 so people could cross over the railway line, fell into disrepair after the line was decommissioned in the 1950s.

It was closed in January 2020 because the timber superstructure had rotted for the third time since 2000. 

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A council assessment in 2018 found the bridge was in a “hazardous condition”, but posed no risk to the public “provided works to fix the problem were carried out within 18 months”.

Southwark gave itself planning permission to fell the trees in January 2019.

The Save the Footbridge Oaks Campaign was launched as a result and has produced an alternative proposal for the bridge repairs – it argues the trees could be saved by using hand tools instead of bringing large machinery into the woods.

Southwark rejected the proposal, estimating it would cost half a million pounds, though it has not provided a cost breakdown.

It says the design put forward by the campaign “requires further detailed work, which would further delay the works by a minimum of 12 months, with no certainty that the alternative design is viable or affordable”.

It also says “any lengthy delay to the refurbishment works would lead to further deterioration in the woodland environment and the footbridge potentially adding to repair costs”.

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The council commissioned infrastructure company Conway and is set to spend £232,000 on the works.

After a public outcry it looked at alternatives to felling the oaks but concluded that they were too expensive or unfeasible.

A warning notice was recently put up in the woods saying the council could find “no viable solution” to save the trees.  

On November 16, the day the work was set to start, two men arrived with a chainsaw, but campaigners fended them off by refusing to move out of their way.

One of the campaigners who stopped them said it felt “very threatening” and “intimidating”.

The Labour member, who did not wish to be named, added: “It’s a Labour Council, we’re supposed to be aiming to work with nature now […] this to me is not in line that policy.

“Conway is quite capable of doing a bridge like this – they’ve got the expertise – without knocking down two trees. It’s a farce.”

She said the council has declared a climate emergency but “just pay lip service to it”.

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Campaigners say the council has been “reluctant” to work with them.

“The council claims that its proposal is better value than ours.

“But it has inflated our projected costs by 100 per cent to cover for ‘risks’ although our engineers and arboriculturist report answer many of these, and we have repeatedly offered to work with them to mitigate the risks and achieve cost certainty,” a spokesperson said.

They want interim repairs done to allow for more time to work on an option that would save the trees.

They say this would save money at a time when councils are under severe pressure, and questioned whether it is “appropriate” to spend £232,000 on “repairing a woodland bridge during a financial crisis”. 

Pennie Hedge, who launched the campaign, said she doesn’t “understand why the council has been so dismissive of our alternative repair which saves the oaks and keeps the bridge”.

“Why do they prefer to cut down trees with a Capital Asset Valuation of Amenity Trees (CAVAT) value of over £240,000 rather than sit down and talk to our engineers?

“Not only will the felling of these oaks be a loss of rich habitat, which just gets richer as they age, but their removal could lead to increased soil movement that could destablise the repaired bridge.

“And the oaks are not the only casualties.

“Unprotected trees, saplings and the undergrowth will all be cut back for them to gain access to the cutting, and it will take years to make good afterwards,” she told the local democracy service.

The council planted more trees, and agreed to plant more, but campaigners argue they will not replace the environmental value of the mature oaks.

Cllr Catherine Rose, Southwark council’s cabinet member for leisure, environment and roads, said the council must “spend public funds fairly and wisely”.

“There is also the risk associated with delaying this scheme for another year and the impact this would have on the woodland,” she said.