Lewisham residents are fighting against a developer after dozens of trees and saplings were removed from a nature conservation area.

Willow Tree Park Stables sits in Grove Park in Lewisham and was historically used to teach children how to ride horses.

However, locals now claim that the landowner has ordered diggers to come and remove greenery from the site, with scores of trees removed, though Lewisham Council said it understands they were dead, fallen or too small to be protected.

News Shopper: The site as seen with construction diggers present. (Credit: Friends of Willow Tree Wetlands Community Group)The site as seen with construction diggers present. (Credit: Friends of Willow Tree Wetlands Community Group)

Barry O’Donovan, 64, has lived beside the stables for nearly 23 years. He said that the site served as a ‘lifeline’ to locals for about 50 years, but the stables were closed by the current owner seven years ago and he claimed the site has suffered a lack of maintenance ever since.

The resident claimed mattresses, gym equipment and plant pots have all been dumped on the site and that the owner’s contractors have done little work to remove the rubbish.

News Shopper: The site has reportedly had issues with fly-tipping for years. Permission for use by all LDRS partners. Credit: Joe Coughlan

Mr O’Donovan told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “Rather than removing rubbish, they seemed to deliberately push it into large piles to make it look unsightly and to make it look like housing would be more attractive here.”

The landowner, Aim Land Limited, sent an application to Lewisham Council in 2019 to replace the existing stables with a new barn, stalls and track around the perimeter of the site for riding.

Planning documents from PWA Planning, on behalf of the applicant, said the site included a large amount of overgrown trees and several dilapidated buildings.

Debbie Noel, 50, has lived beside the space for seven years.

She said locals had concerns that the hard landscaping from the track and new car park in the plans would make future applications for housing or commercial projects on the site more likely.

She told the LDRS: “The concern was that once they’ve already got a hard standing surface, you’ve then basically got coverage to build whatever you like in ten years’ time because if you stuck up a tower block, you’ve already done the damage.”

Lewisham Council refused planning permission for the project sent by Aim Land Limited in 2020.

Ms Noel said children have since started using the site as an area to cause mischief due to the lack of monitoring.

She said: “They were doing what kids do, but a lot of people had been setting fires. I saw someone cooking up a steak in there once. You hear about this site and there’s no cameras, no one’s looking.”

The local said fires on the site had become so frequent that residents last month asked for the owner to arrange for the flammable buildings on site to be removed.

However, Ms Noel said that three weeks ago, construction vehicles on the site started clearing away most of the greenery on the land while leaving the old buildings untouched.

She said: “The issue is that they haven’t communicated with us at all about what they’re doing here, what their plans are. All it would take is a letter through everyone’s door.”

Lewisham Council documents from February 2020 state that the area was a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation and that a Tree Preservation Order was made on the space in 2012.

Mr O’Donovan said locals have been contacting the council on the issue and trying to encourage the authority to take the site back into public ownership.

He said: “Lewisham’s own policies say that they are going to increase biodiversity and the number of trees but there’s been a serious reduction here.

"What does it matter if Lewisham has said they’re going to increase the number If they’ve overseen the chopping down of hundreds of saplings?”

A Lewisham Council spokesperson told the LDRS that it has asked the landowner for an ecological method statement on how protected species and habitats are being accounted for during the current works.

They added that there is currently no evidence of protected species being harmed and that an abatement notice was served to the owner on Wednesday (February 14) to prevent excessive smoke from burning rubbish on the site.

They said: “We understand that the trees which have been removed were already dead, had fallen as a result of adverse weather conditions or were not large enough to be covered by the Tree Preservation Order.

"The owners have been instructed to provide details and proof of this which the council will assess. In any case, the owners will be legally required to plant new trees to replace the dead/fallen trees.”

Kevin Crangle, 57, has lived in the area for 12 years. He said he is worried how the current project will affect local wildlife.

He told the LDRS: “They’re just going overboard now. I saw them ripping up healthy trees last week and crushing them up into skips. It’s just unsightly… I got woodpeckers coming into my garden on a daily basis and since this work has started, they’ve now disappeared.”

Local resident Ben Donaldson, 41, added: “Yet again our local green spaces are under attack. The current Willow Tree Wetlands clearance is especially egregious given the priority habitats [that are at risk of being destroyed] and importance of the site to the planned Railway Children Urban Park.

"The developers, AIM Land Limited, are showing total disregard for one of Lewisham’s most prized conservation areas.”

A Lewisham Council spokesperson told the LDRS: “We have carried out an extensive number of site visits in the last week to investigate the works taking place, which primarily involve the clearing of rubbish and debris.

"The land is protected as an area of Special Interest for Nature Conservation and a Tree Protection Order is also in place – it is vital that any works taking place do not negatively impact on wildlife and habitats on the site or violate the Tree Protection Order.”

They added: “We will continue to engage with the landowners to ensure they are complying with the planning protections in place and have requested that they keep the council, local residents and ward councillors up to date with the works they are carrying out moving forward.”

PWA Planning, on behalf of Aim Land Limited, was approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.