As I write this, a huge, beautiful old sycamore tree is being unceremoniously chain-sawed to the ground in Oxford city centre. Why? To make way for a monstrous gleaming new shopping centre so that, according to the Council, ‘our retail and city centre economy can be viable into the future.’
This is despite a chap called Gabriel living up the condemned tree for the past 10 days. Rather heroically, I should add, because it’s been cold, wet, windy, and the powers-that-be have been preventing anyone getting near him to deliver food or water - even arresting someone for ‘intent to litter’ as he attempted to throw a bottle of water up to Gabriel…
The hardy tree-sitter has caused a lot of local interest, and on Saturday, I took part in an unexpectedly exhilarating pro-Gabriel protest. Local people - many of whom just happened to be passing - took spontaneous direct action to prevent the public park next to the tree being fenced off in preparation for its felling.
A front-line of 20 teenage kids - first-time protesters with asymmetric haircuts, skeleton gloves and ‘save the tree’ hastily scrawled on their faces with black eyeliner - faced off a handful of unsuspecting cops and some bewildered workmen. Once a tangle of people had lain down directly in the way of the fences, the TV cameras had turned up, and a crowd of hundreds had gathered to watch the spectacle, the Council relented and took all the fences down again! It was glorious to behold - see some great photos here:
The joy of our little victory has turned to gloom today, now that the tree is being reduced to a pile of wood chips. But the protests against the proposed shopping centre will continue, because for many of us, the tree was largely a symbol, representing mindlessly destructive economic development at any cost - even at the cost of the planet.
Plans to build the offending shopping mall have been fought at every turn by Oxford’s Green councillors. According to one of them, Matt Sellwood:
‘The proposed expansion of the Westgate shopping centre will be a disaster for Oxford. It will be a disaster in terms of its environmental impact, its housing implications, its effect on the local economy, and for the quality of life of anyone living in the city centre. It is, in short, the worst decision the City Council has made in my term of office.’
So it was with the weary sense of déjà vu that I discovered that the ‘principal anchor store’ (‘stocking more than 350,000 separate lines!!’) in Oxford’s controversial new cathedral of capitalism will be none other than John Lewis, a company which prides itself on its ethical business practices.
The John Lewis Partnership make some pretty big claims in their 2007 Corporate Social Responsibility report:
‘The importance we attach to our environmental and social responsibilities is embedded in the DNA of the Partnership. We are able to make long-term decisions in the best interests of partners, customers, the environment and the wider community because we do not have to answer to external shareholders. We aim to reduce continually our impact on the environment through the way we source our products, build our shops and run our business, and we remain committed to supporting the communities we trade in.’
I wonder how ‘supported’ the Oxford residents who are currently fighting the demolition of their homes to build this new store are feeling? The unluckily-located street of houses consists of specially-adapted accommodation for disabled, elderly and vulnerable people. I expect they’d like to hear from John Lewis how the razing of their homes fits in with their claim that ‘when we build new shops, we work closely with…community groups to find out the views of local people, from the time of choosing the site to the shops opening, ensuring that we integrate shopping within the town or city and maximise its attractiveness to residents.’ Find out their views and, in this case, then ignore them, presumably?
And how exactly does chopping down around 40 other perfectly healthy trees (planted to keep the City’s air cleaner), going ahead with the decision to build despite no viable plans for how the new mall will be served by public transport, and being the ‘anchor store’ in a brand new development that will get only four per cent of its energy from renewable sources, tally with the John Lewis commitment to ‘act now to reduce our contribution to the causes of climate change’?
It seems to me that if they want their highly prized caring-company credentials to survive, John Lewis should pull out of this deeply unpopular scheme until it can be shown to at least meet the spirit of their own stated standards.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against local development, nor the enhancement and refurbishment of public spaces. To paraphrase one of the activists of Saturday’s protest, nothing would please me more than to see the current concrete monstrosity bulldozed to the ground and replaced by something greener and more appropriate to the needs of the local community. But the whole scheme, as it currently stands, stinks and is exactly the kind of endeavour that we should be avoiding as our towns and cities face up to the challenge of making the transition towards a low carbon future.
So we may have lost a majestic old tree today to the follies of infinite economic growth. But I’m pretty sure locals are going to carry on taking this lying down. Lying down, that is, in the way of the tree-choppers, bulldozers and diggers of dangerously dirty development. Bring it on!