New Internationalist

Taking it lying down

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!

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  1. #1 Danny 15 Jan 08


    Thanks for this - the Westgate expansion would be such a disaster for Oxford on so many fronts. As the details of the plan have become more public, there's been growing outrage at how the whole thing was shunted through the planning process, and loads of public support for the protests - there were crowds of shoppers cheering at the fence demo, and even the usually-conservative "Reader Vote" on the Oxford Mail website came out in favour of the tree-sitter (

    I'm as surprised as you are that John Lewis would want anything to do with this development!

  2. #2 P. Vernon 15 Jan 08

    I welcome this blog

    This blog is a great idea and it already mentions many of my thoughts. I know many people who would agree with your ideas. The Council(s) and businesses of Oxford need to recognise that climate change is a real threat with floods already hitting us more often. My home was almost flooded twice last year. More shops and carparking will increase Oxford's CO2 emissions, leading to increased cliamte change. The world's poorest countries have already begun to feel the worst effects of climate change.
    Building a huge new shopping centre, and carpark, is a huge waste of money (£330 million), energy and resources. Most of the shops that would be set up in such a shopping centre are not 'sustainable' local businesses. They will be more outlets of huge multi-national corporations who don't care about Oxford. They provide us with lousy 'McJobs' and take their profits out of Oxford. They are part of the problem not the solution. According to the British Retail Planning Forum (1990) when a new supermarket opens an average of 270 local jobs are detroyed.
    I had heard good things about John Lewes's, and am frankly quite amazed that they would be involved in the disastrous plans to rebuild the West-Gate centre in Oxford. The new West-Gate will involve the destruction of the sheltered housing on Abbey Place, and the death of over 40 trees. Three of the trees have been cut down already.
    I hope John Lewes's are willing to rethink their involvement, and instead act in harmony with the local area, the Abbey Place residents and the planet.
    Mr. P. Vernon
    Psychologist, Artist and former Lollipop-man

  3. #3 miriamjangles 15 Jan 08

    Well said Jess! I was there

    Well said Jess! I was there too on Saturday, and spoke to several dozen people, trying to gauge the feeling. of all of them, only two were in favour of the development as it stands, all the rest were horrified to hear of what was to happen to their town, and particularly the trees. The general feeling was that they had not been consulted as clearly as they should have been, and that the decision to go ahead was rushed and un-democratic. They were also concerned that environmental and communtiy issues, such as the trees and the housing had not been considered... from what you say, I'm sure John Lewis will also be horrified!
    The two who objected to the protest did so on the basis that they felt people were standing in the way of protest... but surely, in this day and age, with environmental concerns THE key issue, what is planned flies in the face of progress... COME ON JOHN LEWIS.... LEAD THE WAY INTO TRUE PROGRESS AND LIVE UP TO YOUR ETHICAL REPUTATION ... COME UP WITH AN ENVIRONMENTALLY AND COMMUNITY SENSITIVE WAY FORWARD... that's the only way I'll be shopping there!

  4. #4 Thea Goldshmidt 15 Jan 08

    The battle for Bonn Square

    The battle for Bonn Square was not only for the tree, it was also against the privatisation of our public spaces; an assertion that our land should not be bought and sold for commercial gain.

    What do we get in return for the sacrifice of irreplacable trees that saw in both the 20th and 21st centuries? Bland corporate chains that suck the life out of local shops, CCTV to monitor our every move, more cars clogging up our small medieval city. And the sort of samey-samey concrete jungle that many cities around the country have turned into.

    We are living on the bring of peak oil, and on the brink of a potential economic collapse. Our greed for cheap econsumer goods and cheap flights are also exacerbating climate chaos - cutting down our main life support (trees) will always be a bad plan.

    The Westgate Partnership has already demonstrated that it doesn't take trees seriously. The ball is now in John Lewis' court: they can stop this crazy development - especially if they want to keep up their environmental credentials. And then instead of shopping hell, we could concentrate on improving the areas with more houses and develop green public spaces.

    And when the diggers come rolling in, I - among with others - will be there to stop them.

  5. #5 miriamjangles 17 Jan 08

    Transition from the dying collective

    The transition from the dying collective body of the past to the coming into being of a future (social) field is based on shifting the inner state on which the individual and collective self (Self) operates. While the self in the old collective body is imprisoned by the patterns of the past, the self in the generative social field functions as a holding space for a future possibility to emerge and manifest. The shift from the former to the latter is like an inversion of the self.
    An example of the inversion process at issue here is the sculpture “7,000 Oaks” by the German avant garde artist Joseph Beuys. Like the process of authentic grounding, “7,000 Oaks” is a time (based) sculpture. It deals with two fundamentally different streams of time: one that emerges from the past, and another that emerges from the future. Accordingly, the sculpture goes through a process of transformation in which the old body dissolves and dies while another body of life is coming into being.

    - the initial form of the sculpture, a gigantic heap of 7,000 basalt stones in an arrow-shaped column. At the top of the column was a single stone next to a single oak tree, which Beuys planted at the official unveiling of the sculpture in Kassel, a city in northern Germany. Beuys’s vision was to disassemble the column of 7,000 stones piece by piece, pair each individual stone with an oak tree, and plant the tree/basalt pairs throughout the greater city. In its initial form the sculpture was just a column of stones (sculpture 1), but in its final form it had morphed into the greening of a city (sculpture 2). The transformation took five years and the work of many volunteers. The last tree was planted during the opening of the next “Documenta” (an exhibition that takes place once
    very 5 years) in 1987, after Joseph Beuys himself had passed away. The transformation from sculpture 1 to sculpture 2 is a perfect representation of the inversion process (Umstülpung): a process in which one body ceases to exist in order to allow a new living field to come into being.

    (c) Otto Scharmer (

  6. #6 Monica 29 Jan 08

    good for you Jess - I totally agree!

    Good for you Jess - I totally agree! I MUST eventually go to an OARC climate meeting soon! Hope the tree protests will have an effect as so many people - whether townies or gownies, old or young, UK or from overseas - agreed with the peaceful protest about the totally pointless destruction of the tree & the overhaul of Bonn Square - they can't just stop people from shooting up or drinking by destroying it. I hope future generations will be more aware of the effect of greedy corporations. I'll try & vote Green in the next election as I know Peter Tatchell agreed with the protesters - am sick to death of the council sleaze which seems to have a lot to do with the Lib Dems in this case.

  7. #7 Simon Norton 27 Feb 08

    As someone who has lived in

    As someone who has lived in Cambridge for nearly 40 years, let me say that "the other place" also has its problems! I do not feel that anyone has an adequate strategy for dealing with the problems of the area. Massive housing expansion in the surrounding area wherever planning permission can be obtained, massive road widening to enable people to drive into Cambridge, little or no rail development, and ever more unreliable buses as they get caught up in traffic jams. They then have to have time built into their schedules to ensure that they leave the city centre on time, with the result that they get in one another's way!

    Shopping facilities in the centre are poor, at least for those who want useful things as opposed to souvenirs for tourists.

    It used to be said that Cambridge was saved from adverse development because whenever anything was proposed it aroused so much opposition that nothing ever got done. If this ever was true, it isn't any more -- the developers, Highways Agency etc. have learnt how to coopt or steamroller the opposition.

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