Trees on Phoenix Causeway: Friends of Lewes and Human Nature respond

The planning application for The Phoenix development in Lewes, billed to be – according to developers Human Nature – the most sustainable neighbourhood in Europe, is now available for comment on the South Downs National Park Authority website. See more on the SDNPA website here or look for planning application SDNP/23/00526/OUT to make a comment and view the plans in detail.

One issue that’s already raised debate are plans to cut down potentially more than 40 mature trees on the Phoenix Causeway in order to make space for bus lay-bys and create access into the site. So below, we’ve asked Lewes Urban Arboretum (a partner group of Lewes Climate Hub) to outline its concerns and for Human Nature to explain its intentions.

Lewes Urban Arboretum, (Trees Committee of Friends of Lewes):

We have strong concerns about the proposed felling of the mature trees with tree preservation orders (TPOs) on the approach to Phoenix Causeway between Waterloo Place and the river Ouse. The i-Tree Eco survey, published by the Trees Committee of Friends of Lewes in 2019, suggests that Lewes has a tree canopy cover of only 11.5%, when Forest Research recommend that the tree canopy cover for urban environments is 20% as a minimum. Lewes needs more trees, and we cannot risk the loss of those which are already well-established.

Human Nature expresses the aim of creating the world’s leading sustainable developments so that “we can live well in ways that respond to the crises of climate and nature”. We admire these objectives and urge that you show Lewes that you intend to meet them through ensuring that the Phoenix development is designed around the healthy trees which are already there.

We commend your plans to include a diverse range of native trees and wildflowers on the site. However, it will be several decades before these newly planted trees will be able to replicate the ecosystem value of the mature trees, such as: removing air pollution on this busy road, carbon sequestration and storage, and preventing water run-off in this flood risk area. Trees are our climate change heroes!

The existing trees provide a natural barrier which reduces traffic noise and maintains an attractive approach on this important gateway into Lewes and will usefully screen the building works during the long construction period. They create a green corridor with valuable habitat for wildlife and research suggests that they have a generally beneficial effect on our own health and wellbeing.

Tree removal may have been permitted in previous development but there is now a climate emergency and this, along with policies in the South Downs Local Plan and Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, amounts to a material change of circumstances against which all new planning applications must be considered. It is essential that the high profile of the Phoenix development does not appear to set the precedent that Tree Preservation Orders cannot preserve trees!

Human Nature (developers of the Phoenix site):

The Phoenix aims to shift the dial on sustainability, going well beyond current targets to set a new benchmark for making a place in the age of climate crisis.

We should say first of all that we are aware that the proposals regarding tree removal along the Causeway have generated concern. These proposals are at this stage part of the outline application, and will be subject to further detailed planning work. Human Nature is committed to working with local tree experts alongside its professional specialists on the detail of how the tree work and wider landscape proposals will be carried out, to ensure that tree loss is minimised and that we maximise the opportunities for adding to the Lewes Urban Arboretum through the proposed planting of about 230 new trees and bushes across the Phoenix. For more information about our approach to the trees on the site please see the Frequently Asked Questions on the Human Nature website here.

On the wider approach, the Phoenix will be a walkable neighbourhood, where most daily needs can be met within five minutes’ walk, and the need to own a private car is radically reduced through the availability of affordable and convenient co-mobility services in a Hub off the Causeway. These services will include EV car share and hire, e-cargo bike hire, and ‘last mile’ freight delivery services, keeping traffic off the one-way system, resulting in clean air and safe streets on the Phoenix.

Enabling positive lifestyle changes is where the Phoenix truly innovates. A seasonal, low-cost community canteen and vegetable box scheme will provide easy and affordable access to food from regenerative farms, part of a wider food strategy that will see food grown on site in community gardens, which also contribute to gains in biodiversity. A culture of sharing will extend from public spaces to co-working and tools, generating a self-contained local circular economy. Cumulatively, these and other actions make a compound difference, setting us on the trajectory towards global fair shares of carbon of 2.3 tons per person, which is Human Nature’s corporate target (based on research by Oxfam).

Through the use of bio-based materials such as timber and hemp, buildings on the Phoenix will be carbon negative, sequestering more carbon than emitted from construction and operation. Much of this timber will come from Sussex and manufactured on site, regenerating local woodlands and providing training opportunities for young people. Highly efficient, well-insulated homes, powered by a renewable energy grid, and heated by ground source heat pumps, will hugely reduce demand and cut bills.

Relevant policy that endorses Lewes Urban Arboretum’s view that these trees must be conserved and enhanced includes:

• The retention of these trees is endorsed by the South Downs Local Plan Policy SD11 (Development Management) which states: “ Development only where they conserve and enhance trees, hedgerows and woodland”. “ The removal of protected trees, groups of trees woodland or hedgerows will only be permitted in exceptional circumstances”.“ Must provide adequate protection zones and buffers around tree to prevent damage to root systems and future growth. Minimum buffer of 15 metres between the development and veteran trees”.

• South Downs Local Plan Policy SD4: Landscape Character which states: “Development proposals must conserve and enhance landscape character” and Policy SD9: Biodiversity and Geodiversity where para 5.72 observes that “street trees make an important contribution to landscape character, historic environment and ecosystem services. Trees in urban areas moderate summer temperatures and create linkages between sites.” The removal of the tree belt and important landscape belt is contrary to this policy.

• Policy SD45 Green Infrastructure at para 7.245 which states: “the purpose is to promote new Green Infrastructure whilst protecting existing assets”. and para 7.247 which states: “ new development should enhance Green Infrastructure and avoid harm”. Removing existing trees and replanting is both harmful and a clear breach of this policy.

• South Downs Local Plan, (adopted 2014-2033 version): The significance of these trees on Phoenix Causeway in fulfilling the above is clear to see in a photograph which appears on the front cover which shows how the belt of trees on both sides of Phoenix Causeway add to the visual amenity by creating screens to both the Waitrose car park and the development site. They also create a link between the natural environment above the Cuilfail Tunnel and more central growth around the castle at a time when community groups of volunteers are working together to promote green stepping-stones and corridors across our special town.