By Anna Whittaker, Local Democracy Reporter
Four trees in Newark have been saved from being cut down to make way for a car park following years of campaigning by protesters.
Newark and Sherwood District Council decided to make a U-turn on their decision to fell the sycamore trees to make way for an extension to the London Road car park in the town.
Dozens of ecstatic protesters gathered before the meeting yesterday to hand over a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to save the trees.
The U-turn was confirmed during an Extraordinary Full Council Meeting on Wednesday, 24 November.
Campaigner Molly Chesney of the group Protect Newark’s Green Spaces, said it was an “important day”.
She said after the meeting: “We are absolutely delighted that the trees have been saved.
“We know those four magnificent trees could never be replaced no matter how many thousands of young saplings get planted.
“We are really conscious that it was only as a result of our campaign that the landowner came back with a revised offer.
“It is a fantastic outcome, but we really need this council to look in at itself or get the scrutiny needed to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“Let’s not have it next time that four people have to sleep under trees and spend hours upon hours and hundreds of pounds of their own money just to get their voice across.”
It comes after councillor Keith Girling (Con), the council’s deputy leader, made a surprise announcement earlier this month that a new deal had been struck with developer Datch Properties Ltd which could save the trees from being felled.
He said the circumstances surrounding the original decision to build a car park is subject to an independent review.
Some protesters have said the council should consider apologising for the saga.
The original deal which was struck in 2018 committed the council to build a car park extension at the site and to pay the developer £30,000 per year in rent for 25 years, after an initial two-year, rent-free period.
Cllr Girling said during the meeting: “When we last considered this item, many of us explained we were faced with a decision none of us would’ve chosen to make.
“Quite rightly we have been challenged about how we find ourselves in this situation and why we agreed to a car park in the first place.
“The reality remains, things are different now to what they were then.”
He said the council had the “utmost respect” for campaigners who had conducted themselves “respectfully”.
But he said other councillors had received abuse with remarks “so wide off the mark it is unreal”.
He laid out plans to plant 10,000 trees before 2023, introduce solar panels to council buildings, and expand the number of electric vehicle charging points.
He added: “I am grateful to the landowner for working with us and I am grateful to those campaigners who have shown great perseverance.
“This is still not an easy decision. We represent a large geographical area and we cannot simply be swayed by one group of people’s point of view.
“The reduced price has in my opinion tipped the balance in favour of environmental over financial value.”
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the meeting, Cllr Girling was asked if he was prepared to apologise to protesters.
He responded: “I don’t know what I would be apologising for. In 2016 we identified that we needed more car parking spaces.
“We did what was right at the time. If you speak to anybody who made that decision -and I wasn’t one of them and I’ve taken the brunt of this – if you asked them, not knowing all of this stuff, I think they would make the same decision.
“We will work hard to make sure the rest of the district doesn’t suffer because of the money we are spending in Newark.”
Councillor Paul Peacock, Leader of Labour Group, claimed the actions taken to displace the protesters cost the council £15,000.
He said: “The motion before us is a tribute to the great victory of the people of Newark proving people do have the power to make the changes we need.
“The Conservatives spent a month after the October 12 meeting of tarnishing the council’s reputation further, eroding the public’s trust, [verbally] attacking the peaceful protesters and wasting taxpayers money once again.
“I hope this episode is a turning point to how this council operates.”
A statement read out by Councillor Lee Brazier (Lab) on behalf of Protect Newark’s Green Spaces during the meeting said: “The community made it clear they want this Council to Stop the Chop.
“Thankfully four residents were able to continue our peaceful protest a little under two weeks ago. The ‘Fab Four’ were provided shelter thanks to the strong and protective boughs of one of the magnificent trees in the Library Gardens on what could have been the trees’ final night.
“Protect Newark’s Green Spaces is proud of our campaign, and we remain committed to protecting our outdoor spaces. However, we do not think it should be necessary for any citizen to have to take a personal risk to achieve the right outcome.”
Councillors agreed to the new motion with two abstentions.