It’s not cricket – trees for axe in deprived area are a Labour battleground in general election

Corbyn: Now running as an independent (Lucy North/PA Wire)
Corbyn: Now running as an independent (Lucy North/PA Wire)

A FURIOUS row has broken out in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington constituency over a £1.5 million plan to chop down trees that are decades old to rebuild a cricket pavilion.

The trees to be axed, some as tall as five-storey buildings and much beloved by locals, are on Wray Crescent park, just around the corner from the Banksy mural that recently attracted national attention but was soon vandalised.

Critics say the council failed to protect a piece of art that delighted those who live in a poor area.

Islington North, where Corbyn has been MP since 1983, is at the centre of a bitter battle for what some see as the soul of the Labour Party, at least in Islington.

With Corbyn no longer a Labour MP but still standing as an independent in the general election, he will come up against Praful Nargund, Labour’s official candidate who some say has been imposed against the will of party members.

He is an entrepreneur worth many millions, though his spokesman declined to be specific about his net worth.

The park was a haven for locals during lockdown few of whom say they have any interest in the cricket matches played by various teams who rent the space for less than £100 a game.

It was dubbed “Wray Beach” by those who came to use it every day during the pandemic.

This plan proposes the loss of 86m of woodland which include

- A White Willow that is 16m high (as tall as a 5-storey building).

- A Norway Maple, 13m (over 4 storeys)

- A Silver Birch 13m

- 2 Hawthorn trees (6m & 5m)

- An Elder (4.5m)

Jonathan Ward, a local fighting the development, said: “The general controversy over the project comes from the fact that the planning for the project has been very cricket focused. The park is the only public cricket pitch in Islington, and the council thinks this is important, so it trumps the needs of the local community.”

Emma Forrest, a local resident whose home backs on to the park, said: “The dramatic loss of these valuable trees would be devastating for the community. The overall plan does not consider where to store the unsightly cricket netting posts, or address the eyesore of the council storage depot.”

She says the trees are vital for absorbing floodwater in an area increasingly vulnerable to heavy rain. Subsidence for houses near the park is also a concern.

Ward added: “Focusing on cricket excludes regular locals who just want to enjoy the green space. This is a deprived ward with a high proportion of people having no outside space.”

Islington Council said: “We're planning improvements to Wray Crescent open space, to replace a derelict pavilion with a building that will better support local people, and provide much needed facilities including accessible toilets, baby change, a kitchen area and space for community events. The removal of trees is always a last resort and we have carefully considered this, with a full independent report, which found that the six trees and area of shrubbery to be removed are all low quality, or poor quality.”

Jeremy Corbyn said: “I've long held concerns about the plans for a new pavilion in Wray Crescent. I want it to be accessible, community-based and located at the edge of the park to avoid the need to destroy any trees. We must protect our green spaces, which are there for us all to enjoy."

Praful Nargund said: “It’s always a huge loss to communities when much cherished trees are removed. If trees have to be removed, of course they should be replaced wherever possible and I would welcome lots more tree planting across the constituency.”

Asked about his personal wealth, his spokesman said: “Mr Nargund’s business affairs are all declared in the appropriate way and are a matter of public record.”

The spokesman declined to be specific about Nargund’s wealth, which is based on family business interests.

Jonny Evans, chair of the friends of Wray Crescent, said: “During lockdown the park became known as ‘Wray Beach’. Hundreds of us gathered in socially distanced groups to enjoy the outside and sunshine and feel a little human. The very day lockdown ended the cricket began again.”

He added: “It is also important to note that the park is not regulation size, which means that it isn’t big enough to be truly declared a cricket ground, it’s just a small bit of grass where cricket is permitted to take place.”

Islington council says it plants more trees than it removes each year. A consultation will be launched in July, it adds.

Locals say this is too late and believes that a decision has already been taken by the council.