We won our battle to save ancient woodland on the Hillcrest Estate, Sydenham!

In July of this year ELF was approached by local friends groups and campaigners regarding their on-going campaign to save protected areas of woodland in Sydenham, Lewisham. A Lewisham Council led scheme for affordable housing would have resulted in the felling of many trees and building on a SINC. With ELF’s assistance and that of the London Wildlife Trust, but as importantly a well led campaign by the various friends groups has seen the Council withdraw their plans.

On Tuesday 9thOctober 2018, Lewisham council issued a press release saying

“Lewisham Homes and Lewisham Council have today (9 October) taken a joint decision to withdraw the planning application for the proposed Hillcrest housing development scheme in Sydenham.  Following extensive public consultation and after listening to local concerns about existing green space at the proposed site, Lewisham Homes and the Council commissioned further research which was undertaken by an independent ecological expert.  The decision comes as part of Mayor Damien Egan’s focus on how to best meet our council priorities and ambitions.  Cabinet Member for Housing, Paul Bell, said: “The environmental research results were inconclusive, however, in order to deliver on our ambition to achieve 1500 new social homes by 2022 in partnership with local communities, we have decided to err on the side of caution.  “We remain wholly committed to developing much-needed new social homes across the borough, including in Sydenham.”

Hillcrest Woods has a priority habitat for wildlife including song thrushes, tawny owls and stag beetles.  Hillcrest Woods are an important surviving part of an ancient wooded landscape.  For many centuries, until at least the 16thcentury, what is now Upper Sydenham was part of the Great North Wood known as Westwood, as it was on the western edge of the Manor of Lewisham.  In 1531 Henry VIII became Lord of the Manor of Lewisham and he began felling the trees in Westwood and transporting the timber to Deptford dockyard for ship-building. A few parts have been continuously wooded since this time, surviving the construction and demolition of a railway line, and the subsequent construction of the Estate in the 1960s.  Veteran and ancient oak, hornbeam, sweet chestnut, wild cherry and hazel all have roots dating back to the 16thcentury. Ground flora include ramsons, bluebell and creeping soft-grass – all of these are indicators of ancient woodland.

Mathew Frith, Director of Conservation at London Wildlife Trust, said: “The woodland at Hillcrest Estate represents one of the last surviving fragments of ancient woodland in this part of London; and is an important part of the Great North Wood….New planning rules came into effect on 24thJuly 2018 giving ancient woods and trees the highest level of protection from insensitive and unnecessary development.”


Asked why she thought the campaign had been successful, Kathleen Towler, of Friend of Hillcrest Woods said:-

All the local groups involved and local residents felt very strongly about keeping their trees and wildlife.  For me, the Chris Packham People’s Walk For Wildlife was a stark warning about what we were about to lose and why we had to stand up and fight for it.  The guidance and help from you ELF was invaluable because it came at a time when we felt under enormous pressure with very little political support.  We had a tight team of 3-6 people who worked on it intensively and a wider group of 10-15 people who were fully committed to seeing the campaign through to the end.  When a larger group was needed to attend stakeholder meetings or on-site meetings, the smaller group rallied the support of all stakeholders to attend.   Individuals worked hard on the areas they wanted to work on for the campaign and reported back by email or in person back to the small group and periodically to the whole stakeholder group.  People were galvanised by what would be an awful change to our living environment. It quickly became apparent that everyone felt the same and had written their own individual objections but we were being totally ignored.   In frustration, I wrote a letter expressing all our concerns, jointly signed by myself, Annette Elliot-Dunn, Chair of Longton Avenue Residents Association, Dave Colling, Planning Committee Sydenham Society, Natasha Ahamad, Friend of Hillcrest Woods, Monika Mitchell, Chair of Sydenham Wells Park and Pat Trembath MBE, President of the Sydenham Society, and presented the letter in person to our 3 local Sydenham Councillors at one of their open forum events – Cllrs Liam Curran, Tom Copley and Chris Best.    It was also sent our new Mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, Ellie Reeves MP and Len Duvall, GLA Member for Greenwich and Lewisham. 


The joint letter was turned into an on-line petition on change.org and Hillcrest Estate residents went door to door gathering a hand-written petition.  Together the 2 petitions gathered 855 signatures of local people against the development and these were presented in person by the campaign group to the Full Mayor and Cabinet meeting on 3rdOctober 2018.   The petitions called upon the council to refuse planning permission for these three proposed developments and demanded the council, its officers and agents fully acknowledge and list the unique environmental characteristics of the estates ancient woodland and veteran trees as forming part of the Great North Wood and do everything within their powers and strategic policies to preserve and protect these irreplaceable natural assets for the benefit of current and future generations   We asked that a copy of these two petitions to be given to all Planning Officers and elected Councillors responsible for making a decision on the Hillcrest Estate planning applications. 

We got local press coverage in the Mercury, the News Shopper and a reader’s letter in the Evening Standard.  We also contacted Sir William Worsley, Michael Gove’s appointed National Tree Champion for DEFRA but he couldn’t comment until later in the process. 

Whilst it is often difficult for communities to overcome local environmental development threats, a well-orchestrated local campaign can be effective and as we know increasingly, we have more to fight for, Kathleen’s summary serves as a good example of well organised local campaign.