St Matthew’s Piece Trees – “Why don’t the planners…?”

Prompted by our recent blogpost St Matthew’s Piece Trees – STILL under threat! and by the urging of Friends of St Matthew’s Piece, many local residents emailed our local City Council ward councillors for Petersfield, ward councillors for the neighbouring Abbey ward and members of the Planning Committee.

The three trees under threat on St Matthew’s Piece Trees

The response from councillors has been heartening, but some local residents have puzzled why it is not possible for members of the Planning Committee to give their unqualified support to refuse the application.

Members of the Planning Committee can, and should, consider all of the evidence and every representation made by the public about any planning application.

However, a Planning Committee meeting has a legal (judicial) function and, just as neither judge nor jury may decide the outcome of any case before the court assembles, neither may members of the Planning Committee make a decision on any application before it is considered, in full, at the Planning Committee meeting.

But let Councillor Sam Carling, Cambridge City Councillor for West Chesterton,
Executive Councillor for Open Spaces and City Services and a member of the Planning Committee, explain.

We are pleased to have received permission to publish Councillor Carling’s recent email, in full (below).

Dear resident,

I’m writing to you in response to your email regarding the planning application 23/0119/TTPO – Felling of St Matthew’s Piece Trees, which you sent to me as a member of the Planning Committee. I read your email and considered it in full after receiving it, but I cannot respond to the points you raise regarding the application, and I wanted to explain why.

Committee members are not able to respond to the detail of emails regarding planning applications, as you may have been told, and the very high volume of emails that came in meant I could not reply to each to explain why that is the case. Instead, I thought it best to wait until the emails stopped and then write a response to everyone together. There are also some misconceptions evident in some of the emails I received, so I also wanted to take the opportunity to answer some of those.

Essentially, Planning Committee members must at all times avoid “fettering our discretion”. What this means is, it is critical that members of the committee do not take any action or speak in a way that could be interpreted as biasing our view on the application, or which suggests we have already made our decision (predetermination). If a committee member were to express views on an application prior to the meeting at which it is considered, they would have to withdraw from discussion on the item and not vote on it, though they may speak as a ward councillor if they wish. If a Committee member was found to have been predetermined and had voted on an application, it would leave the decision open to a high risk of challenge.

You are probably aware by now that the application was deferred to be considered at a future Planning Committee meeting. I do not yet have the date on which the application will return – if it comes to the September meeting then the date is the 6th September, but it may be heard at another month’s meeting. In respect of the meeting last week, the committee did engage in a brief discussion about some of the issues prior to the deferral, which you can find on the livestream of the meeting here between 28:23 and 40:35.

As I said, I would like to correct a couple of misunderstandings included in some of the emails I received:

“Why does the council want to fell these trees?” / “Why have you allowed this application to be submitted?” / words to that effect

The City Council did not submit this application. An application has been received from a third party, which is being dealt with through the standard planning processes. It is due to be determined by the Planning Committee in line with the committee’s duty to determine applications when officers cannot do so under delegated powers or when other procedural matters apply.  The Planning Committee has no powers to prevent anyone from making a planning application; all applications must be determined through the statutory process. 

“Councillors should reconsider their decision” / “Please overturn this decision” / other suggestions that a decision has been made

No decision has been made. An application has been submitted and as yet, no determination/decision has been taken on it.

“Please reassure me that these trees will not be felled” / “Please promise to vote against the felling of these trees”

No Planning Committee member can promise to vote a particular way on a planning application, because that would constitute predetermination as I outlined earlier in this email, and therefore mean that member wouldn’t be able to vote on the application. 

“The Planning Committee should instead order a root barrier to be installed”

The Planning Committee is not able to make such an order. We must determine the application put before us by either allowing it or refusing it; we cannot change the nature of it (though we can add reasonable conditions). Part of the discussion we had at the meeting last week (which I included a link to earlier in this email) was around this issue, and I would encourage you to listen to that if you are interested. Further work on alternatives is ongoing in other parts of the Council.

It is absolutely your right to contact us about things like this – as elected representatives, we are here to serve as your voice in Cambridge. I will of course read any replies to this email, however I am unlikely to be able to respond again in turn due to the need to avoid any perception of bias. I realise that, despite this email being very lengthy, I have not addressed the points raised in your emails about the application itself. I’m sorry about that, I know it is unfortunate and stressful for all members of the community that want to hear some news on this application. Again, please be reassured that I have read and considered your email in full.

If you would like to watch the committee’s discussion on this application when it is next heard, you can watch the livestream of the meeting on the City Council’s YouTube channel, or you can come in person as well if you would like to be present. However, please be warned that we often run quite far behind the guide times listed on the agenda as we tend to be very thorough in our discussions!

Best wishes,


Email from Councillor Sam Carling, on 11 Aug 2023, at 16:04



Local residents have been fighting to protect and conserve local amenity and environmental assets via Friends of St Matthew’s Piece since 30thApril 2020 – and, before that, via Petersfield Area Community Trust, since 1998). Friends of St Matthew’s Piece stand on the shoulders of the giants who, 100 years earlier, in 1898 had established St Matthew’s Piece. This included planting the magnificent London Plane trees that provide all of us with such wonderful benefits today. Read more on the history of St Matthew’s Piece, on the St Matthew’s Piece Timeline 1890–2020.

If you would like to join Friends of St Matthew’s Piece or assist in any of the issues raised in this blogpost, kindly hosted by Mill Road Bridges, please email Friends of St Matthew’s Piece.

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