St Matthew’s Piece Trees – Under Threat

A guest post from Valerie Neal, a Friend of St Matthew’s Piece

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). We 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.



Trees in Petersfield 

Consider how poor is the tree cover generally in the surrounding area. Our little St Matthew’s Piece is Petersfield’s only official park (versus the 56 parks in the other 13 Cambridge wards; see the 2018 Cambridge Local Plan’s Appendix C). Petersfield  is poorly provided for not only with regard to Public Open Space but also when it comes to tree canopy, number of trees, and tree coverage. All of this while Petersfield has the most densely housed population in Cambridge, living in properties that are predominantly very small houses or flats (with little or no private gardens; see p24 of the most recent Friends of St Matthew’s Piece submission to the Planning Portal).

Friends of St Matthew’s Piece are not the only ones to have noticed. A recent (late 2021) pan-European study included Cambridge in its review of 1000 cities – Green space and mortality in European cities: a health impact assessment study [The Lancet, VOLUME 5, ISSUE 10, E718-E730, OCTOBER 01, 2021]. This revealed that 68% of Cambridge residents do not have the WHO-recommended access to green space. 

These 68% are, naturally, not evenly distributed across Cambridge. The Environment ‘Domain’ of the latest iteration of the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation reveals that the area around St Matthew’s Piece falls into the 2nd most deprived of 10 deciles nationally, with regard to this parameter.

All of the splendid mature trees around the (now, tragically, privatised – in 2018) northern half of St Matthew’s Piece have continued to thrive, thanks to the twin protections of Tree Preservation Order No 4/2005 and their location within the Mill Road Conservation Area (1993). The benefits are mutual: these trees are themselves vital to the Mill Road Conservation Area. Check Tree Preservation Orders on the Cambridge City Council website here.

But that does not mean these precious trees are safe. 

A New Threat 

On 15th March, a scant week before the 22nd March deadline set by Greater Cambridge Shared Planning for the submission of comments, Friends of St Matthew’s Piece learned by chance of the ‘tree application’

22/0271/TTPO | T1, T2 & T3: London Plane – Reduce height by ~5m and spread by ~4m balancing crown of all three trees. Prune on a triennial cycle to maintain broadly at reduced dimensions. | St Matthews Centre And St Matthews Piece Sturton Street Cambridge Cambridgeshire CB1 2QF

This proposed a brutal cutting back of three of the original 1898 trees along Sturton Street: each by 5 m in height and 4 m in spread. Why? To address problems detected in a 25-year-old property at 193 Sturton Street – a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO). The papers on the planning portal concerning 22/0271/TTPO are viewed by Friends of St Matthew’s Piece and other Objectors as scanty, flawed and contradictory, building a very weak case for any cutting back any of the trees – never mind all three trees. 

The trees are still at risk. The local community responded magnificently to an appeal from Friends of St Matthew’s Piece to defend them. Within five days, no fewer than 43 local Objections to the planning application were submitted. 28 have been uploaded under the ‘Documents’ tab of the Planning Portal for 22/0271/TTPO; as well as 15 Comments (all objections) under the ‘Public Comments’ tab. The objections are thoughtful, well-informed and effective – worth reading.

If you wish to add your voice to these Public Comments, you can register and submit your views right until the application goes to a meeting of the City Council Planning Committee. 

City Councillor for Petersfield Ward, Richard Robertson, has ‘called in’ the application, which means it can no longer be decided by a Planning Officer but must go before the Planning Committee to be determined. We don’t yet know when this will happen (the next meetings are 14th June and 6th July 2022). 

Arguments against the proposal are varied and wide-ranging. Many wrote in support of the importance, value, diverse environmental roles and beauty of these historic trees. The most powerful perhaps relate to water, as explained in pp 17–19  of the full submission by Friends of St Matthew’s Piece –Objection to 22/0271/TTPO.

The insurance company could spend upwards of £80,000 to underpin 193 Sturton Street, to address the subsidence they have found there since the summer of 2019. The alternative they propose instead is to severely cut back our three protected trees and spend around £8,000 to repair the cracks and redecorate. They argue that the damage to the house is due to the trees taking up too much water, and have tried to prove this by measuring the movement of the house at 8 different points over the course of 1 year, running May-to-May. Here is their graph:

Graph titled:
Precise level monitoring for points 1 to 8 - related to drain

But are our trees the true cause of this subsidence?

The lower curves on the insurance company’s graph, the ones showing the most movement, all echo precisely that seen – on a matching May-to-May horizontal axis – in the annual variation in soil moisture deficit (SMD). This 2nd graph is from the Environment Agency, based on more than 60 years of data. This shows a predictable and well established regional seasonal pattern in soil moisture deficit:

Environment Agency Graph 
East Anglia
Ranking derived from data for the period Jan-1961 to Dec-2017
Horizontal axis: May 2020 to May 2021
Vertical axis: soil moisture deficit (mm)
Source: Environment Agency Monthly Water Situation Report

Parts of 193 Sturton St have therefore been recorded as moving entirely in synchrony with the: 

  • longstanding, 
  • natural, 
  • firmly established, and 
  • widespread 

annual cycle of soil drying under the property. This occurs over the entire East Anglian region – irrespective of any effect of trees on St Matthew’s Piece. It is the view of Friends of St Matthew’s Piece that no evidence is produced in planning application 22/0271/TTPO that crown reduction and spread reduction of our three trees would have any significant or sustained protective impact at 193 Sturton Street – in the inescapable context of this annual hydrogeological cycle. 

Furthermore: many houses are just as close to St Matthew’s Piece trees but it is only this one that has cracks – the problem seems to be with this new house, not with these old trees.


Local residents may also recall the long-running dispute about the trees at Alexandra Gardens Residents set up 24/7 watch over Alexandra Gardens trees in Cambridge to ‘keep chainsaws at bay’ [Mike Scialom – Cambridge Independent – 06 August 2021]


How many more Cambridge trees will face similar threats, when the fundamental problem is unlikely to be the trees themselves but over-abstraction of water associated with over-development and its impact on the local water table?


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.