Tree-felling at Preston's Larches House angers locals

A row has broken out over the removal of trees from the grounds of Larches House in Preston.

By Paul Faulkner
Thursday, 28th May 2020, 9:20 pm
Updated Friday, 29th May 2020, 10:59 am

The former special school – off Larches Lane – was sold by Lancashire County Council last month and its new owner plans to renovate the Grade II-listed property and turn it into apartments, while building new homes on some of the surrounding land.

But several Larches locals who live close to the site have contacted the Lancashire Post to express their concern over the number of trees which have been felled – and about the impact of their loss on wildlife.

One man, who did not want to be named, said that it was “frustrating” that the character of what he described as a woodland area had been changed overnight.

Tree clearance in the grounds of Larches House

“I was at work when it all started and I couldn’t believe it when my wife sent me pictures of everything that was being done,” the resident said.

“There was an array of wildlife in this area – squirrels, woodpeckers, even an owl.

“It was just a delight to sit outside in the sunshine and look up at the trees, listen to the birds and watch all the animals jumping around. A normal clear-up would have probably sufficed to make it look nice, rather than something so severe.

“There was nothing wrong with these trees, they weren’t dying off. But the majority of the wildlife that we had has gone,” he added.

A resident claims that this picture of a bird's nest on the ground was taken during clearance work at Larches House. The site owner, Michael Patel, said that everything was being done "by the book" on the site.

Preston City Council placed 22 tree preservation orders (TPOs) on individual ‘category A and B’ trees on 14th May, along with non-specific “area TPOs” covering groups of trees on various parts of the site. The measures prohibit the removal of any trees subject to such an order.

The Post understands that clearance work began days earlier, when none of the trees were afforded any protection.

But Michael Patel, whose company Sapphire Construction purchased the site, said he had actively engaged with the city council before removing a single tree, so that he could ensure that none of those which would subsequently be protected were removed beforehand.

“If I was a greedy builder, I could have sent a hundred lads in here and cleared everything before they put a TPO on,” said Mr. Patel.

Larches House

“But we worked with the tree preservation officer at the council and said tell us what you want to TPO, and we’ll make sure we don’t touch any of them. We’ve taken down any trees with less than 10 years’ life left, which we’re entitled to do." [Following publication of this article, Mr. Patel clarified that he was referring to trees with less than 10 years' life left, rather than trees less than less 10 years old, as originally interpreted from an ambiguous quote].

He added: "We’re going to be calling [the development] Sapphire Oaks – we can’t call it that with no trees left,” he said, adding that the land where the felling had taken place was “the garden” to Larches House itself.

In relation to ongoing work in the grounds, Preston City Council told the Post that although it was not undertaking site visits during the current lockdown restrictions, it would investigate any concerns over tree removal – and that it had been in touch with the landowner and his tree surgeon, who were fully aware of their responsibilities.

A letter sent from the authority to one concerned resident stated that the specific TPOs had been drawn up following a previous site inspection and the LDRS understands that a further assessment will be carried out at a later date on the trees within the area TPOs to determine which of them should be protected.

One of the trees cleared from the Larches House grounds

Another resident, who also wanted to remain anonymous, claimed that she had seen a bird nest left lying on the ground shortly after work began.

Mr. Patel said that if there was any photographic evidence, he would investigate the matter with his tree specialist – but added that he was confident that there had not been any wrongdoing. The Post has since forwarded a picture of a downed nest which a resident claims was taken on the site.

Mr. Patel was unable to confirm how many trees had been removed, but said it amounted to “only a few”.

“We do everything by the book, we haven’t killed any squirrels or [removed] bird nests – it’s against the law and we wouldn’t do that.”

The letter from Preston City Council states that a wildlife protection officer from Lancashire Police has attended the site and spoken to the owner and workmen. Mr.Patel said that officer was “happy” with what he found.

He added: “If I lived here, I’d rather have something done with the site rather than it be left to rack and ruin – we will restore the building back to its spectacular form.”

He also revealed that an intended pre-planning application discussion with Preston City Council would be on the basis of developing around 22 new properties on the site.

Mr. Patel intends to make Larches House itself the temporary base for his other company, Sapphire Utility Solutions, before work on the apartments begins.

Lea and Larches ward councillor David Borrow said of the issues raised by residents over the work at the property: “I have been working with other councillors for Larches to respond to the concerns of residents about the removal of trees, the damage to wildlife and many other issues on the site. The council has quickly put on TPO’s, but there are a lot of remaining issues which we need to sort out in the days and weeks ahead.”

Cllr Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, said: “Tree Preservation Orders are placed on trees which make a significant impact on the amenity of the local environment and where their loss would be detrimental to the character of the area.

“A TPO was served on Thursday 14 May 2020 at this site, which ensures that those trees worthy of preserving can be considered by the council for retention.”

Larches House was built in 1838 for a city banker, John Lawe.

‘IT’S A SMALL PART OF THE WORLD, BUT IT MATTERS’

Sonia Phillips, from the group Climate Action Preston, said developers should think about the bigger environmental picture – rather than just focusing on what they are legally permitted to do – when embarking on projects like the one at Larches House.

“We need to rethink our relationship with nature and not just see it as something we can exploit for economic value. We shouldn’t look at a piece of land and ask how much money can I get from it – it should be more about the fact that this is the world that sustains us.

“In the case of Larches, it might only be a very small part of the world, but the principle is the same.

“We place a lot of value on trees – they do a lot for us and we’re trying to encourage Preston to double its tree cover by 2030, so when mature trees are cut down, it’s really concerning.

“It’s a green space that’s valued by the community – and we know that has a good impact on health and wellbeing,” Ms. Phillips added.