A Conservative MP who urged Transport for London to have a “rethink”, as she posted a Daily Mail article claiming that a famous palm tree in the city is set to be “chopped down” to make way for cycle lanes, has been criticised by walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman, who pointed out that the tree is simply being relocated in order to “make London’s most dangerous junction safer for road users.”
Meanwhile, other social media users accused the MP of “spreading lies” and of neglecting her “position of responsibility” by failing to focus on the safety of cyclists in the city, to “score political points”.
The online backlash against Nickie Aiken came after the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster reposted on X, formerly Twitter, a Daily Mail story on the removal of the phoenix palm tree, located on the northern roundabout at Lambeth Bridge, with the caption “save our palm tree”.
As we reported last month, work is due to start next spring to improve conditions for cyclists on Lambeth Bridge, the junction where in April 2015 designer Moira Gemmill – chosen by Queen Elizabeth II to lead the renovations of Windsor Castle – was killed while cycling in a collision involving a tipper truck being driven on the route.
Her death prompted a die-in vigil to mark the fifth cyclist fatality in the opening four months of that year in London, and campaigning to make the bridge’s junctions safer for cyclists has continued ever since, with Transport for London (TfL) first announcing plans to improve the layout – which has been described by the government body as “large and intimidating”, and creating a “negative perception of safety” – in 2017.
According to the latest plans, the roundabouts at either end of the bridge will be replaced by junctions with traffic lights, which will have early release signals for cyclists, allowing those on bicycles to move away from a stop a few seconds before motorists. There will also be fully protected cycle lanes leading to the traffic lights.
As part of the changes to the road layout, work began this week on removing the distinctive palm tree in the middle of the northern roundabout, which is to be relocated to Churchill Gardens in Pimlico, with the relocation taking place during planting season in a bid to best ensure the tree’s survival.
However, in today’s Daily Mail story marking the beginning of the tree’s relocation, titled ‘Call yourself eco-friendly?’, the newspaper claimed that work was underway to “chop down Millbank’s beloved palm tree as part of green scheme to pave over roundabout and make way for cycle lanes”.
The article also quoted Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish, who described TfL’s plans to improve road safety as “so, so foolish”.
So, so foolish @TfL. The Palm is a very popular Millbank feature. You could have easily made cycle lane changes & kept the tree. Anyone in local politics knows you mess with London’s trees at your peril. Well done Cllrs Harvey & Short for trying to make @SadiqKhan & co see sense. pic.twitter.com/my0jRw3Pky
— Tony Devenish (@Tony_Devenish) November 29, 2023
“The Palm is a very popular Millbank feature. You could have easily made cycle lane changes and kept the tree,” Devenish wrote on X.
“Anyone in local politics knows you mess with London’s trees at your peril. We all support improving the safety of cyclists on London’s roads. But the decision to remove this popular palm tree, a notable London landmark, is tone deaf.
“We need more palm trees in London, not less. Surely, it’s not beyond the boffins at TfL to design a cycle lane that improves the safety of cyclists while also protecting this much-loved tree.”
Adding to Devenish’s criticism, MP Aiken took to the social media platform to urge TfL to “rethink” their plans.
However, Aiken’s tweet prompted a vociferous response from cycling campaigners in the capital, including London’s walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman.
As you know Nickie, the tree isn’t being chopped down it is being relocated to make London’s most dangerous junction safer for road users. We do not want any more fatal collisions at this location.
— Will Norman (@willnorman) November 29, 2023
“As you know Nickie, the tree isn’t being chopped down, it is being relocated to make London’s most dangerous junction safer for road users,” Norman wrote. “We do not want any more fatal collisions at this location.”
The active travel commissioner also tweeted a photo of a road sign next to the roundabout which, as he said, tells passers-by that the tree “is being moved, not chopped down”.
Others were equally critical of Aiken’s opposition to the tree’s removal, with Labour Westminster City councillor Paul Dimoldenberg writing: “Wrong again, Nickie. The palm tree is being replanted on the Churchill Gardens estate so that the most dangerous junction for cyclists in London can be made safe.”
“Seriously?” the Better Streets for Kensington and Chelsea account added. “Have a think about what you’re writing – you have a position of responsibility.
“As you know (1) the tree isn’t being chopped down and (2) the junction has an awful safety record including a fatality – and the best you can do is lie to try to get political points.”
As the sign says, the 🌴is being moved not chopped down. pic.twitter.com/AJ0iu59kEZ
— Will Norman (@willnorman) November 29, 2023
In 2015, that awful safety record came into focus when Colin Wing from the London Cycling Campaign questioned whether the bridge’s junctions could ever be made safe for cyclists unless the volume of traffic is reduced, something TfL now says has happened at peak times due to the pandemic.
A year later, initial ‘safety’ plans to reduce the width of lanes were rejected by London’s former cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, who said it would be better to do nothing than force cyclists into the path of motor traffic.
In February 2017, the driver of the tipper truck involved in the collision which killed Ms Gemmill was found not guilty of causing her death by careless driving, following a trial at the Old Bailey.
James Kwatia told the trial he did not feel his truck impact with the victim nor hear her scream. The driver – who had undertaken a cycling awareness course just weeks before the incident – said he had been aware of cyclists on the bridge and had checked his mirrors as he came to the roundabout but hadn’t seen anyone.
The controversy over Lambeth Bridge’s palm tree isn’t the first local furore involving trees and cycle lanes today.
In Plymouth, environmental activists have criticised plans to rejuvenate the pedestrianised area of the city centre – which include installing a cycle lane – because the proposals involve relocating six trees that survived a controversial mass felling by the council earlier this year.
The group opposed to the trees’ removal claim that they were assured by the new Labour council that no more trees would be removed, branding the plans a “shame” – while they have also insisted to road.cc that they are not against the installation of the bike lane on Plymouth’s Armada Way and that there is “room for both” cycling infrastructure and the trees.
However, Plymouth City Council says that the trees’ relocation is a “vital part of the overall design” of the city centre scheme and cycle lane, and that the local authority has commissioned experts to ensure that the work is carried out safely and successfully.
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.