Vilner Lane Wood saved from the chop

March 02 2020
Vilner Lane Wood saved from the chop

CAMPAIGNERS are celebrating a major victory after plans to sell off woodland in Thornbury were abandoned by South Gloucestershire Council.

The council had first earmarked Vilner Lane Wood, near the town’s leisure centre, as a site for nursing home six years ago.

The site had not been sold but the council had remained open to offers, with reports that a developer had shown an interest in the site surfacing late last year and sparking a campaign to save it.

A petition was raised and protests staged at the site, which is home to a community composting site.

Campaigners from the Woodland Action Group, set up to protect Vilner Lane Woods, gathered more than 1,500 signatures calling for the site to be saved, including 600 gathered in a single day of action in January.

Proceeds from a sale of the site have been incorporated into every South Gloucestershire Council budget since 2014 and at the start of last month the ruling Conservative cabinet recommended a 2020/21 budget which assumed a sale would take place.

But in a surprise announcement at a full council a week later, council leader Toby Savage said Vilner Lane Wood would not be sold after all.

Action group vice-chairman Brett Harrison said: “When we established a Woodland Action Group back in 2016 we had no idea we could get so much support from the Thornbury community.

Obtaining 1,526 signature to our e-and paper petitions was quite an achievement.

We are sure that we could have got many more if we had got the paper petitions organised earlier. But we achieved the result we wanted – a stop to the proposed development.

Now we are faced with developing a relationship with South Gloucestershire Council that will make the woodland a true community asset.

We are already embarked on encouraging a forest school, but the there is so much healthful potential in this small patch of woodland.

Recent publicity about the benefits of ‘forest bathing’ has opened another avenue.

But this has to be balanced, as always, with the importance of a relatively undisturbed habitat. It will not be easy.”

The decision over the sale became the subject of a row between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups on South Gloucestershire Council, with the Lib Dems saying they had forced the Tories into a u-turn, while the Tories said the Lib Dems had proposed the sale in the first place.

The original decision to dispose of the woods by competitive tender to a care home developer was made by a cross-party committee in 2014, following a proposal from a Lib Dem councillor.

Thornbury needed a new nursing home at the time – but has since gained the Grace Care Centre, and two more are planned.

The climate emergency has also changed attitudes towards the preservation of green space.

Cllr Savage said that saving the trees was in line with the council’s promise to become carbon neutral by 2030.

The expected revenue from the sale, a figure that remains confidential and was expected to “support community infrastructure in Thornbury”, is still to be removed from budget papers.

Cllr Savage said: “Liberal Democrats took the decision to sell Vilner Lane and Conservatives are saving it. South Gloucestershire has made a firm commitment to its residents that we will become carbon neutral by 2030 and every tree we plant, every solar panel we install and every person we get out of their cars and walking, on bikes or on public transport is a step towards that.”

Cabinet councillor Ben Burton, who has responsibility for capital sales, said: “I am thankful to the many Thornbury residents, numerous community organisations and the local MP Luke Hall for taking the time to write to me with their views on this important issue. It certainly played an important role in this amendment which protects this site and our wider budget plans.

It is important that we invest wisely in our communities, on the services and infrastructure we provide. But if we are not listening to our residents and are following through on poorly made decisions then we are not doing our jobs correctly.”

Lib Dem deputy leader and Thornbury councillor Maggie Tyrrell said: “I do not believe the Conservatives would have changed their mind had it not been for the pressure put on them by local people. This is a true victory for people power. Vilner Lane Wood is a valued space in Thornbury and its contribution to the environment is important.”

The party’s group leader, Claire Young, said: “We are delighted that, having been subjected to a campaign to save Vilner Lane Wood by residents and Liberal Democrat Councillors the administration has seen sense. This is the right decision for both the environment and the community in Thornbury. Last year South Gloucestershire Council passed a motion declaring a climate emergency. If we truly mean that, we cannot sell off sites like Vilner Lane Wood for development.

It is disappointing that it has taken the administration so long to see sense on this issue and remarkable that, having argued since October that selling Vilner Lane Wood would leave a significant gap in the financing of key projects, on the eve of the Council’s budget meeting the administration have presumably found the money elsewhere.”

We welcome the fact that they have belatedly come round to our way of thinking on this issue.”