Battle of Stoke Lodge: Fence work is finally under way, but protests go on
Protests are continuing over work to install a controversial fence at Stoke Lodge playing fields on behalf of Cotham School.
Residents turned out in force on January 14 to prevent the contractors hired by the school digging near the protected trees which line the playing fields.
Instead council tree and planning enforcement officers and the school’s staff have been devising a revised plan to take account of trees with protection orders (TPO), one of which is Bristol’s Tree of the Year.
Protests continued into a second week as the Voice went to print, with both sides entrenched in a bitter argument about access to the site. Work on installing the metal fence has now begun with protesters watching from a distance as stakes were inserted near the first significant tree, a beech with TPO status.
Cotham School described the actions of protesters as “outrageous behaviour” preventing them from securing the fields.
The school has a 125-year lease from Bristol University to use the council-owned Stoke Lodge site. However it hasn’t used the facility for school PE lessons for the last five years because of concerns over safeguarding. Instead, the school has been paying to use the facilities at Coombe Dingle.
Stoke Lodge has no parking on site or a pavilion. Cotham School wants to build a pavilion but has not yet won planning permission.
A protracted legal battle has occurred to try to prevent the erection a 1.5 km long and 2m high fence around playing field. The community are concerned that residents will be excluded from a large part of a publicly owned asset by locked gates, while the school says it is not safe for people and their dogs to have access to the site while lessons are taking place.
Stoke Bishop councillor John Goulandris said: “Stoke Lodge has been a shared community asset since the 1940s.
“Ofsted have said in writing that there is no requirement for a fence and this fence comes very close to some wonderful, protected trees. The fence line has been amended but they are still working in the tree zone. I see this fence as an act of gross, environmental vandalism.”
Emma Burgess, one of 1,200 members of campaign group ‘We Love Stoke Lodge’, said: “We aren’t saying that this shouldn’t be a shared open space. We are willing to look at different types of fencing and ways of achieving the safeguarding aims.
“As an absolute minimum they should have applied to do work near or under trees with tree protection orders. We are currently waiting to hear back from Bristol City Council about that.
“A tree officer is needed here as the workmen are approaching a tree of national importance and will be working in the drip line.”
Justice for Cotham School have been filming dogs on site posting the footage on Twitter stating: “Low level nuisance from uncontrolled dogs is disastrous for PE with 1 teacher and 30 kids.”
Sandra Fryer, Vice Chair of Governors at Cotham School, put out a statement about the situation on YouTube on January 21. She said: “We are planning to set up a user group to which we will invite local clubs, the University, local schools and representatives of the local community who have expressed an interest in sharing our playing fields when they are not in use by Cotham School.
“A lot of people have tried to claim that this is a park. But it isn’t. The land for playing fields was given to the city council in the 1940s and has been in educational playing field use ever since.
“Over the years many local people have got used to using the site when sport was not being played but this was never as of right. The reference to community use in our lease does not confer the right to use our playing fields but rather that the school can manage and enable community use when not required by the school.
“In terms of putting up a fence we have decided that the site must be secured so that when our students are at Stoke Lodge we know they are safe.”
Representatives from We Love Stoke Lodge wait to hear whether they are invited to join the group. Cllr Goulandris said: “We have tried talking to the school - councillors, our local MP, the Mayor have all written to them. It’s an open offer to meet us.”
It’s a view shared by Darren Jones MP who stated: “My view has always been that Cotham School should have entered into proper discussions with residents and concluded outstanding legal issues before spending public money.
“Residents have always acted in good faith and have continuously been open to discussions that would have achieved the desired outcomes for both sides of the dispute.
“The sad conclusion is that it didn't need to be this way and that the fence may, of course, have to come down again in the near future.”
Emma Burgess said: “We’ve researched into different types of grant funding that we can access as a community that the school can’t access. We can help improve the site for the pupils of Cotham and other sports groups by working in partnership with the school.
“We do not believe that they should be allowed to put up a fence underneath 38 trees with a protection orders. Irrespective of how they dig, that is wilful damage to trees.
“We aren’t saying that we want free and open public access to this site when their children are playing on this site. We understand and recognise that they have safeguarding concerns. All we are asking for is to think about different ways that they can meet those objectives."