A south London council is cutting down unsanctioned trees to make more burial plots in its cemeteries, activists claim – despite declaring a climate change emergency last year.

Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries are an activist group who dispute the way Southwark, a borough in south-east London, manages its 380 burials per year.

Southwark, like many London boroughs, suffers from a sensitive problem – where to bury the dead in a city that’s already overcrowded with the living.

Since 2016, the borough council has been cutting down trees in forested areas surrounding its two major burial plots: Camberwell Old Cemetery and Camberwell New Cemetery. Many local people are upset with losing these trees, of which a large number are said to be over a century old.

Around three acres of trees have been lost so far, and the council says that no more will be cut down.

But Lewis Schaffer, founder of Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries, disagrees. He said: “I’ve been walking around the cemetery and many new trees in areas that weren’t scheduled to be affected have been cut down, without warning. I can’t say for certain that it was the council, but who else would it be?

“They’ve said they’re not going to cut down more trees, but let’s be honest – they’re going to need more burial plots at some stage. This just seems like an underhand way to go about things.”

Southwark council declared a climate change emergency in April 2019, signalling its “commitment to combatting carbon emissions and rising global temperatures”.

Councillor Richard Livingstone, whose mandate in Southwark includes the environment and air quality, said at the time: “While we don’t yet have all the answers, I look forward to bringing together people from across the borough and working with them, to achieve our ambitious goal of carbon neutrality for Southwark, by 2030.”

Lewis Schaffer believes that by cutting down so many trees, the council is going against its word on the environment.

“They say we’ve got a climate emergency, yet at the same time, they’re busy cutting down trees in a grade one site of borough importance for nature conservation.”

Southwark council said: “We’re not cutting down 12 acres of woodland. Any such claims are untrue.” The council added that it was “confident the plans for the cemeteries will not just preserve but enhance the existing biodiversity and ecology of these areas and increase the amount of open space for residents to enjoy.”


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