COUNCIL BOSSES have been accused of “killing democracy” as a decision over controversial plans to axe trees in ancient woodland was not taken in public. 

Campaigners said the reputation of the city council “lies in tatters” after a decision to fell trees at Marlhill Copse was made by council officers, despite 50 objections to the plans.

The  authority stressed that an emergency decision arose after “grave concerns” that residents could be seriously injured if immediate action was not taken. 

The council has now said that a public consultation on the future of the copse will be held in the summer.

But campaigners said they feel betrayed and claimed the council had promised to be transparent over any decision regarding the copse.

The news comes as last year members of Friends of Marlhill Copse, Extinction Rebellion and Friends of the Earth protested for months and marched through the city to object to initial proposals to cut 27 trees at the site which is owned by Southampton Airport.

The High Court revoked an injunction meaning work could go ahead.

But campaigners said the city council had promised to be open.

In an email seen by the Echo, last summer a city council senior figure reassured a campaigner by saying: “I can assure you that as and when any application to carry out any works to trees on the Copse that requires the Council’s consideration/consent that the matter will not be dealt with by officers under delegated powers but will be subject to a full report which will be placed before the Planning Committee at a public meeting for elected members to decide. As you may be aware there is a deputation scheme which allows the public to address the committee direct. The committee will listen and take into account all views. I trust that gives you reassurance that matters are and will be dealt with in a democratic and transparent way.”

Campaigner Gareth Narbed, is furious officers approved plans to fell five trees at the copse, including three Monterey Pines which were part of the original plans to fell 27 trees at the site.

He said: “That is scandalous that a city council has promised transparency and has behaved in this way. It denies people democratic rights. They killed democracy. At a time when people need to trust their city council more than ever, SCC should hand its collective head in shame.”

Opposition leaders said to be disappointed that another way to hold the meeting of the planning panel could not be found during the lockdown.

Southampton Airport said its priority is to make the woodland safe for the public and the five trees are considered to be at high risk of failure.

 Council leader Cllr Chris Hammond, said: “It’s not ideal and I understand the frustration of campaigners. But our primary purpose is to keep people safe from harm. An emergency decision arose after an independent report from the city council’s tree team expressed grave concerns that residents could be seriously injured if immediate action was not taken on five trees whose condition had deteriorated significantly. This is the second set of experts who’ve arrived at this position.” 

He said that due to the pandemic and technological limitations, a planning committee meeting could not be held earlier that May 20.

He added: “Independent experts and officers advised that waiting a fortnight created an unnecessary risk which could cause significant damage to human life and property. This information was shared with the Chair of Planning, Leader of the Conservative Group, responsible Cabinet Member and myself to ensure democratic oversight – none objected to this course of action. It would be negligent of any politician to ignore such a warning and put our residents in harm’s way. This decision only relates to these five trees and is not related to any potential plans to expand the airport or the future of the site. I’m pleased to announce that we’ve agreed a full public consultation on the future of Marlhill Copse woodlands in the summer, which can capture the range of views expressed by campaigners and all the residents of the area. This exceeds the original commitment made by an officer for the Planning Committee to hear the Tree Preservation Order application.”