Serious concerns about where ‘Plan E’ is heading and its future impact on the town centre

Serious concerns about where ‘Plan E’ is heading and its future impact on the town centre

At last Tuesday’s meeting of the Epsom and Ewell Tree Advisory Board we were given sight of Surrey’s latest ‘Plan E’ drawings, and are now writing to you to express our profound concern at how a scheme which once seemed to offer the possibility of a real environmental improvement to Epsom Town Centre appears to be mutating into something entirely different.

Our involvement in what, frankly, has been a deeply flawed consultative process from the start, dates back to May 20, 2015 when the Tree Advisory Board, along with the Civic Society, were invited by Mark Berry to attend a meeting with the design team then working up an initial landscaping scheme for what is undoubtedly one of the most far reaching changes we will see in Epsom Town Centre in decades, possibly in our lifetimes.

At that first meeting (the only one that took place despite initial promises of regular follow-ups) we expressed our horror at the initial draft plan on the basis that it stripped out all the existing trees and hedging, with a proposed replant that represented a drastic diminution of the relatively ‘green’ market place we currently enjoy (or rather enjoyed, as the three Prunuses at the Waterloo House end of town have already been taken out).

To the design team’s credit, however, they took away our comments and came back with a significantlty improved plan, which was presented to the Tree Advisory Board soon after Jeremy Young received an email from Nic Lee, senior landscape architect, on October 18, 2016 – nearly 18 months after our initial meeting. In that email, Mr Lee stated the revised plan meant that in totality we would end up with “30  trees in the town centre,  including two retained Yews (outside Café Rouge) and two retained Liquid Ambers (adjacent to the Clocktower).”  He continued: “I’m  sure you will agree this will have a very positive impact on the space” – an assessment the Tree Advisory Board could not disagree with.

As such, although a couple of our earlier concerns had not been addressed (the loss of the hedge and the particularly good Prunus in front of Wetherspoons, which we still believe could have been saved with a minor adjustment of the new statue’s positioning) we began actively promoting the scheme to our supporters. While we were disappointed that only two of the existing 16 Market Place trees (the two Liquid Ambers closest to the Clocktower which are doing extremely well) were to be retained, we were persuaded that better new planting pits for another 15 new trees bordering the highway meant they would probably do better than the existing ones, in some way mitigating the loss of the hedge which currently screens the Market Place from the near constant traffic queues on the A24 as it passes through the town centre. We’ve maintained our support for the scheme – even when contacted by residents who were aggrieved to see the best Prunus near Wetherspoons felled – consistently arguing that the long-term gain will be worth the short-term pain.

Imagine our horror, therefore, when, at last week’s TAB meeting we were presented with a revised scheme that pretty much takes us back to where we started…except that it is arguably even worse.

Our key objections to the current plan are summarised below:

?         Now every single one of the Market Place’s current trees is scheduled for removal, and instead of the 17 new trees plus two retained Liquid Ambers previously promised, the latest plan provides for just 10 new trees in total, meaning a significant loss of our existing tree cover

?         The eradication from the new plan of several trees at the westernmost end of the Market Place, including a strategically placed new ‘landmark’ tree that was previously going to be positioned near the horse statue, softening the West Street entry to the Town Centre. This ‘top’ end of the Market Place will look very bare indeed  – especially given that, in a separate development, four new small ornamental Prunuses that were previously proposed to replace the three Torquay Palms in the raised planting bed outside Wetherspoons no longer seem to be part of the Plan E planting scheme

?         The total eradication of the existing tree cover at the eastern-most end of the Market Place – with no replacements whatever for the three flowering cherries by the current taxi rank that have become a much loved part of the street scene, especially in spring

?         The fact that it appears that absolutely all the other tree planting that was originally presented to us as being part of the wider Plan E proposals to improve the appearance of the entire Market Place end of town may well have been scrapped. The promised trees had included two new trees outside T.K.Maxx and another two in the wide reconfigured pavement of South Street’s near its junction with West Street. We are also unclear as to the fate of the tree what was scheduled to replace the declining Prunus in front of Metro Bank, as the new Plan E drawing only relates to the Market Place itself. The suspicion has to be that the scope of the scheme has been drastically narrowed – and, if that is the case, we are looking at an even more profound deviation from the previously heralded town centre landscaping improvements.

?         The fact that three proposed new tree planting pits in a new traffic island near the South Street Junction with Ashley Avenue (by the Playhouse) also now appear to be in doubt. If they too have, indeed, ‘dropped off’ the plan that would be a very regrettable development, as the proposed new planting would have gone a way to mitigate the loss of the former planted bed and soften what will otherwise be a very extensive area of tarmac.

?         The decision to site new market place pitches between the drastically reduced number of new trees lining the highway in the Market Place itself – something which immediately puts the new trees in potential conflict with stallholders. While we, of course, support a thriving market, the 50-plus stall sites laid out in the plan look to us to be a triumph of optimism over likelihood as the market has not had anything like that many stalls for as long as any of us can remember. Could it be that unrealistic expectations about the likely level of demand for stalls is one of the factors behind the dramatic scaling back of landscaping and the unfortunate positioning of some stalls?

In conclusion, while the key driver of Plan E has always been the changed traffic flow system, it seems to the Tree Advisory Board that much-vaunted  claims that it will deliver significant improvements to the town centre environment now look in extreme doubt . From what we can see, what we are now looking at is pretty much a Surrey Highways scheme pure and simple – with all the ‘panache’ and ‘sensitivity’ you’d expect from such a scheme once the critical landscape design element has been stripped out.

The tragedy is that Epsom will have to live with the end result for many years to come – so we’d implore EEBC to do what it can to salvage the situation – not least because in an age of fast changing shopping habits the attractiveness of the town centre will be absolutely crucial to its survival….let alone that of the market itself.

Please don’t let Plan E become a costly and utterly needless ‘uglification’ of what could be one of Epsom’s greatest assets.

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