Jonathan Schofield on welcome news about London planes but what about Manchester poplars?

Manchester City Council has seen the wood for the trees, or is that the trees for the wood. Either way, 31 London plane trees, have been given a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) after a campaign by residents supported by councillors. The trees lie between Aytoun Street and Minshull Street, a short distance from Piccadilly Gardens.

Let's hope any future developer will be smart enough to see the trees as an asset rather than an obstruction

The campaign was called Aytoun Barks Back campaign and garnered almost 500 signatures in a petition to protect the trees. The campaign, led by Lynette Cawthra, noted how the Council’s legal services department saw a large number of emails and letters of support for the TPO. 

Lynette Cawthra, said: “The Aytoun Street horseshoe of trees is a delightful bit of much-needed greenery in town, with important benefits too for local birdlife and of course for carbon capture. We’re thrilled that these trees now have protected status – huge thanks to everyone who helped lobby the Council to make this happen.”

The trees surround a currently abandoned blight of tarmac which was previously a surface car park. New, more benign, uses have been observed such as cricket playing, kids learning to ride bikes, Tai Chi and tour guides explaining the area. Some residents have suggested it would make a superb pocket park. That would take money and the car park site is prime development land, one of very few empty plots in the city centre.

Dreaming of the car park becoming a beautiful green space will only ever be a dream, unless a philanthropist steps in. 

London Planes Saved Of Aytoun Street Car Park 2
Very few stands of mature trees decorate Manchester city centre, the Aytoun planes are significant

Yet the site has enormous potential and could be an ornament to the city for every traveller taking the shortcut over the footbridge from Piccadilly Station. On the south side it has Thomas Worthington's slightly unhinged but impressive neo-Gothic Police Courts (now Crown Courts) from 1873. Landscaped it would make an excellent city garden, very continental, very square with buildings tight in on three out of four sides. 

London Planes Saved Of Aytoun Street Car Park 1
The tower of Thomas Worthington's courts buildings peeping out over the tree canopies

One of the problems is ascertaining the ownership of this plot of land - we're trying to find out. What is certain is there will be development proposals. Trees have roots, developers have mechanical diggers and the two are incompatible. Any development could see the roots cut or even a request by a developer to remove the TPO. 

As campaigners say, while the TPO is a singular success, “they will continue to monitor plans for the space very closely.” 

London Plane And Their Lovely Translucent Leaves In Summer Glory
The leaves of London plane trees are a lovely fresh green in early summer

Not that TPOs can be removed easily.

TPOs prevent felling, lopping, uprooting or other wilful damage of trees without permission. Fines follow if you break the order, hefty ones. Removal of the TPO can only be sanctioned by the council. The only case for removal would be if there was a mistake with the original order which might require a fresh order or if the trees are diseased, dying, dead or a health risk. 

The continuing campaign to keep the trees safe can be followed at Facebook or on Twitter @AytounBarksBack. What this success represents however is a rare victory for a residents' campaign over an important city centre site. 

Let's hope any future developer will be smart enough to see the trees as an asset rather than an obstruction. 

Meanwhile, there are other important trees in danger in Manchester, indeed a whole subspecies. Developers aren't the concern; this time the blame lies with a scab. 

Trees Manchester Poplars In St Johns Gardens 2
The Manchester poplars are the tall trees in full summer leaf centre left in this picture from St John's Gardens. behind the copper beech

London planes and Manchester poplars

London is not unique in having a tree named after it. Manchester is special that way too. This is with the Manchester poplar. As the city in the nineteenth century became the paradigm industrial metropolis air quality deteriorated and many varieties of trees couldn't cope with the chemical soup that was the atmosphere. 

However, the black poplar proved more resistant to pollution and variant of it became known as the Manchester poplar. In the early twentieth century it was extensively planted across the city and region especially in parks and along road verges.

One bittersweet moment of hectic planting took place during the Great Depression in the 1930s when national government and the Manchester Parks and Cemeteries Committee, with their Unemployment Relief Works, paid unemployed men to plant Manchester poplars. On bikes and armed with a sacks full of saplings, these men planted tens of thousands of trees around the city.

Sadly, the Manchester poplar is in severe decline. It’s been hit by an airborne fungus (Venturia populina aka “poplar scab”, yuck).  Also the female trees are unpopular (unpoplar perhaps?) as they produce masses of white fluff that encase the seeds and allow them to be blown long distances. They also create a right mess in gardens. Thus, mostly only male trees tended to be planted which in 2021 makes the gene pool very small. For those who like their fantasy literature, Manchester poplars are presently a bit like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings desperate to find Entwives.

Fantasy aside, some fine examples still survive and two are bang smack in the city centre. Take a walk through the former graveyard of St John’s Gardens in Castlefield and there are couple of splendid representatives standing proud, their roots embraced by the bones of deceased Mancunians. 

Trees Manchester Poplars In St Johns Gardens 1
The St John's Gardens Manchester poplars as a foreground for cranes at The Factory

Read now: Mayfield trees arrive but are Aytoun's at risk?

Read next: The planning machine wins: 'Tombstone' tower approved

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