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Tributes to “passionate” campaigner who fought to save trees from destruction

Conor McHugh, who organised a campaign to save trees on Highbury Corner, has died aged 73

22 April, 2020 — By by Sam Ferguson

Conor McHugh, pictured with his wife Brenda and his daughter Jessamine

THE wife and daughter of a “passionate and persistent” Highbury campaigner have said his inspirational role in halting the destruction of mature trees will stand as his legacy after his sudden death.

Conor McHugh, originally from Dublin, died aged 73 at his family home in Compton Terrace on Friday (April 17) after suffering a heart attack.

His wife Brenda and daughter Jessamine told the Tribune his efforts to save a group of trees on the Dixon Clark Court estate near Highbury Corner had given him a new lease of life, and said they hoped his campaign would not die with him.

The trees, which are still scheduled for destruction by the council, are set to make way for a block of private housing.

The Town Hall says the work is necessary to pay for social housing in the development, but campaigners have demanded the council rethink their plans and find a solution that will both save the trees and enable the construction of the planned quantity of social housing.

Mrs McHugh said her husband had taken great pleasure in the number of people and organisations rallying behind his cause, after initially fighting a “lonely one-man war” against the planned destruction of the trees (including maples and horse chestnuts), which are due to be cut down.

“He first started to be concerned about the trees because he had already seen a change with the Highbury Corner roundabout, and he felt to lose any more trees would have been simply wrong given the current climate emergency,” said Mrs McHugh.

“We remember him starting this and going around the local shops with leaflets, trying to get them taken and displayed. It was a very lonely, one-man job at first. He was trying to wake everyone up to the fact that maybe we could really do something about this.

“He just kept going.  The way he brought a whole community in the centre of London together to campaign is a testament to his character.

“As people began to get on board we saw a new lease of life in him. It gave him such a connection to the local community.”

Mr McHugh’s efforts came to a head on a morning in early March that saw a number of protestors climb the trees to stop workers cutting them down.

Some of the protestors inspired by Conor McHugh

His vigilant watch over the trees saw him stand with placards at the site almost every day from 6:30am, and he maintained a system of watchers and contacts that meant somebody was always ready to protect the trees at a moment’s notice.

“Conor was delighted on the day he died that so many people and organisations were joining the cause,” said Mrs McHugh.

“He strongly believed that we should all have both trees and affordable housing. Everybody deserves a good environment and clean air, and trees are essential protection against pollution for us and our children and our children’s children. In the current climate crisis, he enjoyed looking at the trees and being inspired in a world that is living and growing, rather than one that is dying.

“If what has happened in any way changes things, he would be happy. His big thing was that there should be room for people, trees and homes, and I think that is a fitting legacy.

“It’s a memorial that will be everywhere, and it’s a good metaphor because trees are sturdy, resilient and take care of the environment, and it is his immovable strength and care for us and others around him that we will miss most.”

His daughter Jessamine added: “Because of his passion for the tree campaign, whenever I see a tree I can think of him. And that’s wonderful because trees are such living, beautiful things.”

Conor McHugh’s family hope his campaign won’t end with his death

Mrs McHugh met her husband after he came to London to study for a PHD in Chemistry at Westfield College.

He went on to have a successful career in advertising and as a writer, producing brochures for businesses and running his own company, Flint Corporate & Marketing Communications Ltd.

Co-founder of Islington Clean Air Parents and fellow campaigner Helena Farstad paid tribute to Mr McHugh’s persistence.

“I feel a great sadness,” she said.

“Islington has lost somebody who was not scared to stand up and speak his mind, with unwavering clarity and focus for what he believed was right.

“The campaign will go on in his memory”

Highbury East councillor Caroline Russell said her thoughts were with Mr McHugh’s family at this difficult time.

“I was struck by his passionate defence of the trees and his searching questions for councillors about our values,” said Cllr Russell.

“In particular the value we place on retaining mature trees, green space and biodiversity in our borough.”

Fellow campaigner Alex Hofford added: “Conor’s calm and peaceful dedication to saving the seven beautiful trees at Dixon Clark Court was a great inspiration to me.”

At the time of writing, the trees are still standing at Dixon Clark Court. Islington council has said it will continue with the planned removal of the trees “as soon as it is safe to do so.”

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