Happy Man Tree protesters raise alarm over ‘democratic deficit’

A protester guards the Happy Man Tree on 19 May. Photograph: Twitter

Protesters seeking to block the felling of a popular 150-year-old plane tree in Woodberry Down have spoken out over a “democratic deficit” in the decision to cut it down.

The loss of the Happy Man Tree has been argued by both developer Berkeley Homes and council planning officers to be unavoidable, with keeping it projected to cause “design harm and reduction in affordable housing” in the next phase of the regeneration of Woodberry Down estate.

However, campaigners who have vowed to guard the tree until a dialogue is restarted over its future are now hitting out at how the decision was taken.

Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO) executive member Geoff Bell, a longtime supporter of the estate’s regeneration, has contrasted Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville’s “pride in genuine engagement with local people” over the third phase of the estate works with a 17,000-strong petition to save the tree.

Bell said: “We respectfully suggest that, as far as the destruction of the tree is concerned, what engagement there has been suggests opposition to this
destruction, and that overall this engagement as conducted by Berkeley Homes has been inadequate and even misleading.

“We regard the proposed destruction of the tree as an act of environmental vandalism which we never will accept can be reduced to a ‘lesson learnt’ or ‘mistakes made’.

“Developers should not be permitted to destroy aspects of our natural heritage because it is inconvenient for them to do otherwise.

“Now more than ever we should be showing, and teaching by example, respect for that heritage.”

Bell had previously called for answers over why a tree protection order requested ahead of the planning decision had been ignored, an order which has now been refused along with a freedom of information (FoI) request asking for documentation and emails relating to the tree.

Bell added: “We accept [the destruction of the tree] might have been suggested in this or that fine print, in plans submitted to Planning, but it never received any significant wider recognition in our community. To point to the fine print as permission is the morality of a dodgy second-hand car dealer.

“We accept that [the petition] cannot be assumed as scientifically accurate of community opinion, nevertheless, it is the only indication we have of this, and as such should not be shrugged off or dismissed in some elitist fashion.”

Campaigners are now questioning the accuracy of information presented to Hackney Council’s planning committee in making their decision.

Bell has accused the council of a case of “the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing” in not stating that the Town Hall’s planning department had been consulted on a possible use of Section 73 of the Town & Country Planning Act to incorporate the tree into a new design.

Responding to officer claims that 28 homes would be lost in the designs if the tree was kept, campaigners have also pointed to a “consensus” that existed ahead of the decision that there was a way that homes could be relocated into other parts of the development and the tree kept.

When quizzed by the Citizen on these points, Hackney Council responded that such a Section 73 application cannot be used to vary a live planning application.

The council has said that its committee gave “full consideration” to the loss of the tree both in biodiversity and amenity terms, and that this was balanced against the merits of the proposal and the mitigation measures put forward.

The design committee, which is made up of Berkeley Homes, Hackney Council, housing association Notting Hill Genesis and WDCO itself, were presented only with options that would have resulted in the loss of genuinely affordable homes, according to the Town Hall.

While the Town Hall accepts that, under the most feasible option, 24 socially rented homes could have been re-provided in other blocks, a council spokesperson said this would have required significant redesign and the increase of the height of other buildings, which members of the Design Committee had previously strongly opposed.

A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “We are confident that the correct planning processes were followed and that members made an informed decision based on all of the information available.”

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville recently referred to the removal of the tree, while “never easy”, as “necessary”, pointing to the planting of 175 new trees as part of the plans as well as 29 tennis courts’ worth of new open space, over 4,000 square metres of green and brown roofs, over 1,000 new cycle parking spaces, and an energy centre providing low-carbon heat.

Mayor Glanville said: “To everyone’s disappointment, we could not find a way to avoid removing this tree without huge delays to the construction of desperately needed genuinely affordable homes for social rent, and a complete redesign of the project.

“Building new homes is never easy, and is full of trade-offs and hard decisions. So while all partners agreed that, sadly, we would need to remove this tree, we worked hard to ensure there would be much greater investment in trees, open spaces and green infrastructure than was initially planned.

“That’s why after our intervention, 65 more trees were added to the plans, including seven mature trees and five lime trees, as well as additional rain gardens – all this alongside a new public park.

“The scheme, as revised from the collective action of politicians, residents and partners, will increase the number of trees, green space, biodiversity and carbon capture in this part of Woodberry Down.”

A Berkeley Homes spokesperson said: “Keeping the tree would have resulted in a redesign and a 15-month delay in delivering much needed new housing, including 243 affordable homes, many of which are for people living in substandard accommodation elsewhere on the Woodberry Down estate.

“In addition to the new homes, the proposals – which were designed in partnership with the community over 18 months – will deliver significant improvements, including better air quality and a 154 per cent improvement to the biodiversity of site, providing more wildlife habitats.

“On balance, we strongly believe that removing the tree is the correct decision in this instance so that we can bring forward these wider benefits as quickly as possible for residents.”