Campaigners seeking to prevent the felling of a 150-year-old plane tree as part of the regeneration work of Woodberry Down estate have slammed a “shameful” court order application by Hackney Council seeking to end their protests.
The Happy Man Tree has been the focus of peaceful protests, including music performances from its branches, after it was reported that the well-loved plane would come down in order to make way for a new housing block in the vicinity.
Supporters of the protests now aim to present a petition with 22,000 signatures calling for the tree to be kept alive and give Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville a papier-mache axe, asking him “if he would be prepared to strike the first blow”.
Geoff Bell, vice-chair of the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO), said: “The decision of Hackney Council and Berkeley Homes to seek an injunction against peaceful protest in support of the Happy Man Tree is shameful.
“The executive of WDCO has, over the last three months, repeatedly asked the council and the developers for negotiations on the issue of securing the tree and delivering the regeneration.
“They have refused and instead have parroted the Berkeley Homes misleading version of events. Now, instead of negotiation the pair of them answer with bailiffs, threatened injunctions and, in effect, imprisonment for anyone who disobeys such an injunction.
“A council that boasts it ‘listens to the community’ now threatens to jail any member of our community who dare to find themselves within approximately
20 yards in the Happy Man Tree. Thus Hackney Council has become a dog guard for Berkeley Homes, snapping at the human rights of local people.
“Hackney and Berkeley have acted without honour, honesty, or collaboration with the local community.”
It is understood that the injunction names five people in the campaign as well as ‘persons unknown’, with a breach of its terms potentially putting those named in contempt of court and liable to imprisonment.
Two of the five named on the injunction are members of the Woodberry Down Community Organisation, which takes part in decisions on the future of the regeneration of the estate alongside the Town Hall and Berkeley.
Campaign members have expressed their shock at what they interpret as a blunt force move by the Town Hall, saying that they seek dialogue and a resolution to the tree’s future, while not opposing any other aspect of the regeneration.
The Town Hall has said that it is seeking an order for possession and an interim injunction in order that works can safely start on the building of new homes, with the injuncton in place to “restrain any unlawful acts that take place once possession of the site is secured”.
The council has further argued that it has been “in dialogue” with locals on the tree since last autumn, pointing to 18 months of consultation and to two of the protest organisers meeting with Berkeley Homes in May to discuss the matter, where the Town Hall says the campaign made clear that the protests would continue.
A spokesperson added: “The protest has been ongoing for some time now, and we consider that the protesters have been afforded a proper opportunity to express themselves and exercise their right to assembly.
“Given the stated intentions of the protestors and nature of the protest, unfortunately both the council and Berkeley Homes had no option but to take this legal action to ensure that there are no further delays to the construction of these desperately needed genuinely affordable new homes for social rent.”
Bell also argues that, in light of the recent court judgment finding that the council had impeded the freedom of expression of a member of the public around the potential demolition of Holborn Studios, that the decision on the Happy Man Tree’s fate is “legally questionable”.
The WDCO member claims that Cllr Vincent Stops, who chairs the council’s planning committee, asked councillors to absent themselves from the meeting ruling on the next phase of the estate’s regeneration if they had read lobbying material from objectors.
In the Holborn Studios case, Mr Justice Dove found that the freedom of expression of a member of the public had been “impeded” when the planning committee refused to directly receive emails raising concerns about the Holborn Studios case.
When asked if this request by the committee chair was in line with the Town Hall’s planning code, a council spokesperson said: “Members of the planning committee need only remove themselves from the consideration and determination of an item if they have a prejudicial interest.
“No declarations of interest were given during the 23 April planning sub-committee meeting, which covered the Woodberry Down application.”
Nearly 600 new homes are planned for the next phase of the regeneration, with 42 per cent of these classed as ‘affordable’; 117 homes for social rent and 126 for shared ownership and shared equity, with the remaining 341 for private sale.
The four blocks will range in height up to 20 storeys, with 1,045 square metres of flexible floorspace, an energy centre and 29 tennis courts’ worth of new open space, with a guarantee to plant 175 new trees to make up for the loss.
Part of the recommendation to approve the plans by officers stipulates that, were they to go ahead, the value of the tree would be repaid to compensate for the harm caused to the community by its loss, calculated at £175,000.
A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “Last week we applied to the High Court for a possession order and injunction so we can continue our work to build hundreds of desperately needed, genuinely affordable homes for local people at Woodberry Down.”
“This is a last resort, following months of consultation and meetings with local residents, and the plans being approved by the council’s planning committee in April.
“These plans include the planting of 175 new trees, as well as the creation of a new park and public open space equivalent in size to 29 tennis courts. The council is also planting 35,000 new trees across the borough by 2022.
“We will continue to work closely with local people and their elected representatives on next steps.”
A spokesperson for Berkeley Homes said: “Following the recent approval of the planning application for Phase 3, we want to move forward with the plans to deliver 584 much needed new homes, and plant 175 new trees, as quickly as possible.
“To enable this, Hackney Council has made an application for a possession order and injunction on Woodberry Grove which will allow us to remove the London Plane tree whilst respecting the safety of the protestors. We will be making no further comment on these proceedings until they conclude.”