Happy Man Tree.

Campaigners fighting to save a 150-year-old plane tree in Woodberry Down from being cut down to make way for the regeneration of a nearby estate have presented an alternative plan which they claim could save it.

Architects working with the Save the Happy Man Tree campaign have presented plans removing the block which currently necessitates the tree’s removal could be reprovided elsewhere in the revamped estate, as well as creating a space which would form the terrace of a Happy Man cafe connected to a town square.

According to the campaign, the lost homes could be replaced by additional storeys on other blocks to the south of the site, with work on the redesign of the scheme to be carried out as construction starts in order to avoid delays.

Campaigners said: “We think that this scheme would enhance the development enormously, and enable this much-loved community tree, which has a lot of value to the community, to be retained.

“[It would also] improve the design of the public realm, and lead to a vibrant, sustainable local community in the future.”

The alternative scheme would have the same number of affordable housing units, according to campaigners, whose petition to save the tree has now been signed by just under 25,000 people.

Explainer video for alternative scheme.

Hackney Council and developer Berkeley Homes have long argued that the loss of the tree is unavoidable, saying that its retention causes “design harm and reduction in affordable housing” in the next phase of the estate.

Both council and developer have dismissed the alternative presented by campaigners, pointing out that the solution to the loss of the tree would require a new planning application, which they say would result in delays of 15 months to construction and locals having to wait until at least 2026 to move into new homes.

Local resident Peter Gosnell said: “I have lived in Woodberry Down since 1955. Four generations of my family have participated in many aspects of community life. My daughter, Elaine and I were at the forefront of the long campaign which saved the New River and Stoke Newington Reservoirs, now Woodberry Wetlands. My family’s images are even on the story boards which tell the Estate’s history, located in Spring Park, Woodberry Down.

“Prior to the regeneration,  the street scene of Woodberry Grove and the road, Woodberry Down, were well known to me because my parents lived in Nicholl House and I had close associations with the comprehensive school and St Olave’s church. I am saddened that it has been denuded of mature broad leaf trees by Berkeley Homes; London planes, horse chestnuts and lime trees as well as fruit trees, including mulberry and pear, have been stripped away.

 “The Happy Man Tree is a London plane, an icon of London. It is a Grade A tree and according to the Arup ecological report referred to on the Mayor’s website, it is ‘in a good condition’. At the previous planning meeting the Hackney tree officer conveyed the fineness of this specimen.” 

Gosnell went on to point to the tree being shortlisted for the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year 2020, having been selected by due to both the “important contribution” it makes to combatting pollution and greening city streets, and its role as part of the community’s collective history. 

The Woodland Trust said: “The threat to the Happy Man Tree highlights how important it is that all housing developments are planned with existing and mature trees at their heart: we all deserve trees and green spaces around where we live, including in our most urban areas.

A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “The Phase 3 application is being considered by the planning sub-committee on 9 September. It is going back to committee following the adoption of the new Local Plan by full council in July, and the application continues to have the support of the council in its regeneration capacity.

“Any alternative proposal at this stage would involve a delay to the project of at least 15 months, and in turn a delay for Woodberry Down residents moving into the 117 social rent homes in Phase 3.”

A spokesperson from Berkeley Homes said: “When concerns were first raised we reviewed the plans to reassess the opportunity to retain the tree, and also considered how homes could be redistributed as part of the scheme to accommodate the retention of the tree. The studies we produced were shared and discussed with local residents on the design committee. However, those studies – as with this solution – would require a new planning application, and would result in a delay to the regeneration programme by a minimum of 15 months.

“Whilst the buildings will be constructed in phases, the planning permission is for the whole of Phase 3 – it is not possible to remove homes in Phase 1 and add homes to Phase 2 without triggering the same 15 month delay that would come with a new planning application. In a best case scenario this would mean local people having to wait until 2026 to move into their new homes, and potentially even longer.”

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