Happy Man Tree to be felled as councillors accept loss ‘with a heavy heart’

The Happy Man Tree, pictured in June. Photograph: Ellen Halliday

The Happy Man Tree, a 150-year-old London plane whose planned felling sparked street protests, court injunctions and the vocal opposition of over 25,000 petitioners, is set to be cut down.

The decision came as councillors looked again at plans to build 584 new homes as part of the third phase of the regeneration of the Woodberry Down estate, which will also see 175 new trees planted and 29 tennis courts’ worth of open space.

The plans were discussed again as a result of the adoption of a new Local Plan by the council before the arrangements for the scheme could be finalised, and saw over 130 new objections, including from the Woodberry Down branch of the Labour Party and updated comment from the Hackney Society.

Planning committee chair Cllr Vincent Stops said: “If all places were as sustainable as Woodberry Down will be, then we would be in less difficulties than we are now.

“Because it has been designed in that light, with low car ownership and greening. This committee rarely allows trees [to be lost], and the planning system in Hackney does not take lightly the loss of trees, but occasionally that will happen.

“The urban form does move around, and Woodberry Down is clearly one of them. It is with a heavy heart that one accepts the loss of that tree, but in the round we will be containing a sustainable community.”

Debate at the meeting coalesced around planning policy at the council on the loss of trees, with Hoxton councillor Steve Race pointing to a statement in Town Hall documents which states uncompromisingly that all trees of amenity value must be retained.

Officers responded that lines such as this should be balanced by other competing interests in the planning system, pointing out another line of policy that stipulates that the loss of non-protected trees would not be supported unless adequate replanting takes place.

The council has accepted that the Happy Man is a “healthy mature specimen with a reasonable projected lifespan of high amenity value in the public realm”, adding that its loss is “regrettable”.

Anne King, representing the Friends of the Happy Man Tree, said: “The Happy Man Tree has been a cultural reference point for many decades, and in recent months appreciation has grown as it has become a focal point. Incredible stories have been told about memories of the tree and the estate.

“Woodberry Down has undergone extensive changes, and community fragmentation has created a profound sense of loss to some longer-term residents. There is inequality between many of the residents, and retaining the tree is an issue of social justice.

“It is a challenge to capture the voices of these residents, who may not access the online planning process, but on the street they are loud and clear. Berkeley Homes may choose to frame the issue as a binary choice between housing and the tree, but most people want both.”

King added that it was “not acceptable” for residents to be faced with a choice between housing and the tree, with both developer Berkeley Homes and the council arguing in response to an alternative design produced by campaigners that any new options would trigger a 15-month delay to the delivery of new homes.

Dan Massie, development director for Berkeley Homes, said: “A significant amount of time has been spent by partners exploring opportunities to retain the tree, but it was included that none of these options would have resulted in a better scheme design.

“The officers’ report reiterates that its removal has been assessed to be acceptable with mitigation that far outweighs the loss of the tree. The mitigation includes the provision of 65 additional trees, and the payment of £175,000 for additional street tree planting in Woodberry Down.”

Massie added: “It is fair to say that when we were made aware of the feelings around the tree and the local concerns at the end of last year, this was the first time that they had been raised.

“We always look at environmental value, and wouldn’t, if we had known these concerns, gone down the design route that we did, but we are in the place that we are.”

The Hackney Society added an updated objection to the reconsidered proposals, underlining the new Local Plan’s strictures that “all development proposals must retain and protect existing trees of amenity value”, and pointing out that any inconvenience in terms of additional works “are entirely the fault of the applicant and can have no material weight in assessing the optimum outcome for the site”.

The Happy Man was recently 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.

However, officers argued that the support expressed for the tree, from both within and outside the community, did not amount to “significant historic cultural value”, going on to claim that the name ‘Happy Man Tree’ commenced only during the course of the current planning process, having taken its name from the nearby public house.

Planning officer Catherine Slade added: “A lot of representations have claimed cultural significance for the tree, and I am in no way trying to diminish its amenity value for local residents. However, being an attractive specimen and being held in affection by many people is not the same as having cultural significance such as confers veteran status.

“For example, other trees on the Tree of the Year shortlist have cultural value by virtue of being associated with historic myths, figures or folklore related to healing and romance. There is nothing comparable in this case.”

Officers added that cultural and heritage value as well as biodiversity would be added if features of decay such as dead wood and hollowing were to be found, which in the Happy Man’s case, they are not.

Campaigners have also pointed to the gas-powered energy network to be constructed as part of the scheme, with the council accepting that using gas rather than renewable energy, given the Town Hall’s declaration of a climate emergency, is “unfortunate”.

Berkeley have said that work will take place to allow for the network to be powered by alternative technologies and fuels in the future to allow for lower carbon emissions.

The application for Phase 3 will now be sent to London Mayor Sadiq Khan for approval, with both council and developer promising that the Happy Man will not be felled until both this process and Section 106 contributions as part of the application agreed with Berkeleys are both complete.

Existing council tenants whose homes will be demolished as part of the regeneration programme are guaranteed one of the new homes at the same type of social rent.

An independent report submitted as part of the application found the mitigation measures put in place would have a net benefit on biodiversity on the estate, though campaigners present at the meeting claimed that some new trees already planted as part of regeneration work on the estate have not survived.

The application was also supported by residents’ group the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO), with chair Phil Cooke saying: “The WDCO board discussed the Phase 3 proposal at their recent AGM and agreed to support the planning application. I am glad that, shortly, new social rented homes will start to be built for the residents of Woodberry Down who have been patiently waiting for years for a move.”

Responding to the application’s approval, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville said: “I’m delighted that these plans have been approved, delivering hundreds of genuinely affordable homes for local residents who need them. I know this hasn’t been an easy process for some, but I’d like to thank the Woodberry Down Community Organisation for their support.

“With our partners, we can now proceed with Phase 3 which will also deliver important new green infrastructure.

“Hundreds of local council tenants have already benefited from a brand new home at a social rent since our partnership started in 2009, and getting these homes built is vital to help even more families do the same – rather than languishing in poor-quality housing.”