In the run up to an election in which housing is likely to be a major faultline, CapX will be celebrating the way our planning system is working to save the country from the blight of affordable housing or decent infrastructure. Every week or so Jonn Elledge will be examining a particular case in which something could have been built but, thanks to the sterling effort of the Britain’s hard working Nimbys, actually wasn’t. First off, the strange case of the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree…
Where is it? Bethnal Green, in London’s East End.
What’s there now? The remains of the London Chest Hospital, opened in the 1850s to care for the tuberculosis sufferers of ol’ London town. Consumption’s not the problem it was, though, so the hospital saw its last patient in the spring of 2015. Since then it’s been a derelict site right next to Victoria Park, in a postcode with an average property price just shy of £600,000.
Sounds ideal. Who tried to build what? A joint-venture between Latimer, an arm of housing association Clarion, and housebuilders Crest Nicholson proposed a scheme for 341 homes back in 2016; that finally emerged from the consultation process as a plan for 291 homes, 35% of them affordable. Despite whinging from the Victorian Society that this would imperil a Grade II listed building – such a key part of the nation’s heritage it was granted that status the year after the hospital closed – the plan was approved by Tower Hamlets council in 2020.
So what stopped them? A tree – and Judi Dench.
If you’re cracking jokes about the talents of Dame Judi we’re going to fall out. No, look, the site is also home to a mulberry tree of indeterminate age. Some people claim it might be the very tree Bishop Bonner sat under while pondering which protestants to burn back in the 1550s, and obviously we wouldn’t want to lose that. More likely it’s only a couple of centuries old. At any rate it’s older than the hospital.
And those evil, profit-hungry developers wanted to murder that poor innocent tree like it was just another protestant did they? No! They wanted to move it. But groups like the East End Preservation Society saw in the potentially fatal stress this might place on an elderly tree an opportunity to battle an ‘overblown development’ which would blight the Victoria Park conservation area ‘for generations to come’. They used the patronage of Dame Judi, who said the idea of digging up the tree ‘filled her with horror’, to garner a lot of press coverage: that helped them to gather a 17,000 signature petition – not quite as many as the 23,000 households on the Tower Hamlets housing waiting list, but not bad – and to raise £20,000 for a judicial review.
People love trees, even those who don’t have 10 BAFTAs. Yes, but some suspect the campaigners had other motives. A counter-petition accused them of using a tree as mere cover for their objections to new housing (‘They are hiding behind a tree’), and objected even to plans to move it (‘This is giving ground to enemies who cannot be negotiated with. It must be destroyed’). But that petition won no celebrity endorsements and no fawning write-ups, and after failing to capture the nation’s imagination garnered only 162 signatures.
Anyway, the tree won: in 2021, the High Court said that the council’s planning committee had ‘misinterpreted’ national planning policy, and quashed the planning application. The tree continues to flourish, sort of – it’s propped up on some wood, which feels like the arboreal equivalent of life support – and Clarion/Latimer, now sole owners, are consulting on revised plans for ‘up to 280 homes’. This is, you’ll recall, a reduction of nearly 1/5th on the number proposed eight years ago now. But the plan has yet to win approval, and trees aside, the site remains unoccupied. National planning policy officially cares more about old trees than young people.
Oh well, at least poorly-housed East-enders can go and look at a tree. Ha, ha, no: it’s fenced off. But they can see a derelict site in the middle of London, and some fences on which Latimer has now plastered the reassuring slogan ‘Protecting heritage, biodiversity and natural habitats’. And isn’t that just as good, really?
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