Protesters who saved 400-year-old tree urge locals to back further campaigns

The mulberry tree in Bethnal Green. Pics: East London Garden Society

The man who helped run a successful campaign that saved an iconic historic mulberry tree in Bethnal Green says the only way to prevent similar attempts on natural landmarks is for locals to come together.

Geoff Juden, chairman of the East London Garden Society was speaking to EastLondonLines after the campaign to save the 400-year-old Bethnal Green mulberry tree was victorious in the High Court.

He said: “If we don’t challenge councils and authorities when they start destroying nature, then what are we going to do when there’s nothing left? “If the council doesn’t do it and the law doesn’t do it, then it means that campaigners must.”

Juden and other campaigners took their battle to the high court after plans to remove the tree were approved by Tower Hamlets council to make way for 291 residential units.

£50,000 in legal funding was raised to challenge the council’s decision, and a petition gained 17,000 signatures.

In a statement after the High Court refused (developers) Crest Nicholson’s redevelopment of the former London Chest Hospital, The East End Preservation Society said they were “overjoyed”.

Juden said the of campaign: “The Bethnal Green mulberry tree is symbolic in itself because it is iconic to east London. Something that has got so much history in it, so much love in it, and so much iconic status surrounding it, well, then it certainly has to be saved.”

Maple trees in Bethnal Green. Pic: Neil Clifton

Juden, who is well known locally in Tower Hamlets, said: “If you lose trees you don’t breathe. If you want to go through some kind of concrete jungle okay fine, but you are going to suffer, your grandchildren are going to suffer. If you have to leave something behind let it be the power that we can do something now to be able to achieve a better future for them.”

Juden shared with East London Lines his fears for many more trees set to go to make way for developments.

He said: “In Tower Hamlets, unlike other London Boroughs, they seem to be cutting down trees with great ability.”

The East London Garden society developed from just five gardeners “sharing tips on how to grow onions” to a strong group and network of campaigners, “looking for trees and gardens that need to be saved and living in a better environment for gardeners to achieve their purpose.”

Cavell Street Gardens and Ford Square in Whitechapel received planning approval for renovation which would remove four trees and “plant eight semi-mature replacement trees” according to Alice Bigelow the Interim Parks manager.

Trees in Cavell Street gardens set to go. Pic: Geoff Juden

The Limehouse Triangle on Salmon Lane is a site of biodiversity which is set to be removed to make way for a new housing tower block.

The mulberry tree campaign, which began back in 2017, was spearheaded by The East End Preservation Society and Juden, and gained high profile backing from Dame Judi Dench, who said the idea of digging up the tree “filled her with horror”.

The tree, which is the oldest in the East End, is believed to be planted during the reign of Henry VII.

The chapel it once stood next to was destroyed by a bomb during World War Two leaving the tree with scarred bark.

Unlike that of a grade listed building, trees do not have the same protection if any.

In a judgment delivered on Friday May 21, Sir Duncan Ouseley said the council’s planning committee had unlawfully misinterpreted national planning policy when it considered whether the tree would die or deteriorate if it was moved.

Ouseley said: “A policy was misinterpreted; a material consideration was ignored.”

Tower Hamlets council say they are committed to tackling the housing crisis hoping to deliver a target of 2,000 homes by 2022.

They said: “At just eight square miles, space to build in Tower Hamlets is in short supply. We’re making the most of land that we already own, including buildings no longer used as they once were.”

Tower Hamlets also say they are making it clear to private developers that 35%-50% of new homes in developments should be “genuinely affordable” along with “delivering 2,00 new council homes”.

The East End Preservation Society said: “At this time of Climate Emergency and, as we move to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, it is obvious that London should not be building such densely crowded housing and that we need planning decisions which are environmentally responsible.”

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