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Hurdles and frustration as council approves cutting down the Happy Man Tree

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

At the planning meeting on 9 September, Hackney Council made the decision to go ahead with cutting down the Happy Man Tree and to approve the application for Woodberry Down Phase 3.

That the council would not budge to allow the tree to be retained did not really come as a surprise as they have increasingly hardened their stance and employed various questionable arguments and strategies against the Friends of the Happy Man Tree.

This final stage of approval for a regeneration scheme in which the council are themselves heavily invested threw up yet more obstacles for any genuine dialogue with the community.

In conceding in July that the Phase 3 planning application would be reconsidered by the planning committee in light of Hackney's new local plan, the council invited the public to submit comments on it. Nearly 200 comments (mostly objections) were received but these were minimally summarised in less than half a page in the planning officer's report (which was published before the given deadline for comments as the consultation process was not started soon enough) and two pages in an addendum report circulated on the day of the meeting. The report noted, but did not take responsibility for, difficulties many people had in accessing the online planning documentation and comments system. Confusion over the deadline date for inclusion in the main officer's report was described as 'unfortunate' but 'not procedurally incorrect'.

All the carefully worded and important detail of the comments were unavailable to everyone (Councillors, other objectors) but the planning officers. Thankfully, some objectors sent their comments directly to the members of the committee. These councillors are now allowed to read material sent by objectors following the judgement in the recent Holborn Studios case which deemed that such material should not be viewed as lobbying and as a result could be read. We can only hope that the committee members did at least read them.

Objectors to a planning application are given the chance to register to speak briefly at the planning committee. What was unclear until the preceding day was that all objectors had to speak within a single five minute slot. At this point there were still seven people wishing to speak. All but one were copied into an email (the council sharing email addresses of people who may or may not know each other felt like a breach of data protection laws) and told them that they must share the five minutes and effectively contact each other with little notice and sort it out between themselves.

A number of protests were quickly made about this extraordinary arrangement and the impossibly short amount of time allowed for representations at the meeting, especially as Phase 3 is such a large development. The Chair of the committee conceded to grant the now six speakers a minute and a half each, although at the meeting itself he seemed adamant that he didn't want to listen to a second more than 10 minutes from all speakers.

In the event, three people pooled their time and a further three spoke for one to one and a half minutes. Every second counted as Hackney Council timed contributions and cut people off if they ran on after their allotted time. The next person had to be ready to speak immediately. The whole thing felt so much like a race to get words out before the cut came, that what was being said seemed almost secondary. The restrictions felt aggravated by the meeting taking place online as sound quality issues were ignored and people silenced by their audio being muted. The direct presence of an audience which would usually give a tangible sense of scrutiny was lacking.

In contrast, the representative from the developer Berkeley Homes was given the same ten minutes to talk the same spiel that they have put out in their aggressive marketing materials.

The same planning officer that very summarily discussed the written objections and recommended approval of the scheme in her report to the committee was then the one to present the scheme to members. This brought home the fact that the council is very much a partner in delivering this development with significant vested interests, yet it is also the body charged with approving it.

This Twitter thread provides a succinct analysis of much of what was wrong with the decision-making at Wednesday’s planning meeting which approved the Phase 3 development and felling of the Happy Man Tree.

Friends of the Happy Man Tree argued that the tree is an amenity tree, as it has biological, aesthetic and cultural value. Hackney's new local plan states that amenity trees 'must' be retained yet they are allowing the Happy Man Tree to be cut down. This flouting of newly signed off policy was challenged by a committee member but council officers defended it by saying that it could be balanced by competing interests and a tree planting mitigation programme (although objectors had pointed out that a great many of the new trees planted on the estate have died or are very neglected). This suggests that the local plan is at best not using correct wording for this policy or, at worse, willing to ignore its own policy when convenient.

There were quite a few points during the meeting when we were taken aback at the things being said. One such moment was when a council tree officer undermined the importance of the tree to the community, effectively saying that because he couldn’t find any historical record after, in his own admission, a brief Google search, or in the Hackney archives, it didn't have (the right kind of) cultural value. We didn't get the chance to challenge this elitist view of cultural value, or the lack of awareness about how social value operates in local communities, and the display of contempt for local people’s opinions and experiences – all of which were also perpetuated by the council’s planning officer.

What was particularly dispiriting was the lack of questions from committee members to any of the objectors. Not one question was asked of those who had felt compelled to speak out on their issue - the Happy Man Tree, the CHP energy centre (which is currently proposed to run on gas), the lack of assessment of carbon emissions, and various design issues related to light, density and privacy. It felt like no-one on the committee respected objectors' views enough to make them feel like they had been heard.

There was some discussion between committee members about the Happy Man Tree, the energy centre and carbon emissions, as well as questions to officers. There were a few brief interrogations of key points but these didn't make much progress in exploring objectors detailed concerns and were generally allowed to fizzle out. Answers that lacked details or that did not answer questions were passively accepted by Councillors. Serious issues about light and density raised by objections, and the alternative design put forward by Friends of the Happy Man Tree, received no attention at all.

All (Labour) members voted to approve the application with one (Conservative) abstention.

We're sure this is not new to those with similar stories, particularly communities who've tried to object to regeneration projects and large developments. Even asking for a single tree not to be cut down by taking a genuine approach to looking at alternatives was asking too much.

The video of the planning committee meeting can be watched in full here.

The presentation given on behalf of Friends of the Happy Man Tree can be read here.

Read the Hackney Citizen account of the meeting.

Thanks to the Hackney Society Planning Group and Stoke Newington Conservation Area Advisory Committee for support in objecting to felling the Happy Man Tree.

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