Victory in court bid to stop historic tree being moved to make way for Bethnal Green flats

The Mulberry tree Credit: East London Garden Society

Campaigners have won a High Court challenge over plans to move what is believed to be one of the oldest trees in London’s East End to make way for flats.

Geoffrey Juden, of the East End Preservation Society, led a legal challenge to preserve the “veteran black mulberry tree”, which was left with scarred bark when a chapel which stood next to it was destroyed by a bomb during the Second World War.

Mr Juden took Tower Hamlets Council to court to overturn its decision to grant planning permission for flats to be built at the site of the former London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green.

Planning permission to demolish part of the site, excluding the main hospital building and sanitation tower, to build 291 residential units, was granted in October 2020.

At a hearing earlier this month, the court heard the tree originally grew in the grounds of Bishop Bonner’s Palace and that “an inkwell in the museum of the Royal London Hospital, made in 1915 from a bough, has a brass plate engraved with the sardonic yarn that the clergyman sat beneath it to enjoy shelter in the cool of the evening while deciding which heretics to execute”.

In a judgment delivered on Friday, Sir Duncan Ouseley said the tree “had historical associations, some proven and some not, and had survived significant bomb damage during the Blitz”.

He ruled that the council’s planning committee unlawfully misinterpreted national planning policy when they considered the risk the tree would die or deteriorate if it was moved.

The judge said members of the committee did not take into account “the policy which they were advised they were taking into account, and which they were advised had been met”.

Sir Duncan added: “They took into account something else, not very different but sufficiently different to create a legal error.

“A policy was misinterpreted, a material consideration was ignored.

“I do not consider that I can hold that it was highly likely that the outcome would have been the same if that error had not been made.

“It might very well have been, but the issue was of importance to members, and to the public – the vote was a narrow one.”

In a statement, the East End Preservation Society said it was “overjoyed to learn the decision of the High Court to refuse (developers) Crest Nicholson’s redevelopment of the former London Chest Hospital and prevent the developer digging up the 400-year-old tree”.

The statement added: “We would like to thank the hundreds of people who funded our legal action, the 17,000 who signed our petition and especially Dame Judi Dench for being patron of our campaign.

“Crest Nicholson’s overblown development would have blighted the Victoria Park conservation area in east London for generations to come.

“It (would have) demolished a listed building, removed a large number of mature trees and delivered far too few affordable homes.

“We hope Crest Nicholson learn a lesson from this judgment and go back to the drawing board.

“In the light of the recent decision to approve the redevelopment of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, we are dismayed by the shameful way Tower Hamlets Council have repeatedly advocated bad developments, without regard for the community or heritage.

“But we are delighted that in this case justice has prevailed and the Bethnal Green mulberry is saved.

“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.

“The Bethnal mulberry is the oldest tree in the East End, surviving plague, fire and (the) Blitz. We hope it will flourish for centuries to come to inspire us all.”