The new forefront of the London gentrification battle: trees

Walthamstow Town Square

By Minttu Marjomaa

Walthamstow Town Square is one of the only areas of open land in the borough. The grass is patchy and dried yellow and the square is surrounded by tower blocks on one side and a Tube station on the other, so the bucolic illusion is very easily broken. This is no Hyde Park but it doesn’t need to be. On a Sunday afternoon in May, the square is buzzing with life. There is a farmers’ market in one corner and people of all ages wandering around, enjoying the sun.

Across the square there is a pathway, lined with old lime trees that envelop you in their shadow and provide shelter from the city noise. Some of the trees have little poems tied to their trunks. One of them reads:

“Why oh why?

Kill these lovely trees

No new planting

Can ever replace

The loss we will

See and feel

If you chop them down shame on you!!!”

Nancy Taaffe is behind this tree protection campaign. Taaffe could say she has campaigning in her blood. Her father is journalist and Socialist Party activist Peter Taaffe. She has been organising and protesting since she was a teenager – against youth unemployment, racial violence, library closures and, most recently, redevelopment in her home borough of Waltham Forest.

Waltham Forest is an area north of Holloway, between Hackney and Wood Green. It’s along the outer edges of the East End, and traditionally thought of as an outer London borough. Its residents had seen central London being regenerated; huge tower blocks rising to replace historic buildings, public parks and community spaces.

Walthamstow Town Square, Credit: Minttu Marjomaa

When the Olympics came, they were promised new jobs, housing and amenities but now, seven years later, retail is down and only select few are reaping the benefits. So by the time developers set their sight on Waltham Forest, the community was ready to take action.

“By the time they got to us, there was already a sort of hostility,” says Taaffe, 50. “People had experienced the negative effects so they had stopped believing in the promise of regeneration when our campaign came along.”

Felling “the heart” of the area

The campaign started when Waltham Forest Council granted permission for Capital & Regional and Mount Anvil to build an extension of The Mall shopping centre and four tower blocks in E17. This meant that the Walthamstow Town Square’s 80 lime trees would have to be felled. Taaffe describes the square as “the heart” of the area. It’s a place for theatre shows, fairs, markets and picnics.

“Even though it’s scruffy and it needs an update, people like that they have the square and the market and there’s no traffic,” says Taaffe. “We don’t have parks like central London has parks. That’s why it’s an important public space.”

The campaign has gone on for four years now and the group have gotten more and more creative along the way. They tied cards to the trees during Christmas and Valentine’s day and got local schoolchildren to write poems about them, which they mailed to council leader Clare Coghill. Last year they stormed London City Hall armed with brooms and kept sweeping to illustrate how working class people are “swept” out of London.

Not that they haven’t used traditional tactics as well.

“We did legal letters, we tried to get a judicial review, we had a massive demonstration with hundreds of people, we stood in election, we wrote to councillors, we went to Sadiq Khan, we tried to get a judicial review, we did everything. It was just so much over the years,” says Taaffe.

And it worked – sort of. Mount Anvil, the development company, severed ties with the investment company Capital & Regional and pulled out of the project last year. The planning permission was granted to Capital & Regional and it’s still theirs to use. They just haven’t got a development partner anymore.

Waltham Forest Council and Capital & Regional are still committed to delivering this transformational project for the town centre,” a spokesperson for Capital & Regional said in the East London & West Essex Guardian after the news came out. “We understand that there are concerns around the trees in the new town square and garden, and we would like to reassure the local community that new trees will be planted in the square and the public space will be transformed.”

Says Taaffe: “So we’re at a situation where the community is very conscious about what’s happening to the lime trees. We’re at statis. I wouldn’t say we’ve won but I wouldn’t say we’ve lost.”

The Save Our Square campaigners now have a WhatsApp group of “Tree Defenders”, who are prepared to go and chain themselves to the lime trees at a moment’s notice in case the fellers appear.

Group of Ten

During the four-year campaign, people have come and gone but the same core group of ten people, including Taaffe, have stayed. While their campaign originally was about the public square, the trees have gone to the forefront and become a symbol of a number of contentious issues: climate change, regeneration, air pollution and urban planning. The emergence of the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion last November has made Waltham Forest locals more engaged.

“That and the growing awareness about the climate has begun to feed into consciousness over our green areas,” says Taaffe. “Our activists are a mixture. We’ve had artists, parents who care about the environment, local trade unionists, young people, it’s really diverse. But all local.”

Trees are also at the centre of another East End redevelopment clash. A block of luxury flats proposed by Crest Nicholson Developers is about to be built in the grounds of the former London Chest Hospital, which would mean digging up an old mulberry tree. Library worker Pauline Sibley has been campaigning to save the tree known as the Bethnal Green Mulberry.

“People see this type of thing as tree hugging or they think we’re just some hippies. But the mulberry is important for the area, for the community. It’s an ancient tree with a long history,” says Sibley, 45.

Furious debate

In fact, the exact age of the tree has sparked a furious debate. According to a legend, it dates back to the Tudors when it was tended by Bishop Bonner. There is an old drawing of the bishop sitting under a mulberry tree trying to decide which heretics to execute. Campaigners are keen to point out all the similarities between their mulberry and the one in the old picture. However, some think it was planted when the hospital was built, which would make it around 150 years old.

The mulberry was initially covered by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), which made it a criminal offence to cut it down. The developers went to the Tower Hamlets Council and walked out with a permission to dig up the tree. They had presented a report by the planning consultants ‘Tree: Fabrik’ which stated that the mulberry wasn’t an old tree and would survive being moved to another location.

This would’ve been the end of it if people hadn’t spotted the announcement about the permission taped to a lamppost in Bethnal Green. Campaigner Tom Ridge claimed that the permission was unlawfully granted and issued a judicial review. Now it was his turn to present a report.

Lime tree, Credit: Minttu Marjomaa

This was delivered by arboriculturist Julian Forbes Laird. He examined the gnarly tree from every angle, analysing its stem, boughs and the soil it grew on. He compared historical photographs in order to pinpoint when exactly the mulberry had lost its left branch or shown evidence of crown failure. This detailed work resulted in a conclusion that the Bethnal Green Mulberry is potentially Bishop Bonner’s, as the legend claims, or in any case at least 219 years old.

The review was ruled in Ridge’s favour and the mulberry categorised as a veteran tree. This means that it can only be removed for ‘exceptional reasons’. Whether this includes Crest Nicholson’s proposed block of flats is not yet clear. Unsurprisingly, Sibley thinks that it shouldn’t.

“The thing is, they would only have to move the block a little to save the tree,” she said. “To think of how much calm and joy it brought to the people in the hospital; all the things it has witnessed.”

Activists say that the lime trees in Waltham Forest and the Bethnal Green Mulberry are important to the community; that they are part of an inherent social fabric that shouldn’t be destroyed. Councils and developers argue that new building projects can bring wealth and opportunities to the area, eventually benefiting everyone.

This is at the heart of London’s redevelopment battle. On one side, you have new housing, safety, better services and infrastructure and on the other, higher rents and the loss of old buildings and places – and trees – that make up the last remnants of character in the rapidly gentrifying city.



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