Morgan Jones: What people talk about when they talk about mulberry trees

Morgan Jones: What people talk about when they talk about mulberry trees

In the mid-19th century the London Chest Hospital was established in Bethnal Green, primarily to treat tuberculosis. This was the time of Toynbee Hall and university settlements, of the People’s Palace and the cruelty of workhouses laid bare in the pages of Dickens. In the East End, ideas about social responsibility and charity – ideas that would play a key part in what would become the welfare state a century later – were beginning to take shape.

On the grounds of the Chest Hospital was a mulberry tree, one of many in an area that had once been home to the Huguenot silk trade. There is an ongoing debate about the tree’s age, though most will agree that it dates from at least the hospital’s founding in the late 1840s. Through the reign of Queen Victoria and World War I and the Wall Street Crash, the tree has stood. It was damaged during the Blitz, but survived. It watched the foundation of the NHS and the turn of the millennium.

In figures for 2019, the government listed tuberculosis as occurring in Britain at a rate of eight cases per 100,000. It is not the problem it once was. In 2015, the London Chest Hospital closed, and its facilities were consolidated to the Barts and  London hospitals. The land, including the tree, was sold to developers, with plans for 291 dwellings on the site, just over a third of them classed as affordable. Planning in London is a contested business, and with these proposals an entirely new chapter in the history of the mulberry tree began.

I first heard of the tree in around 2018, when stickers inciting passers-by to “Save the Mulberry Tree” decorated with a stylised image of it began to appear along the Bethnal Green Road. The proposed development on the hospital site would entail moving the mulberry. It was argued that this would damage or even kill the tree. These were the early days of a spirited campaign launched by the East End Preservation Society (EEPS), an organisation formed in 2013 “to prevent further developments causing harm to the historic fabric of the East End” – a campaign which in May of this year declared victory, after winning a High Court battle.

Campaigns of this sort have familiar beats: big developers (in this case Crest Nicholson), people banding together, an allegedly beloved local landmark, a celebrity backer (enter Dame Judy Dench, who said she was filled “with horror” at the thought of any harm coming to the tree) and a happy ending. However, in many ways, the story of the people whose quest for a judicial review “saved” the tree, is less interesting than the one of the unusual coalition of the people who would happily see the Bethnal Green Mulberry used for firewood. 

The EEPS raised money to pay costs of the judicial review through a petition, “Save the Bethnal Green Mulberry”. Rory Edmund is the author of a counter petition to “Destroy the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree”. He admits if this were a film, the other side would probably be cast as the goodies. He says that part of what drew him into the anti-tree movement was “the hugely uncritical nature of the reporting on it. I feel like these sort of campaigns…it’s reported almost not as a political issue. If it were any other political issue, if a journalist was writing up on it, they would go: there are two sides to this story; do we need to get some opposition comment? But they just see it as a completely apolitical thing – trees are nice so we should save the tree and stop the greedy developers”.

It was out of frustration at this that he drafted his counter petition, which is strident in its aims: “Previous plans from the council suggested moving the tree. This is a failure of ambition, and is giving ground to enemies who cannot be negotiated with. It must be destroyed.” 

Edmund has at times been a member of the Liberal Democrats and of Labour. There is no clear delineation along party lines when it comes to the tree. “It doesn’t actually matter if you’re a Communist or a Tory”, says George – not his real name –  a Conservative activist, who, when asked about the odd coalitions planning issues create, says; “You want to be housed, and you want to have a house that you can make your own, that you can have a stake in”.

For those who support the development, the campaign around the tree is nothing more than an impediment to a basic good: the supply of new housing. “We’ve got 20,000 people on a waiting list for social housing”, says Sue Rossiter, who chaired the Bethnal Green & Bow Labour Party between 2018 and 2021. “We’ve got real difficulties keeping people in the borough, because the cost of private renting in Tower Hamlets is so high. Frankly, 130 people off that waiting list would actually have done a huge amount.”

Edmund’s petition makes a clear criticism of those campaigning to protect the tree, namely, that they actually have no meaningful interest in the tree itself. He writes: “Save the Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree is a campaign against building homes in central London. They are hiding behind a tree”. George is strongly in agreement, claiming that the campaigners are particularly averse to the 35 per cent of residents of the development who would move into the area. “They don’t want their house prices to go down. The Mulberry Tree is simply a vehicle”. His broader allegation is that campaigns like this will latch onto anything to halt housebuilding: “They will take a dog turd that’s been there for more than five days and say it’s a pillar of the community. These are just vehicles against development”. 

Rossiter too feels there is a heavy element of concern about house prices in the push to preserve the mulberry tree. “I think the number of people that care about the tree is probably very small,” she says. “I think it’s people wishing to preserve in aspic something that can’t be preserved in aspic”. 

Caitlin Wilkinson of the campaign group Generation Rent is another sceptic. While accepting that the environmental impacts of development need to be considered, she says she doesn’t really buy such concerns about the tree, “given that it would have been moved and others planted.” Now, nearly 300 homes “in an area of London that desperately needs them are not going to be built. It’s not a hot take really”.

Not everyone I spoke to was as strident as George and Rory Edmund in decrying campaigners for saving the tree as disingenuous. Economist Shreya Nanda thinks they are sincere (“everybody likes trees and green spaces”) but fail to appreciate the context for the development and the ongoing housing crisis, in particular how, due in part to the Covid crisis, “young people are becoming more radicalised about housing”.

Intergenerational conflict is often brought up when the mulberry tree is discussed. Rossiter notes that in the area there will be many “young people who see that a secure property for themselves, either as a purchase or as social housing, is just drifting out of reach, and they will be saying, ‘one tree versus property, we actually think property in the right place is quite sensible’.” Wilkinson highlights the fact that “people who raise objections [to developments] like this in general are overwhelmingly more likely to be home owners rather than private renters or in other forms of unstable or transient housing.” The Office for National Statistics provides stark numbers about the correlation between age and home ownership: almost three quarters of those aged over 65 own their home outright; people in their mid-30s to mid-40s are three times more likely to be renting than they were 20 years ago.

For both of the country’s feasible parties of national government, the increasingly top heavy nature of UK home ownership presents major questions. George, the Conservative, highlights a range of reasons why home ownership for the young is good for the Conservative Party. One is a tendency among people who own homes to have children and subsequently “move to the right on a host of social issues” (“crime, schools, academisation, breaking the hold of teaching unions, lower council taxes”). Another is the electoral danger presented by people priced out of super-safe Labour seats in say, Hackney, moving to increasingly marginal Tory seats in the South East, potentially imperilling the “Blue Wall”. At the moment, he says, “even if everyone under 45 voted Labour, they still couldn’t win, so the Conservative Party has a vested interest in keeping the old happy and house prices going up. But it is a colossal ponzi scheme – at some point it collapses”. 

Shreya Nanda notes that, from a Labour perspective, issues such as those surrounding the tree have a central place in the analysis of the party’s resounding defeat in 2019. “There was the original narrative – ‘Labour’s lost the working class because it’s become too woke’”, she says, but adds that some are now pushing back on that and “trying to build a new narrative – is it about class, or is it about age, or is it about home ownership?”

A clear elucidation of this new narrative might be found in Owen Hatherley’s recent history of the left in London government, where the author highlights high levels of home ownership in “Red Wall” seats (over 75 per cent in Warrington South and over 74 per cent in Barrow & Furness) compared with London’s safe Labour seats (20 per cent in Hackney South and Shoreditch). We cannot predict the political future, and people do not always act as we might expect them to. That said, as Nanda points out, “It’s difficult to overstate the impact these kinds of things – spatial geography, housing – have on the political map”. And it is clear that whatever it is people talk about when they talk about mulberry trees has deep roots.

Leaving national electoral analysis aside, the Bethnal Green tree’s critics are united on one issue: they think it’s just a bit crap. “Look at it”, says George. “It already looks dead! All it would take is somebody to bang a few copper nails into it and it’s gone. I don’t care if it’s been around forever. So have many dreadful things. Eurovision’s been around since 1957 and it’s still awful”. Sue Rossiter concurs: “There’s more wood holding it up as props than there is alive at the moment”.

“I’d still probably support getting rid of a nice tree, if it meant there was a lot more housing,” says Rory Edmund. “But it’s such a rubbish tree, and it makes it so much easier to think that the people who are campaigning for it are just lying about why they’re doing it, because it looks like such absolute garbage. It can’t even stand up”. 

Whether or not it is any good as a piece of greenery, debates over the mulberry tree go to the heart of what the East End of London is – who owns it and who can decide its future. The London Chest hospital was founded to better the health of the people of Bethnal Green. Its concern was the ability of ordinary people to lead better, more dignified lives. Rossiter says, “There’s only so much we can be precious about, without saying, unless you’re earning 100k a year, that you can’t afford to live in Bethnal Green. That, for the East End is surely what we should be protecting – accommodation that people can afford and that they don’t feel insecure in”.  

Rory Edmund, drawn into this saga by sheer frustration, does not find himself any happier at its conclusion: “Can’t we just reach a grand bargain where we accept that young people will never get any housing and we’ll pay all our money in the world into rent but in return we get one thing – exerting some power in the world by burning down the shitty tree.”

Morgan Jones is originally from Ireland but has lived in London since 2015, for most of that time in Bethnal Green and Bow. She works in politics. Follow Morgan on Twitter. Photograph: Peter Coles.

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Categories: Analysis

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