The Happy Man Tree has just been crowned England’s Tree of the Year. At first glance, the ribbons and messages that adorn it appear celebratory, as if honouring its new title. But instead they draw attention to the tree’s fate – it is earmarked for felling to make way for local redevelopment. It might be too late to save the Happy Man Tree, although local campaigners are doing everything they can. But we can learn lessons from its story. Find out how things could have been different, and how you can save your local trees from the same fate.

Winning Tree of the Year

The 150-year-old Happy Man Tree stands on a residential street in London - an unusual location for a Tree of the Year. Sandwiched between the road and a building site, the plane tree gets its name from the now demolished Happy Man pub, which it stood next to for many years. 

Members of the public nominated the tree for the 2020 Tree of the Year title during lockdown in spring. The contest, supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, aims to showcase the UK’s favourite trees to help highlight their value and need for protection. After shortlisting by an independent panel of judges, the public overwhelmingly voted the Happy Man Tree as England’s winner.

Felling for redevelopment

It may be the nation’s favourite tree but sadly, not all votes have gone the Happy Man Tree’s way. A redevelopment project in the area earmarked the tree for removal. Members of the local community were swift to object. The Friends of the Happy Man Tree group created a website for the tree, installed art works and set up a petition to stoke interest in its plight. But the decision was made in September that the tree won’t be saved. The Happy Man Tree is due to be felled by the end of 2020.

The ending could have been different

The housing redevelopment will provide vitally important, high quality social housing. And Hackney Council has been doing some great work to increase access to green spaces, like setting a borough-wide target of 40% tree cover and including habitats such as wetlands in the redevelopment’s design.

But this was a poor decision. The developer has admitted that the tree could have stayed if plans were amended earlier in the consultation process. They said they always look at environmental value, and would have chosen a different design if they’d known how much the tree was valued.

Keeping existing trees is vital for new developments

It’s easy for developers to overlook the value of existing trees as has happened with the Happy Man Tree. Too often we see well-loved, mature trees lost to development rather than designed into plans from the start.

We’ve been campaigning for new developments to have a target of 30% tree canopy cover. Retaining existing trees, and ensuring councils have the resources to manage them, must be the first step in efforts to increase tree canopy cover. Planting new trees is important, but it takes time for them to mature and provide the benefits that trees like the Happy Man Tree offer.

Notice your trees

We often hear from people faced with losing their local trees. Sometimes these are trees people have known and loved for many years. And sometimes they are trees they walk past every day, never really noticing or imagining they could be lost.

The Happy Man Tree is adorned with signs saying ‘notice this tree’. That’s a poignant and important message. We hope that by winning Tree of the Year, many more people will notice the Happy Man Tree and others in the places they live and work.

Our planning system needs to change for the better

People often don’t realise what’s at risk until the last minute because the impact of planning decisions can be hard to understand. When this happens, it’s a lose-lose situation. An important mature tree and all its benefits are gone.

In London, retaining the Happy Man Tree would maintain the benefits to quality of life for people living in the redevelopment. The colours, shade, wildlife and other benefits of these mature trees would make a happier, healthier community.

Speak up for woods and trees today

The legacy of the Happy Man Tree must be that the planning system does two things:

  • Protects existing trees
  • Listens to local voices when making decisions on local trees and woods.

Right now, proposed changes to England’s planning system mean the perilous case of the Happy Man Tree could be repeated thousand fold. These proposals could reduce opportunities for community consultation on planning applications – often the first and last line of defence for trees. With fewer opportunities to speak up, local trees like the Happy Man Tree could be left without a voice. We must act now to make sure our existing trees are not left defenceless.

Defend your woods and trees. Defend your voice.

Press for planning system changes to protect nature by including our proposals.

Ask your MP to act

Take action to protect your local trees