The former London Chest Hospital on Bonner Road is the site of the historic Mulberry tree © Jaime Rory Lucy
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Site of endangered Bethnal Green Mulberry tree could be developed into homes

The London Chest Hospital, once at the heart of a legal dispute over the preservation of an endangered Mulberry Tree, is now earmarked for redevelopment with half of the site allocated for affordable housing.

Clarion Housing Association has submitted plans to develop the Victorian-era London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, the site of a rare 400-year-old black Mulberry tree.

In the past, planning permission to redevelop the former hospital located in the Victoria Park Conservation area has been denied.

In May 2021, following a four year campaign, the High Court revoked planning permission for the redevelopment of the site into flats. The court found that the plans submitted by property developer Crest Nicholson would have likely led to the destruction of the veteran tree.

The resilient tree is an irreplaceable part of the East End’s local heritage, offering a window into our area’s history. When the London Chest Hospital was bombed in WW2, its adjacent chapel was destroyed, but the tree survived the blazes, aside from a few telling scars still visible today.

Now, three years after the legal dispute, the Grade II-listed former hospital on Bonner Road, adjacent to the western side of Victoria Park, is once again set for redevelopment under Clarion’s housebuilding arm, Latimer.

Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has drawn up plans for a 274-home proposal for the 1.6-hectare site. Half of the homes will be allocated as affordable housing, of which 70% is earmarked for social homes and 27% for shared ownership.

As well as the partial demolition and refurbishment of the hospital, the plans include the building of five new blocks ranging between five to nine storeys in height, according to the Architect’s Journal.

Latimer plans to preserve Grade-II listed elements of the site, such as the main hospital building, the South Wing, and its Victorian-era sanitary tower.

While Clarion’s designs ensure the preservation of the ancient Mulberry tree, Geoff Juden, Chairman of the East London Garden Society, has expressed concerns about the development’s impact on the natural green space. He said:

‘Latimer, the development arm of Clarion Housing, has cosseted The Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree, expectations are high that the tree will survive, however this will totally depend on how the tree takes to the shock of the building works.’

Juden said that whenever an area is designated for development, the ecology is likely to ‘suffer’.

‘A major factor here is that 20 trees are to be felled, although this is less than the 99 trees to be felled with the previous designs by Crest Nicholson, the air quality will be diminished in this part of London’, he added.

Suzanne Muna, the Secretary of the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC), said: ‘It is welcome news to hear that new housing is being developed in London. It is in desperately short supply, with families living in unsuitable accommodation or paying high rentals that they just can’t sustain.’

Tower Hamlets has the fourth highest level of overcrowding in England and Wales, according to the 2021 census. Around 19,130 of its homes were judged to be overcrowded – 15.9% of all homes in the borough.

Muna added: ‘It is very disappointing that only a proportion of homes are being earmarked for lower rents, and then only “Affordable Housing”, which can be anything up to 80% of full market rates. With the rental market in London so overheated, this still leaves rents way beyond the stretch of most salaries.’ 

She said it would have been better ‘see social rents applied to the whole estate, not just half of the new homes’.

A spokeperson for Latimer said: ‘Latimer is now delivering the full scheme, and as the development arm of Clarion Housing Group we have been able to increase the development’s affordable housing provision from 35% to 50%. Of these affordable homes, 72% will be for social rent, which are desperately needed in the community.

‘Our planning application will carefully preserve the existing Mulberry tree by implementing a variety of protection measures, including a wind mitigation screen and a perimeter railing system, to safeguard the tree and keep it in its current place.’

Latimer added that it has worked with a Tree Officer, Arboriculturist, landscape experts, and architects to design a scheme which will not only protect the Mulberry, but see a net increase of trees on the site, with 20 removed and 51 planted.

London Chest Hospital dates back to the 1850s and had a national reputation for treating cardiac and pulmonary disease. The site retains hallmarks of Victorian-era architecture such as gothic black gates, a gas lamp and a sanitary tower, originally designed by architect F. W. Ordish.

Run by Barts Health Trust since 1999, the hospital shut in 2015 with the creation of the Barts Heart Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. For nine years, the site has been vacant and derelict and was recently labelled ‘at risk’ according to Historic England.

In 2021, proposals to develop the hospital fell through after a High Court legal battle over the preservation of a historic Mulberry tree on site.

If the plans had gone through, the rare tree would have been relocated alongside 37 other trees to pave the way for the development of 291 flats – only 35 of which would have been affordable.

After a staunch campaign by the East End Preservation Society, which gained some high-profile supporters like Dame Judi Dench, a High Court ruled that Tower Hamlets Council had not properly considered the impact the development would have on the tree’s survival.

The tree is subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), issued by Tower Hamlets Council, making any felling, lopping or uprooting of the tree without permission by the local authority a legal offence. 

Latimer’s plans include the selected removal of some TPO trees, as well as more tree planting and landscaping works including a new shelter surrounding the Mulberry tree.

A consultation on the planning application ended on Saturday 16 March and Tower Hamlets Council has set an internal target date of Tuesday 28 May for a decision.

For more local news, read Mayor Lutfur Rahman to remove Palestinian flags in Tower Hamlets

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