Hundreds of campaigners against a proposed development by one of Chancellor George Osborne’s favorite developers British Land, have formed a human chain around Norton Folgate close to Spitalfields Market on the edge of the City of London. The focus of their complaint is a proposed development which, rather than attempt the conversion and re-use of existing buildings, would see the demolition of at least 72% of the fabric of largely Georgian and Victorian buildings within the Elder Street Conservation Area and their replacement by corporate friendly offices with, critics argue, the sky high commercial rents to match, thus shutting off the area to local businesses. It is also pointed out that the plan goes against the planning guidelines for the Elder Street Conservation Area set down by Tower Hamlets Council. The British Land plan has led architectural historian, campaigner for historic buildings and Spitalfields resident Dan Cruickshank to comment that
“British Land’s proposal would, if given planning permission, create a terrifying precedent undermining all historic quarters throughout the country.”
The reasoning behind Mr Cruickshanks comment is clear. In 2007 Tower Hamlets Council made an appraisal of the Elder Street Conservation Area which concluded
‘Overall this is a cohesive area that has little capacity for change. Future needs should be met by the sensitive repair of the historic building stock …….. Historic structures and buildings should be retained, and new development should respect the urban form, scale and block structure.’
However, in spite of the law stating that developments in conservation areas must respect protect and enhance the existing character of the area and preserve historic fabric, the Government’s statutory adviser, Historic England, do not currently oppose the British Land plan saying in their submission to Tower Hamlets Council
“While the proposals represent a substantial intervention to a large site within Elder Street Conservation Area and will therefore result in considerable change, we believe that all of the significant elements of the heritage have been correctly identified and appropriately treated within the submitted application.”
Critics of the plan find this stance inexplicable. Particularly when it is pointed out that the organisation has already been forced to back down twice on unpopular developments in London in recent times. In both cases a precedent seemed to have been set offering guidance as to how the law sees development proposals in Conservation Areas suggesting that the British Land proposals might be in trouble.
Earlier this Summer Historic England blamed a failure of its own process as it reversed its support for Kings College London’s proposed demolition of unlisted Victorian buildings on the north side of the Strand conservation area. King’s College have now withdrawn the plan. While in 2014 Historic England, then still an undivided English Heritage, found itself on the losing/wrong side of the argument over another site on the edge of the City, the proposed redevelopment of Smithfield Market by Henderson Global Investors. In that case, following a protracted argument spearheaded by SAVE and the Victorian Society, a public inquiry under the Planning Inspector led to the Secretary of State finding that
“Overall the Secretary of State concludes that the extent of damage that the application would cause to the important heritage assets at Smithfield runs entirely counter to national and policy objectives intended to protect such assets from harm and that this would seriously undermine any economic, social or environmental benefits otherwise arising from the development, such that the proposal would not represent sustainable development.”
With the question of the controversial Garden Bridge, which Historic England has also declined to oppose in spite of acknowledging the impact the plan would have on historic river views, also in play, the question is how long can the agency can retain the respect of conservationists if it is seen as supporting even developments which other expert groups and advisory bodies criticise as harmful and even unlawful and which seem to go against guidance and precedent set by the highest level of planning scrutiny, a public enquiry?
For an organisation which is meant to have a sense of history, it is also suggested that Historic England should recall that the Spitalfields Trust has already seen off one attempt to redevelop the site by British Land. In 1977 the Spitalfields Trust was formed with the support of Sir John Betjeman and a young architectural historian with a Zapata moustache called Dan Cruickshank. On that occasion the occupation of 5 and 7 Elder Street coupled with a high profile media campaign led to the developer backing down and the sale of other threatened Georgian houses, which the developer had purchased in expectation of a successful outcome, to people who were prepared to live in them. This prevented the area becoming another 9-5, dead at the weekend, City enclave with no sense of community and an irrevocably damaged historic streetscape.
Faced with Historic England’s support of the scheme proposed by British Land for Norton Folgate cynics might conclude that rather than pick a fight and oppose plans supported by the Corporation of the City of London, and the apparent preferences of the Mayor of London and the Chancellor, Historic England is content to seek to bodge together an appearance of “sustainable development” and let private campaigners and if necessary the Courts and Planning Inspectorate make the tough calls. That way it can turn to the Chancellor, the Mayor and the Culture Secretary with a shrug and say “not my fault guv.” in the hope that their funding and powers don’t receive the same treatment from the Chancellor as used to be meted out to people who crossed an earlier business operation in the East End, the Krays.
Tower Hamlets council planning committee meets tonight, Tuesday 27 July, to determine if the development goes ahead. However, whichever way the council votes, it is unlikely to be the end of the story which many people see as a battle for the soul of a London which is rapidly being sold out to corporate interests over the interests of a population of millions who need affordable housing and affordable rents for start up businesses that can provide innovation, jobs and drive regeneration from the bottom up in a far more sustainable way than simply parachuting in another international legal firm or bank.
Meanwhile, in an ironic comment on how little some people in power in London appreciate what the historic building fabric of the City has to offer and how much others regard it, it is reported that, this time around the efforts of the Spitalfields Trust to prevent the destruction of the spirit and fabric of the conservation area is being bankrolled by Danish multibillionaire and award winning owner and conservator of Grade One listed Georgian house 16 Queen Anne’s Gate, Troels Holch Povlsen.