For several months, I have known that Hettie O’Brien, an opinion editor at the Guardian, was hard at work on a Long Read about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. I was worried that it might not appear in time for the verdict due to be delivered any minute by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
It is an admirably fair and well-informed piece which casts the debate about the future of the Bell Foundry between the two principal actors: Alan Hughes, the fourth-generation proprietor, who took the decision, apparently with a heavy heart, to sell the business to a local property speculator after years of operating it at a loss; and Nigel Taylor, his employee, a fantastic enthusiastic for the history and technology of bells, who passionately wanted the skills of bell-making to be preserved and could have organised a management buy-out if the opportunity had been given.
It is a very sad story. At its heart is a view held by Hughes that if his family was not able to operate the company at a profit in Whitechapel, then nobody else could, so nobody was given the chance. The business was never put on the open market, nor indeed was the property, but sold for £5.1 million and then flipped not long afterwards for £7.9 million to a New York venture capitalist.
There will be many people who take the view of Alan Hughes – that this is the way of the world and proprietors should be at liberty to sell their property at maximum profit, irrespective of the importance and public interest in its historic use. But it is worth remembering that not far away, C.R. Ashbee campaigned for the preservation of the Trinity Green Almshouses, which led to the establishment of the Survey of London, and effective legislation for the preservation of historic buildings.
Are we simply to abandon history for profit post-COVID and put the interests of speculators above those of the local community ? Is there really no way that Jenrick can intervene and either encourage or compel Siegal to reinstate the foundry as a working foundry, as Re:Form and Factum Arte have so imaginatively and effectively proposed ?
He can easily sign the form sitting on his desk and forbid the redevelopment.