I have been trying to figure out what exactly has gone wrong at the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The approval for the redevelopment of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was signed and sent out in the early afternoon on Thursday. It was signed by someone called Andrew Lynch who is the Decision Officer in the Planning Casework Unit on the third floor of the Fry Building in Bristol. Obviously, the civil servants had decided to totally ignore the views of the Secretary of State and follow the technicalities of the Planning Inquiry and its chairman Paul Griffiths BSc BArch IHBC who had come to the conclusion that, in a narrow sense, what is proposed keeps the majority of the historic fabric of the building and the fact that its historic use has been abandoned by the Hughes family is not a matter of his concern. The letter of approval begins ‘I am directed by the Secretary of State’ and ends ‘This decision was made by the Secretary of State and signed on his behalf’. But obviously nobody thought that it could have been helpful to check that these were indeed the views of the Secretary of State and that he supported them. Had they done so they would have discovered that he deeply disapproved of them, as is now publicly apparent.
So, this is quite a big mess and an indication that the planning system and Historic England are disconnected from the views of their Ministers and have chosen to totally ignore them, as sometimes happens in civil service procedure.
What can be done about it ?
Maybe a Judicial Review is called for to investigate exactly how and why Historic England chose to ignore the public, political and community issues surrounding the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and adopt such a narrowly and consistently legalistic approach without regard for the historic significance of its use.
The history of England is not just about building fabric. It is about about the people who occupied those buildings, the trades they practised and their craft skills. Historic England needs to pay attention to people, including its critics, and not just the small print and narrow views of the planners on the third floor of the Fry Building in Bristol.