Whitechapel Bell Foundry (84)

There is quite a bit of discussion on twitter as to what went wrong with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and what could have been done differently.

My own view is that things went wrong very early on in February 2017 when it was known that the Foundry was going to close and its equipment would be sold.

At this juncture, it would have been possible for Historic England to intervene and talk to the Hughes family as to whether they would be open to a matching offer. Not long afterwards, Re-Form, a historic buildings charity, did itself make an offer, but the owner disregarded it. I have always had the strongest suspicion that Historic England did not recognise the historic interest and importance of the Bell Foundry. Perhaps they viewed it only in purely architectural terms as an eighteenth-century working building, not as a fully functioning survival of historic working practices – interesting at least as much for what went on inside it as for the fabric of the building. This seems to be what is wrong with the way the legislation works.

As I understand it from the minutes of the relevant meeting of the London Advisory Committee held in February 2017, the relevant officer, maybe Mike Dunn, who spoke at the Planning Inquiry, suggested that it would not matter too much if the building found a new use and when members of the committee protested, the chairman decided that the issue did not merit further discussion. So, the die was cast and from that moment Historic England supported redevelopment. It has apparently never been discussed by the Commissioners who have overarching responsibility for it.

All of this seems very odd given the importance which Historic England attaches to historic statues. Is a working foundry, one of the last of its kind and preserving essentially late medieval working practices, still intact, really less important than historic statuary ? Perhaps Oliver Dowden could look into it.


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