I have been trying to stand back from the day-to-day battle over the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and figure out what I would do, in the very unlikely event that I was asked to give advice to Robert Jenrick as he embarks, as he has said he will, on his review of what is wrong with the procedures of planning.
From my experience of dealing with the Bell Foundry, the following seem to be the problems:-
Tower Hamlets is, for understandable reasons, very pro-development, feeling that new development will bring new sources of income into what is a very poor borough. But they don’t seem to be at all good at balancing this pro-development stance with the benefits of the existing built fabric and a knowledge of local history . Nor of the importance of tourism to Spitalfields. Spitalfields is being gradually hollowed out by new development with huge new residential blocks around its fringes, a new shopping mall now being planned for Brick Lane, as well as the mega-structures proposed by developers on Bishopsgate Yard. At some point, there is a risk that the existing mixed environment of old historic buildings, small shops and local businesses and some small infill will be totally overwhelmed by new tower blocks, totally out-of-scale, thereby destroying the economic and tourist honeypot that Spitalfields has become. It is not the new tower blocks which bring the tourists in.
The Bell Foundry is a symbol of the tendency to allow old buildings to be turned into bland tourist attractions, losing a sense of character and local identity, what is special about a place instead of what is standardised. This was what happened in the 1950s when it was universally felt that what was new was better than what already existed and that new development should be promoted at all costs across the political spectrum. But the conservation movement in the 1970s recognised the advantages of saving what is old, conserving and redeveloping it in an organic way, instead of just replacing it. Do we have to learn this lesson all over again ? Can we not tweak the planning laws to protect and preserve instead of supporting new development, however destructive ?
I don’t sense anyone in the Tower Hamlets planning department had any sense whatsoever of the historical interest and importance of the Bell Foundry and of the efforts which had been made to preserve it in the 1970s, so they were not able to advise their planning committee accordingly.
Historic England has become gradually demoralised by endless cuts over the last twenty years such that it has lost any real belief in its statutory role. It now takes a view that it is better to work with developers rather than against them, including developers on its board, promoting adaptation over preservation. But this leads to obvious conflicts of interest. Once it has accepted money from a developer to give advice, it is obviously very psychologically difficult for them to say that what the developer is doing is wrong.
Post-COVID, I would have thought that it is in our interests as a society to put a brake on new office and hotel development and concentrate on the benefits of what we have already got, rather than just tearing it down . But, on the contrary, the new changes to planning law look likely to promote the development of green-field sites and sticking up poorly designed housing – not social housing – on land which was previously used for farming.
It feels like we are back in the 1930s: new build good; the old can be replaced. It is this mind-set which needs to change.