Whitechapel Bell Foundry (93)

As we approach the endgame on the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and await the answer to the question of whether or not Robert Jenrick will, as he has said he will, organise a review of the planning system which has authorised the redevelopment of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in his name, but without apparently his approval, I am publishing a letter which was sent recently to Historic England, of which I was sent a copy.

It seems to me to state the case for some action and investigation being taken very cogently:-

Whitechapel Bell Foundry is indeed a very special historic place, but its exceptional nature lies not in the buildings, important as they are, but in the fact that until very recently the buildings contained and sustained a still living ancient and historic working tradition. As I am sure the individuals at Historic England must understand, were they honestly to look beyond the official line, a small, tourist attraction foundry making souvenir hand bells annexed to a coffee shop is no substitute for what the Bell Foundry has been over the last several centuries. I am aware that the Hughes family decided the business was no longer viable, but they declined to put the business to the open market to test their hypothesis. As you will know, qualified others strongly disagree as to the sustainability of the business, its adaptability to the present century.

The opinion as to whether the modern building at the rear of the site is of architectural or historic interest is of course open to debate – but again, if I may, Historic England seem to have missed the point. In this case it is not only the material culture – the bricks and mortar – that require protection but what those buildings contain: a unique and living historical tradition.

You write that ‘overall we believe that the proposals have the makings of a successful heritage regeneration scheme’ and I must say, my heart sinks. One reply would be that, had the path of sustainability been chosen and supported, regeneration would have been unnecessary – the business and the site would have continued, embracing modernisation in a way perhaps beyond the scope of the previous owners’ experience or enterprise or, indeed, imagination. A second reply would be to wonder despairingly what Historic England’s criteria for a successful heritage scheme are? Please forgive me for quoting sixties’ songwriters to you, but the words of Joni Mitchell come insistently to mind – “they take all the trees, and put them in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and half just to see them.” Is our heritage – of which Historic England are purportedly the protectors – to consist of anodyne, buffed up, roped off sites, or might it be a living and thriving and adaptive present that embraces a continuing history while looking to the future?

As I understand it the Secretary of State did not – quite – approve the scheme. Rather the necessary piece of paper was signed on his behalf by a civil servant in Bristol, and shortly afterwards the Secretary of State expressed regret at the decision via Twitter – thus adding a note of farce to this long and unhappy tale.

I would absolutely hope, as you write, that Historic England’s advice has been impartial. However, having been employed by the developer to give advice at the point of the proceedings when nothing was public – thus no opportunity allowed at that crucial moment for alternative visions for the Foundry’s future to be imagined or presented (and Historic England coming up with no such ideas itself) – I wonder if Historic England might have since felt obliged to hold to the support it gave to the developer. I do wonder, had the alternative schemes for the Foundry that have since emerged been presented to Historic England with equal weighting to the boutique hotel plans, which would have been supported? Which scheme better follows Historic England’s banner headline, “Championing England’s Heritage”?

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