I went into Central London again today: still on the quiet side, I thought, more like a Sunday than a weekday. Having not walked in Central London for a while, I was more attentive than usual to the unexpected, particularly in lettering:-
In the Daily Telegraph this morning is my plea to Robert Jenrick to find a better solution to the problem of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry than simply allowing it to become a boutique hotel. I have always had the impression that Bippy Siegal, the developer, is actually keen on the history of the Bell Foundry. He is after all American and Americans are at least as mad at the destruction of the Bell Foundry as the British, as I discovered last night in talking to Philadelphians. So, I suggest Jenrick invites Siegal to his office and talks through the alternatives: to go down in history as the man who destroyed the Foundry; or its saviour. All he has to do is take his café out of the surviving working parts and use them once again as a fully working foundry and lease the space to Factum Arte. Or accept a matching offer for the historic parts of the building from Re-Form, with potential help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which is still on the table. He can still build his hotel next door.
I’m sorry to keep on about the Bell Foundry, but I sense that time is of the essence, partly because there are only six weeks if there is to be a judicial review.
Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has said that he wants to review the decision to turn it into a hotel, even though it was announced in his name. Yet, some of the reasons why the decision was made in the way it was lie not in his Department, but under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which funds and oversees the operation of Historic England.
In the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, announced a new body called the Heritage Advisory Board. It does not say who chairs it, how it will operate, and I note that it does not apparently so far include members from Red Wall constituencies, as Dowden himself says it should. But it does include Samir Shah, the chair of the Museum of the Home, which has traditionally had a long-term association with East London trades, when it was the Geffrye Museum; and Anna Keay, who is Director of the Landmark Trust, which was a pioneer in the 1960s in developing and restoring sites of industrial archaeology.
Could Jenrick perhaps use this newly constituted body to examine a) why did Historic England choose to ignore the importance of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry ? b) why was it not possible for Historic England to intervene with the owner at an early stage to encourage constituting it as a charitable trust (could there, for example, have been Compulsory Purchase ?) c) should there be a change in the system of assessment which recognises the use of a building, as well as its fabric ? d) if Jenrick thinks that the decision was the wrong one, is there a way he can now intervene ?
Historic England has issued a press release saying how much it loves the plans for redevelopment. Funny that. Not many people seem to share this view, including Robert Jenrick.
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.
Much is happening vis-à-vis the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at the moment.
In particular, there is an article which has appeared in Planning, a professional journal which can only be read behind a paywall, which makes clear that the only reason that the Planning Inspector was so emphatic in his support for the Raycliff scheme was that Christopher Pincher, a junior Minister in the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, inadvertently told MPs that Robert Jenrick was determined to turn planning permission down, which opened the government up to the risk of judicial review. This is presumably why Jenrick is so determined to make clear that the decision was not his, even though it says it was.
But there is a problem in this. If the government was so afraid of Judicial Review that the Treasury Solicitors instructed the planning inspector to find in favour of redevelopment, then this means that the whole Planning Inquiry was in retrospect a complete farce. It was not an independent Inquiry. There was a predetermined outcome. A Freedom of Information request should be able to extract the relevant documentation.
In which case, there needs to be a judicial review to make sure that due process was followed and the outcome wasn’t cooked.
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.
We went to see an exhibition by young artists on the top floor of a currently disused office building on Bruton Street, one of apparently hundreds in Mayfair which have been vacated during the pandemic.
I liked Aaron Ford’s Man with yellow shirt and blue jacket:-
Emma Witter, You Deserved Better:-
Kate Bickmore, Laid in White Bush:-
I thought I was fired up and distressed about the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. But I have just read a piece of invective (The final toll | Brice Stratford | The Critic Magazine) which makes everything I have written pale by comparison. The odd thing is that everyone understands the symbolic significance of the Bell Foundry as a monument not just of London history, but more global, the place where the Liberty Bell was cast. But no-one seems willing or able to save it, least of all Historic England, whose job it is. Or the National Trust, whose job it could have been. Or the Heritage Lottery Fund which could have intervened. Or the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Now Robert Jenrick has pledged on twitter to sort it out – at the very least , to find out what went wrong. The most obvious thing that went wrong was that his junior minister signed a document in Jenrick’s name on Thursday giving the destruction of the Bell Foundry planning permission.
Brice Stratford is a theatre director. I am not sure if it is tragedy or farce.
Curiouser and curiouser.
It has just been pointed out to me that Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has tweeted to say that ‘Like many I was saddened to see the foundry close. It was a unique part of our industrial heritage: 450 years of production from the Liberty Bell to Big Ben. I have commissioned a review of how the Planning Inspectorate and planning policy considers and defends heritage’.
So, the question must, and will be asked: why the hell did the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government issue a statement yesterday in Jenrick’s name and over his signature approving the redevelopment of the Bell Foundry as a boutique hotel ?
There are several possibilities:-
The Department felt that they could not overturn the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate however much they may have wanted to. So, the statement was issued in the Secretary of State’s name without him being aware of it. This would not be good practice, but is imaginable.
The statement was issued with his knowledge, but he is now anxious to find a better solution than the one currently proposed and obviously shares the view that the planning system has made the wrong decision.
Someone else intervened and compelled the Department to issue the approval for reasons which it is fairly easy to imagine.
This is definitely promising and I have long felt that it could be helpful for the Secretary of State to consult Bippy Siegal and see if he would consider a fifty-year lease either to Re:Form or, if there is too much bad blood, to a newly constituted heritage trust, possibly under the auspices of the National Trust, which would preserve the historic site and reinstate its original use (actually, a modern version of its original use) as has been proposed by Factum Arte. He could at the same time be allowed to build the adjacent hotel, possibly with agreement that it could be several stories higher to compensate him from his financial loss.
In this way, Robert Jenrick could be the saviour of the Bell Foundry, as it seems from his twitter statement he would like to be, not the sole signatory on its death warrant. So, could Bippy Siegal.
Let’s hope !