Today is the last day in which it might have been possible to launch a judicial review into what went wrong in terms of the decision-making over the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. But the money is not available to do this and no-one has the appetite to prolong the agony. Hope that it could be saved is ebbing away as officials wash their hands of it, suggesting that it is now too late, although the fabric of the building remains 100% intact and it would not be difficult to put the historic parts of the building back into operation again, rather than just turning it, as now looks inevitable, into the posh adjunct of a private members’ club or luxury hotel.
I can’t help but notice that Robert Jenrick, who promised to launch an Inquiry to establish how it was that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was given planning permission by his own Department and, indeed, in his own name, has not yet done so or, if he has, it has not been reported.
Let me remind him of a couple of the issues he might look into.
- It would be useful for him to find out which of his officials ‘expedited’ the permission through the system and the motivation for this. Was it someone in his private office or perhaps one of his Special Advisors ? Is he confident that all aspects of the decision making have been squeaky clean and not susceptible of undue influence ? Why was he himself circumvented from involvement in the final decision when it was known that he was sympathetic to the historic importance of the Bell Foundry and the symbolic significance of not just Big Ben, but the Liberty Bell as well ?
- Local Councils are expected to test the market before allowing change-of-use. But Tower Hamlets never did this, nor did the Planning Inspector raise it as an issue. Yet, it should have been obvious that this is a basic first step and common practice. Why was it circumvented ?
- Historic England now have a policy of favouring what they describe as ‘constructive conservation’. This involves getting into bed with developers, not quite literally, but at least working alongside and with them and putting them on their Boards, including attendance at the London Advisory Committee. Is this really a sensible policy ? Or does it give developers undue influence on decision making, not allowing Historic England to perform its statutory duties ?
- The approval of planning permission was by the casting vote of the chairman of the Tower Hamlets planning committee after a split vote. So, a single casting vote decided the fate of a building which has been in existence since the 1740s. It is now known that the Mayor of Tower Hamlets influenced the decision, encouraging the committee members to vote in favour of the proposals. What, one wonders, influenced him in this way ? Was it a purely disinterested desire to further the interests of the borough ?
Although I now realise the the Bell Foundry itself is probably doomed, I still think it is worth trying to learn the lessons of what went wrong and who and what caused the mistakes.