Several people have asked me if the decision on the Whitechapel Bell Foundry would have been any different if Michael Gove had been Secretary of State instead of Robert Jenrick, who seemed notably ineffectual, if not totally incompetent. What four years of fighting for the preservation of the Bell Foundry taught me is:-
1. The statutory authorities (ie Historic England) are inclined to be arrogant and complacent. Once a decision had been made by a junior official to support redevelopment of the building as a hotel (the authorities are in bed with the developers), the door was closed on any discussion as to whether or not this was the correct advice and everything became very adversarial and long-drawn out to no-one’s benefit.
2. Historic England comes under the Department for Culture, whereas housing and development come under the Ministry of Housing, so they don’t appear to speak to one another, whereas surely the key to good new development is that it is done alongside and in sympathy with the old in a creative way. Historic England could be moved to the Ministry of Housing.
3. Key planning decisions are taken by the local authority – in this case Tower Hamlets. The planning committee will consist of two or three local councillors making big decisions which affect the future of whole areas, as in the development of Spitalfields and Brick Lane, without any sense of the overall rationale or direction of travel. This is surely pretty bonkers, all of it unstrategic, ill-informed and purely reactive.
4. Just liberating planning controls as Jenrick proposed doesn’t feel like the right answer because it produces swathes of characterless new volume house-building across the green fields of southern England, and doesn’t solve the problem of how to produce – and subsidise – imaginative new building development in the north.
5. So, what is the answer ?
6. Having just listened to Ellis Woodman, the Director of the Architecture Foundation, talk about what should happen on the Open City podcast, I think Gove should invite the Architecture Foundation to come up with imaginative proposals. At speed. The issues need fresh thinking.