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Development Hell: the ongoing battle for Norton Folgate

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A lunchtime exhibition examines British Land’s proposals for the Elder Street conservation area as well as suggested alternatives

The Spitalfields Trust was set up in 1977 – the previous time British Land tried to send the wrecking balls in to the Elder Street Conservation Area, which covers the historic Liberty of Norton Folgate. The trust’s exhibition, Development Hell, at the gallery of St Leonard’s Shoreditch till 11 March, presents a rich cultural, social and architectural history of these nine acres north of Spitalfields – home to some of the finest early Georgian terraces in our country – as well as its alternative plans for the area.

There are 40 Grade II-listed buildings and street fixtures in the conservation area. British Land plans to demolish more than 70 per cent of the fabric on its site there, and retain a few facades in front of huge bulky corporate offices as the city continues its pernicious sprawl.

British Land’s proposal obliterates the complex fabric and character of all these buildings

The ‘gentle author’ of the daily blog Spitalfields Life writes in the exhibition that ‘British Land’s proposal obliterates the complex fabric and character of all these buildings, which have evolved for diverse use over centuries, in favour of large corporate offices for single use. They want to impose buildings in which each undivided floor is the length of an entire street, with retail units at ground level tailored to chain stores.’

The exhibition text continues to highlight how ‘With encroachment comes the loss of human scale and exclusion of small businesses, destroying the unique quality of the urban grain, which … is defined by the particular combination of buildings, the pursuit of trades in them, the culture of the owners and above all the presence of the people living and working there.’

The Spitalfields Trust proposal for an alternative scheme, illustrated by attractive drawings created in collaboration with John Burrell of Burrell Foley Fischer, ‘respects the existing buildings and permits them to retain flexibility of use.’ It proposes a ‘wide variety of spaces suiting many kinds of businesses of different scales … that can deliver jobs for local people, and increasing the amount of housing including affordable housing.’

This exhibition paints a broad picture of the frictions and possible futures of a part of town rich with architectural history

Following strong campaigning by the trust, Tower Hamlets’ planning committee rejected British Land’s demolition plans, only for London mayor Boris Johnson to call the scheme in, and subsequently overturn the council’s decision. However a judicial review challenging the mayor’s right to intervene was later granted and should be heard by 5 May. In the last few weeks the cause has also attracted celebrity support, with Alan Bennett and Madness singer Suggs among the signatories of a letter to The Times.

The exhibition is only on over lunchtimes (from midday till 2pm), but provides an opportunity for those in the area to learn about Norton Folgate and the development plans and campaigns currently advancing on the City of London’s Eastern fringes.

There are other contributions; notably a flowchart, How to Fight a Planning Application, created by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which will help individuals and community groups campaign effectively to save beloved buildings and sites, as well as a coverage of SAVE’s recent successful campaign on the Strand.

Small but densely packed with often mind-boggling information, this exhibition paints a broad picture of the frictions and possible futures of a part of town rich with architectural history and simultaneous scope for modern development.

Development Hell continues until 11 March at St Leonard’s church, 119 Shoreditch High St, London E1, open daily between noon and 2pm

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Readers' comments (1)

  • That the mayor can seek to simply ignore the quality of the conservation area, and squash the local planning authority's resistance to the redevelopment proposals, speaks volumes for the power of commercial interests to override the widely recognised need for real respect of the character of this area, for the good of the city.
    Mr Johnson seems to be more developers' agent than mayor.

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