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Rory Stewart joins fight against ‘unimaginative’ Whitechapel bell foundry plans

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Former Tory leadership candidate Rory Stewart has thrown his weight behind the campaign against proposals to convert the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in east London into a café and arts space 

Tomer Hamlets Council granted planning permission for a scheme designed by 31/44 Architects, which includes construction of a boutique hotel next door to the 18th century bell factory, following a narrow vote last month.

The site was a working foundry from 1470 to 2017, producing famous bells including the world-renowned Big Ben, until its owners sold up to American developer Raycliff.

However, housing secretary Robert Jenrick issued a holding directive on the plans earlier this month, meaning Tower Hamlets is temporarily unable to sign off final permission.

Now Stewart, an independent candidate in the London mayoral election in May and a former Conservative secretary of state for international development, has waded into the row.

He told a protest meeting heritage campaigners in Whitechapel on Tuesday: ‘This is a challenge of courage; it’s a challenge of joyful adventure; it’s a challenge of imagination – to let the bell ring forth.’

Stewart supports a bid by Re-Form Heritage, formerly known as the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, to buy the site from Raycliff and operate a ‘full-scale working foundry’. By contrast, the proposal drawn up 31/44 and Raycliff only includes a commitment to ‘small-scale bell casting’. 

‘I would say you need to think about this in terms of social value for the community,’ he told the AJ.

‘[Whitechapel] desperately needs housing for the elderly [and] needs jobs. To simply think, ”I’ve got an opportunity to maximise value [of the site] as a hotel” [points to] a lack of planning imagination, which is consistent throughout,’ he added.

31/44’s plans received more than 750 objections by members of the public, but received support from Historic England on heritage grounds, as well as from the former bell manufacturer that occupied the site before 2017. 

Stewart said he was writing to his former colleague, housing secretary Jenrick, about the foundry and would do everything he could to stop the current scheme if he is elected Mayor of London. 

He also drew a parallel between 31/44’s plans for the bell foundry and plans by Transport for London (TfL) to develop South Kensington Tube Station.

In May Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners joined a long list of architects to have unveiled redevelopment plans for the 150-year-old station.

‘If you look at TfL and South Ken tube station, it’s the same problem,’ said Stewart. ‘Instead of thinking in the way a planner in France or Berlin would think about what South Ken needs over the coming years, it’s simply “how am I going to maximise this… I’ll try to create a shopping centre”.

‘In fact, there is a lot of interesting things you could do on the site. If you think in the long term as a mayor – 1,500 years – you don’t need to maximise short-term profit.’

31/44 Architects has been approached for comment.

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  • Fighting the good fight against the 'dumbing down' effect of tourism market pressures on the very character and variety that makes people want to visit cities in the first place.

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