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Spitalfields Trust: 'There's a fundamental failure of understanding'

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Oliver Leigh-Wood of The Spitalfields Trust hits back at claims the campaigning conservation group had pedalled ‘mistruths’ about British Land’s rejected proposals for Norton Folgate

We were pleased to read Richard Waite’s thoughtful piece on Norton Folgate and the role played by social media in disseminating information on contentious planning applications. Tomorrow Tower Hamlets Council will meet to ratify the reasons for the scheme’s refusal (see AJ 24.08.15).

However, we were depressed by the accompanying letter (see AJ 06.08.15) from Paul Monaghan of AHMM, lead architect of the scheme, a letter that perpetuated the myth that the Spitalfields Trust had somehow ‘misrepresented’ British Land’s proposals. This was never the case and British Land have so far failed to substantiate this accusation.

If Monaghan had taken the time to read the full and detailed appraisal of the scheme, commissioned by the Trust from one of the country’s most distinguished planners (click here) he would see that our objections are based on profound concerns over the harmful impact of the proposals on the special character of the Elder Street conservation area. These concerns are underpinned by local and national planning policy and informed by a sophisticated understanding of the history, development and needs of this vulnerable ‘fringe’ district of Tower Hamlets.

Also, crucially, our campaign was driven by an awareness of the exciting opportunities and long-term benefits offered by a scheme based on repair, reuse and sensitive infill rather than widespread demolition and office-heavy development.

The overview of the British Land application submitted by the Trust, runs to some 84 points. Monaghan’s letter chooses to highlight a few of the issues, but they are often the least important, and it aptly demonstrates the same fundamental failure of understanding that we encountered in our own negotiations with the developers and their architects in the latter part of 2014. 

It is hard to know whether this is by default, or design, but so often, the real point is missed….

1. It is not whether the glass in the towering office blocks is encased in steel or brick that is the issue; it is the fact that they are proposed at all – nine, eleven or fourteen storeys in the heart of a Conservation Area with a predominant height of four. 

2. It is not that there are no routes proposed through the site; it is that the overall effect would be generic, dated and anodyne – an office and retail development that could be anywhere, in any city. It would destroy all sense of place.

3. With regard to floor plates, the fact is that the proposed development fills all the space available to it. The floors are always as large as the boundaries permit. The creation of the three largest floors necessitates the destruction of the interiors of the Blossom St warehouses, so as to establish a uniform floor height in one building, stretching from Norton Folgate to Blossom St.

4. The letter correctly states that 70 per cent of the buildings on the site would be demolished. It has never been claimed that they are listed. The lesson of Smithfield is that the aggregate contribution of unlisted historic buildings within a Conservation Area is of merit and can be defended against demolition. 

With regard to the ‘retention’ of buildings, the Blossom Street warehouses make a positive contribution to the Conservation Area, but they are to be reduced to façades; two of the nineteenth century buildings on Norton Folgate are hollowed out to provide an entrance hall; one of the two eighteenth century buildings on Norton Folgate is demolished, the other rebuilt behind its façade, to house a toilet and staircase block; the 1887 warehouse, a locally listed building, is grafted onto the side of a fourteen storey tower block; the retention of the façade of the 1927 warehouse, affixed like a postage stamp to the ten storey building behind it, is an almost laughable example of facadeism. 

Where the commercial imperative of the development conflicts with the conservation of the historic buildings, it is always the buildings which lose. And no amount of carefully contrived graphics can disguise this fact.

5. The amount of space dedicated to housing on the site, was defined by the Corporation of London, not by the developers or their architects, and is, in our view, inadequate. The authority set a target of 50 per cent affordable, not 30 per cent as offered by British Land – and as rejected by the councillors on the Strategic Development Committee.

6. It is common practice for developers to make much of their involvement with the local community.  In their negotiations, the Trust found them to be inflexible, unimaginative and unresponsive.  The report of the Tower Hamlets Planning Officers lists 7 letters in favour and 550 in opposition.  This pitiful level of support for such a prominent development – and no doubt, every effort was made to maximise it – tells its own story.  As for the advice of Historic England, that has recently proven highly fallible at Smithfield and the Strand – and it found little favour at the Council Hearing here.

7. The most disturbing section of the letter is the statement that ‘the existing consent offers no protection for the internal fabric of the Blossom Street warehouses.’  There is no question of any misunderstanding.  This is categorically untrue.

  • The Blossom St warehouses are in two parts. The present permission allows for the rebuilding of the concrete floors at nos 14-15, but with regard to nos 12-13 states: “These warehouses, which front onto the northern part of Blossom Street are to be retained in their entirety.”   It very positively protects and preserves the interiors of the warehouses in situ.
  • The western elevation is also subject to “preservation and repair” – and clear open space exists between it and the proposed building to the West.
  • In contrast, the British Land scheme removes all the interiors and the floors of the warehouses, so as to rebuild them at a level predetermined by the office block of which they become part.  The buildings are reduced to the brick elements of their street facades.  There is a promise of the re-use of materials as architectural salvage.
  • This is made very clear in the Planning Officers’ report which talks throughout of the ‘retention and restoration of warehouse facades’ – but only the facades.

In truth, the tragedy of Monaghan’s letter is that it says too little, too late – it has been overtaken by events. Far from the architectural team designing a scheme that ‘de-risked’ the development, sadly they instead produced one so at odds with the history, needs and aspirations of the site, and of local people, that it could find no single voice in support among the councillors on Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee. 

The arguments presented by the Spitalfields Trust were accepted, it was deemed that the impact of the scale and massing of the proposal on the setting of the Elder Street Conservation Area was unacceptable, the amount of housing, and of social housing, both too low – and the application was decisively refused. 

Whatever one may say about the role of social media, in the end – and thankfully – the granting of planning consent remains a democratic process. 

Meanwhile the trust has proceeded with the development of a detailed alternative scheme, which is in the process of being submitted to Tower Hamlets for pre-planning advice. Achieving greater public benefits, while causing far less harm, it shows what is possible when inspiration is drawn from a genuine respect for the history and physical fabric of the area, and the needs of local people. 

The Trust’s alternative scheme is viable and deliverable

It is based on the retention and repair of the existing buildings on the site, together with some sensitive infill.  It will provide genuinely sustainable and affordable business accommodation for the Tech and SME sector, together with 42 affordable housing units (as opposed to 11 in the British Land application).  The Trust has been working closely with local businesses and housing providers to identify uses and prospective tenants. 

The Trust’s scheme is viable and deliverable.  It marks a clear alternative and way forward, and we would urge the Corporation of London, and their development partners to think again, or step aside.  As for the possibility of a Mayoral call-in, we are confident that the sound reasons for refusal together with the emergence of our alternative scheme as a viable development model will dissuade him from intervening.  We would suggest that it is time here to let the democratic process take its course.

The Trust remains committed to the sensitive renewal of this important corner of Tower Hamlets, and has the resolve – as well as the financial and legal backing – to see this dispute through to a successful conclusion.


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