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The battle of Norton Folgate: a victory for social media

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The rejection of the Blossom Street scheme in east London typifies how social media is being used to galvanise public opinion against new development. Richard Waite reports

British Land knew its proposed Blossom Street development in east London would need careful handling.

The plot on the ‘bridge site’ between the City and Shoreditch is a decaying hotchpotch. One local interest group calls the area, off Norton Folgate, a mess of ‘abandoned buildings, condemned properties, squats, burnt shells and piss alleys’.

However – and this is a big however – the site lies entirely within the Elder Street Conservation Area and on the doorstep of Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, the architectural conservation charity and an old foe of British Land from a headline-grabbing clash over the same site 40 years ago.

So the developer assembled a top design team led by AHMM, famed in this part of town for its revamp of the 1930s Tea Building.

The practice was joined by Stirling Prize winning practice Stanton Williams, DSDHA, Duggan Morris and landscape specialist East.

After nearly two years the team came up with a 32,550m2 scheme containing office space, 13 shops, 40 homes and 1,400m2 of new public space.

CABE liked it, Historic England supported it and, in the opinion of many – including some local societies – it was better than Avanti’s previous and similarly scaled proposal from 2011. In developer parlance, it was ‘sensitive’. Planning officers recommended it for approval.

Last month Tower Hamlets’ planning committee threw it out.

The councillors who rejected the scheme cited a number of reasons, including the level of affordable housing.

But fears over the fate of the historic environment loomed large. In the run up to the committee meeting, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust had run a popular, social media-savvy anti-development crusade led by television presenter and AJ alumnus Dan Cruickshank. The campaign used Twitter, Facebook and the power of the web to garner global support. It featured 500-strong human chains, appearances on London Live News and post-apocalyptic visuals of the potential imapct of the scheme.

Demolistion_Image_by_the_Spitalfields_Trust

As well as becoming the latest in a string of recent victories for London preservationists, the Blossom Street battle shows how conservation has found a new mobilising voice on the internet, to which developers and architects do not yet know how to respond.

In the last two years, schemes by John McAslan + Partners for Smithfield Market, Hall McKnight for the Strand and David Chipperfield Architects for the Geffrye Museum in Hackney have all been torpedoed by vocal conservation groups, and subject to online, anti-development petitions (with 5,625, 10,200 and 2,333 signatories respectively).

There are grass-root campaigns against the nearby Bishopsgate Goodsyard scheme and David Chipperfield’s plans for artist Tracey Emin also in Smithfield.

‘I hope this is not a new trend,’ admits Paul Monaghan of AHMM, the lead architect and masterplanner of the Blossom Street proposal.

‘At one point we had half of the Madness fan club complaining about the scheme [the band released an album about the area in 2009] and I thought this isn’t right. It’s gone mad.’

Monaghan, who was ‘surprised and shocked’ by the refusal, adds: ‘This decision sets a really worrying precedent for schemes generally recommended for approval in London. We’d done everything we could to de-risk this for British Land.

‘We set out to be innovative about restoration, not just facade retention. Yet the local interest groups’ views seem to have outweighed the glowing reports from CABE, Historic England and their own design review panel. I hadn’t seen that before.’

Even so Monaghan believes the Blossom Street debacle may have one significant, lasting impact for the profession: a rethink about how architects engage with social media.

‘The temptation for all architects and developers is to be quiet,’ he says. ‘But when you have spent six months seeing mistruths being put out there on social media it gets quite frustrating.

‘The profession is nervous about responding. But planning is a democratic process so aren’t we allowed to say things too?’

Although the design team worked closely with the trust for months – a process they admit made the scheme better – relations broke down and the conservationists’ campaign machine moved into action.  

Joe Morris of Duggan Morris says: ‘We never drew a line but we got to a point where we had nowhere to go.

He adds: ‘Everybody has had to bite their lips about the continuous false accusations and lines which have been spun. It was claimed at one point we were going to replace up to 80 per cent of buildings. That was an amazing piece of spin-doctoring.

‘There is a rapaciousness which isn’t halting – a definite shift in attitude.  There are people out there who are repeatedly sending out a negative message and there are things like Twitter to stir up the frenzy.’

Paul Williams of Stanton Williams agrees. ‘I have a huge respect for Cruickshank and his passion,’ he says. ‘But what the trust showed at its exhibition [and subsequently online] was a misrepresentation; a distortion of our scheme that was tantamount to propaganda.’

Even local architect Chris Dyson, who heads the Spitalfields Society and has objected to previous schemes in the area, was taken aback by the trust’s stance. ‘The Spitalfields Trust lives in the 1970s,’ he says. ‘It treated British Land with utter distrust from the word go, adopting American tactics – a very hard-line “no”.

‘[However] the danger is the area will stagnate and not develop in a positive way.’

This does not seem to bother Cruickshank, who cites a dramatic breakdown in relations with the British Land team in December 2014.

‘It was obvious that the developer and its design teams were fundamentally unwilling or unable to respond in any significant way to the trust’s advice,’ he says.

‘There was a clear failure of understanding and engagement, and it was clear we would have to oppose the developers in public.’

In terms of why there has been such a sudden surge of opinion against development, campaigner, architect and social-media advocate Susie Clapham of the East End Preservation Society says: ‘The public has realised that terrible schemes are getting planning consent. If we want to the keep the buildings and areas we love then we are going to have to fight for them.’

She adds: ‘A watershed moment occurred with the high-profile cases of the Strand and Smithfield, where big public campaigns were fought against the odds and won. However, many decisions are constantly being foisted on London without proper engagement.’

There is also a feeling of top-down imposition on people – where did the Garden Bridge, Arcelor Mittal Orbit and cable car across the Thames come from?

And how can people be heard as the big developers and local authorities drive development forward? 

According to Clem Cecil of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, people are feeling ‘disenfranchised by the government’ and are ‘campaigning to have a say in and some control over the buildings and places where they live.’

Meanwhile Victorian Society director Christopher Costelloe believes the driver behind this trend is the internet.

‘This has made it far easier to share information with the general public and organise petitions and protests in a way which wasn’t feasible even 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘Small charities can use the internet to counter developers’ spin and make a wide audience aware of a scheme’s negative aspects.’

British Land has yet to decide on its next steps at Norton Folgate. An obvious move would be to go directly to the mayor. But would he also be swayed by the Twitterstorm?

Read the architects’ full response to the Spitalfield Trust’s claims here.

Further comments

dan_cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank, Spitalfields Trust founder

The trust’s campaign helped to inform the strong determination within the local council to defend the interest and heritage of the area. [We helped] to clarify the flaws of the scheme and cut through what in the trust’s opinion amounted to dissimulation and misrepresentation by the developers and to publicise what was happening, leading to an unprecedented 550 letters of objection against seven in support. There are very strong parallels with both Smithfield Market and the Strand.’

david_hills

David Hills of DSDHA

‘The presence of well-known, very articulate figures, such as Joanna Lumley with the Garden Bridge and Cruickshank here, gives a global appeal [to these campaigns] which goes beyond the immediate local interest. Even though I genuinely think we had an exemplary and responsive scheme which had evolved, that level of response does give some sort of weight to the objections. Any politican will have to take that on board’

John Allan, former director of Avanti Architects

John Allan, former director of Avanti Architects

‘As leader of the Avanti project for Norton Folgate (mentioned above) I would dispute the suggestion that our proposals were in some way inferior to the recently rejected British Land scheme. This story epitomises the current challenge facing London of reconciling the pressure for new development with the heritage case for retention and adaptive re-use of locally cherished (even though here unlisted) historic fabric.

‘It is a situation calling for urban surgery of the most acute sensitivity. So whilst you refer to our scheme as ‘similarly scaled’ it should be appreciated that in such a context even small differences in height and bulk may have considerable impact on the resulting character of a scheme. Specifically here, it is debatable whether the difference between nine and 13 stories could be regarded as ‘small’. Our proposals also recreated  the historic Blossom Place, enhanced the network of connecting alleyways and rehabilitated the positive elements of the Conservation Area.

‘We worked on the project for six years consulting with every conceivable local stakeholder and amenity society, holding four public exhibitions and also gaining the support of Tower Hamlets, GLA, TfL, English Heritage and CABE. Others’ opinions may differ on the architectural merits of the respective schemes, and the calibre of British Land’s design team is beyond question. But one difference is indisputable – we got consent.’

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • The trust in systems and processes to be fair to everyone involved is regularly undermined, as the author notes with projects like the garden bridge and the cable car. Trust is being replaced by a deep suspicion that power and money will always side with power and money, regardless of the consequences to everyone else.

    If it is felt that that democratic systems and processes will not look after everyone's interests fairly,it is unsurprising if everything is resisted regardless of the evidence.

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  • The recent track record of the planning system is abysmal, with endless undeserving projects of all sizes and shapes having been mindlessly consented. London, as we know it and love it, is at serious risk of losing its identity and quality as a city.
    We are therefore delighted to see that the "little guys" are winning some of the current conservation battles - and that it isn't only the huge London property machine that will dictate the future of the shape of our capital.

    This is a very important debate, one that needs to be aired further by all those who care about our city...

    Barbara Weiss
    for the Skyline Campaign

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  • Projects "agreed" by planning officers that go to Committee with unresolved issues deserve to fail. Campaigns only succeed because these issues provide objectors with some traction. Schemes fail because no one has listened - public relations exercises/sussing out the opposition is so yesterday. To succeed developers have to listen to the community throughout the project development stage. Developers who don't listen leave themselves open to failure.

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  • Chris Rogers

    Concerned about the tone of some of these comments from supporters of the scheme, which come over as 'we did all we could to get out scheme through but some locals don't like it - who are they to say?'. Just look at the 40 Leadenhall St scheme, an appalling overdevelopment that does all it can to almost remove the only (listed) c20 building left. All justified as 'cleaning up' and 'respecting context' etc.

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