It takes flowers and music to stop mechanical digger churning up the heritage Arnold Circus
- Credit: Nicola Contini
Protesters trying stop a big mechanical digger churning up the historical Arnold Circus won a “people’s victory” temporary reprieve after contractors failed to turn up to start work on Monday.
They put up a giant banner 40ft long and laid out flowers around the mechanical digger parked on the road while musicians turned the historic bandstand in the middle of the listed circus into a campaign HQ drumming up support.
The defiance followed a weekend of protest when preservationists confronted the road gang sent in by Tower Hamlets Council to dig up the street and pedestrianise the Victorian circus built 120 years ago.
The campaigners had twice blocked the digger in its tracks, led by a slight Susanna Kow, no taller than 5ft, but a determined tenant from the historic Boundary Estate behind Shoreditch Church.
“I managed to stop the work twice at the weekend,” she said. “I called my neighbours who all rushed down to support me. The workmen left after that.”
The road gang wasn’t supposed to start until Monday, but didn’t show up—each time Susanna standing her ground has been ready with her neighbours.
Members of the Spitalfields Trust with TV’s veteran historian Dan Cruikshank arrived on Friday to challenge work being started on the council’s Liveable Streets programme, aimed at stopping through traffic in neighbourhoods from Shoreditch to Bethnal Green and Bow, before any heritage study had been carried out.
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The historic Arnold Circus was not the place for “expensive and ill-conceived enhancements”, the trust pointed out. The simplicity of the Arnold Circus design “should not be tampered with”.
Conservation groups are calling for “a proper heritage assessment” of Arnold Circus, the centrepiece of the listed Boundary Estate which is the world’s first municipal housing scheme built in the 1890s.
East End Preservation Society’s co-chair John Moberly said: “We asked if the council had consulted any heritage organisation and were told they don’t have a statutory requirement and had done everything required in law.
“None of us have been involved in this design that the consultant has come up with. Arnold Circus is a nationally-important heritage asset, a piece of social history which should be treated with immense respect.”
Consultations were carried out by the council online and with leaflets pushed through letterboxes asking if people wanted “more lighting, CCTV and greenery to make this area safer and cleaner” — nothing about Arnold Circus heritage.
That was a year ago. The digger suddenly turned up last week before many people realised.
Retired nursery worker Jean Locker, 66, who has lived there for 30 years, said: “We knew something was going on and had a leaflet telling us we could vote on it. Most of it had to be done online, but many of my neighbours can’t negotiate on computers. Online is impossible to a lot of people.
“Then we heard that work was starting—for some people that’s the only information they’ve received, the minimum legally required. That’s not good enough.”
The area is recognised as model philanthropic housing by the London County Council and has 10 listed structures around Arnold Circus alone, at the top end of Club Row.
Spitalfields Trust doesn’t oppose pedestrianising, but argues that “a complete transformation of Arnold Circus is unnecessary”.
The council insists it consulted residents and businesses in Bethnal Green in October 2019, with 2,000 responses to a survey online and booklets through letterboxes. Allowances are being made for Arnold Circus with its “historical significance and unique character”, the town hall promises. All existing Yorkstone paving would be preserved.
But Spitalfields Trust says this consultation has failed at Arnold Circus, with the digger turning up before any heritage study has been carried out.