Bulldozers halted by Tower Hamlets Council after Norton Folgate’s ‘human chain’ protest

Oliver Leigh-Wood [inset] hoisting up 'Save Norton Folgate' banner to "stop British Land"

Oliver Leigh-Wood [inset] hoisting up 'Save Norton Folgate' banner to "stop British Land" - Credit: Archant

The people have won the latest battle of Norton Folgate after Tower Hamlets council last night threw out a scheme by City developers to demolish more than 70 per cent of property they’re holding in East London’s historic conservation area.

Human chain picket along Norton Folgate encircles Nicholls & Clark art deco building under threat

Human chain picket along Norton Folgate encircles Nicholls & Clark art deco building under threat - Credit: Archant

The Town Hall public gallery was packed with 80 campaigners from Spitalfields and Shoreditch witnessing the local authority’s planning committee unanimously rejecting the scheme during a late-night debate ending at 10.15pm.

It followed Sunday’s ‘human chain’ protest around Norton Folgate led by TV historian Dan Cruickshank when 500 protesters turned up for a joined-up picket demonstration.

British Land wanted to replace the art deco former Nicholls & Clark building fronting Norton Folgate, between Shoreditch High Street and Bishopsgate, together with a large swathe of land in the Elder Street conservation area behind.

The Spitalfields Trust had taken on one of the top 100 conglomerates on the London Stock Exchange and the City Corporation which has been buying up properties in the City Fringe neighbourhood, waiting for the planning green light to throw up two commercial towers reaching 14 and nine storeys high.

Human chain through Folgate Passage

Human chain through Folgate Passage - Credit: Archant

But Tower Hamlets wasn’t playing ball with Norton Folgate—the unique Georgian enclave was safe from the bulldozers after an impassioned plea by Spitalfields Trust.

“This site has been developing for nearly 2,000 years since Roman times,” founding trustee Oliver Leigh-Wood told planning committee members. “This proposal would simply erase that history.”

Councillors quizzed him to explain why many buildings remained empty.

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“Don’t be fooled,” he warned. “It’s a deliberate City Corporation policy to leave them empty so they look derelict.

Oliver Leigh-Wood [inset] hoisting up 'Save Norton Folgate' banner to "stop British Land"

Oliver Leigh-Wood [inset] hoisting up 'Save Norton Folgate' banner to "stop British Land" - Credit: Archant

“Most are sound structures and are perfectly okay, which could easily be repaired.”

British Land’s commercially-led scheme did nothing to help tackle the East End’s chronic housing crisis, it was claimed. They were “minimising affordable housing”—just 11 low-cost homes in Fleur de Lis Street, for example, where the trust’s alternative proposal suggested 42.

The developers’ plans didn’t show enough of the impact of the towers, councillors felt, which concentrated largely on the street-level brickwork facias and gave little detail about inside the 19th century warehouses they assured would be preserved as part of the scheme.

It was enough to persuade the committee to reject the towers and “remodelling” Elder Street which the Trust feared would displace small businesses from “buildings that are in perfectly good condition”.

Now you see it... Aerial view of Norton Folgate

Now you see it... Aerial view of Norton Folgate - Credit: Spitalfields Trust

They rejected a plea by British Land’s development director Mike Wiseman, who claimed: “There is nowhere in the area for business to grow.

“Everywhere is being converted to residential use—there’s a lack of commercial space in this area that’s really critical. Commercial space in these plans will help small start-ups.”

But a City Corporation surveyor’s report had, instead, revealed the Nicholls & Clark building fronting Norton Folgate would provide “large-scale offices for City occupiers”, councillors heard.

Campaigner Alex Foreshaw told the committee: “New innovation firms in reality will not be able to afford the rents.

“New ideas need old buildings—we have alternative proposals to use old buildings with greater public benefits from affordable accommodation.”

He added: “British Land’s proposals are damaging to the area and wastes the chance to provide something to benefit the community.”

Two members of the planning committee had earlier cycled round the area to see for themselves what effect the proposals would have. One came across Sunday’s ‘human chain’ demo involving 500 protesters led by TV historian Dan Cruickshank which made her realised the scale of feeling in the area.

The planning committee’s rejection was summed up by Cllr John Pierce: “There would be substantial harm to the conservation area. Conservation belongs to the people.”

The British Land delegation walked out immediately after the rejection, with a director from English Conservation, which supported the developers, getting into a rant with Spitalfields Trust in the council chamber before storming off.

The campaigners later toasted their victory in the bar next to the Town Hall.

But campaign co-ordinator Oliver Leigh-Wood warned the fight wasn’t over.

“I’ve not the slightest doubt British Land will continue fighting,” he told the East London Advertiser. “We’ve won a battle in a war—but it’s not over.

“British Land stands to make an absolute fortune out of the deal with the Corporation of London and I suspect they’ll appeal and go as quickly as they can to see London Mayor Boris Johnson.”

The trust, which has been fighting British Land on and off since 1977, has been given a £10,000 gift to continue the fight—but Leigh-Wood observes that “it’s peanuts compared to what British Land is throwing at this fight”.

The threat isn’t just about “encroachment by the City” into the East End, he fears, but up and down the country where “any conservation area is going to get attacked by big property developers with deep pockets”.