Old London Hospital to be new town hall after 275 years tending the sick in Whitechapel
PUBLISHED: 16:11 11 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:23 11 November 2015
The old London Hospital which had been treating the sick and the poor for around 275 years has been given the green light to be turned into a 21st century town hall.
The historic Whitechapel Infirmary for the Poor serving London’s East End, known more recently as the Royal London, was bought up by Tower Hamlets Council for a ‘bargain basement’ price of £9 million earlier this year and is set to be its prestigious new civic centre.
The well-located site on the main Whitechapel Road changed hands in a deal with the NHS in February, after the New Royal London Hospital was completed round the corner in 2013.
The price tag for such a large site centrally located opposite Whitechapel station—served by both London Underground and Overground and being connected to Crossrail in three years’ time—was seen as a bargain by councillors.
The London Chest Hospital near Victoria Park, a mile-and-a-half to the north and nowhere near as well-connected to public transport, was sold off to private developers by the same Barts NHS trust in the summer for £47 million.
But the cheap price-tag at Whitechapel, ironically, comes with at own price—the cost of having to revamp the Grade II-listed structure first built as an infirmary for the poor in the 1740s and rebuilt by the Victorians 100 years later.
It would likely set today’s local authority back a cool £100 million just to bring it up to scratch as a civic centre in its preserved setting.
But at least it would be in the heart of the East End rather than tucked away like the current town hall three miles eastward at Mulberry Place, in an isolated corner next to the Blackwall Tunnel on the very edge of the east London borough.
The council’s cabinet agreed this week that the old hospital is now the “preferred location” to replace the Mulberry Place tower, where the 20-year lease runs out in 2020.
“I don’t take any great pleasure spending public money on an administrative building,” new mayor John Biggs admits.
“Our tax money should go into services—so I want to keep costs down while creating a good working environment and making the council more efficient.
“We have little choice. This is the best option. It’s crucial to make sure that numbers stack up for a scheme which provides the public with the best deal.”
Time, in fact, is running short, with just four years to go before staff have to quit Mulberry Place by September, 2019, as the lease expires.
Moving into a Grade-II listed building in Whitechapel presents its own challenges.
“But the old London Hospital has been an icon at the heart of the East End since the 1700s,” the mayor points out.
“It’s façade will remain and the building will continue as a place of public service, belonging to us all.”
He managed an all-party consensus on the council with his own Labour majority party joined by Tory and Independent opposition groups in the decision to go ahead with the scheme.
The NHS deal, in fact, was brokered by his controversial predecessor Lutfur Rahman, who had since been barred from office by the High Court earlier this year after dodgy election practice in 2014.
The new mayor, who took office following the re-run election this June, overturning 2014’s tainted polls, is making conciliatory moves with members of Rahman’s previous Independent administration.
He is setting up a cross-party group with the Independents, as well as Conservatives, to monitor the project, forming the central part of Whitechapel’s regeneration Master Plan.
The mayor wants to make sure it doesn’t get “out of control” or turn into an ivory tower “palace” like Mulberry Place.