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'Boutique hotel' scheme to replace Whitechapel Bell Foundry is halted by Secretary of State

PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 18:20 04 December 2019

The Queen on an historic visit to see the workings of the Whitechapel bell foundry on March 25, 2009. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

The Queen on an historic visit to see the workings of the Whitechapel bell foundry on March 25, 2009. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

PA Wire/PA Photos

Campaigners have won reprieve after a temporary halt was put on controversial plans to turn the historic Whitechapel bell foundry into a boutique hotel.

What Raycliff developers want to do with the historic Whitechapel bell foundry. Picture: Raycliff CapitalWhat Raycliff developers want to do with the historic Whitechapel bell foundry. Picture: Raycliff Capital

A developer's scheme to convert the Grade II-listed foundry, where Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were cast, into a 108-bedroom hotel with a swimming pool and artist spaces was given the green light by Tower Hamlets council.

But the Local Government Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has now issued a holding direction to enable the plans "to be considered further".

It means building work at the foundry, which closed in 2117 after 500 years in Whitechapel, cannot start until the application has been scrutinised by his government department in Whitehall.

Former bell foundry worker John Boran addresses protest meeting at East London Mosque in July 2019 to save the bell foundry. Picture: Mike BrookeFormer bell foundry worker John Boran addresses protest meeting at East London Mosque in July 2019 to save the bell foundry. Picture: Mike Brooke

He could decide to hold a public inquiry and overrule the council's planning decision.

The American developers, Raycliff, bought the foundry, established in 1570, two years ago.

The former owners, the Hughes family, who ran the business for four generations, gave their blessing to the scheme, while Historic England expressed no opposition.

Historian Dan Cruikshank led summer campaign to save Whitechapel bell foundry. Picture: Mike BrookeHistorian Dan Cruikshank led summer campaign to save Whitechapel bell foundry. Picture: Mike Brooke

But protesters accused developers of "cultural vandalism", with many backing a rival proposal by the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust to maintain the site as a working foundry.

"I hope that the future of Britain's oldest continuous business will now be properly scrutinised, the trust's director Stephen Clarke said.

"There is both the planning application and our proposal to buy the site at its market value and continue to operate a fully working foundry."

The Queen on her visit in 2009 to Whitechapel bell foundry which had been casting bells since 1570 and is Britain's oldest manufacturing company. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA WireThe Queen on her visit in 2009 to Whitechapel bell foundry which had been casting bells since 1570 and is Britain's oldest manufacturing company. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

The campaign led to a mass protest meeting at the nearby East London Mosque in the summer.

One leading campaigner known as The Gentle Author who runs the Spitalfields Life website said: "We were appalled by the disgraceful decision of the council granting permission for 'change of use' from bell foundry to boutique hotel.

"This destroys any future for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a working foundry, reducing centuries of our history to a side-show for tourists in a quirky bell-themed hotel."

Campaigners are calling on the Secretary of State to "call in" the planning application, taking it out of the hands of the town hall and holding a public inquiry.

Architects have argued hand bells bearing the legally protected Whitechapel Bell branding will still be made on the site in a mini foundry near the pit where the Liberty Bell was cast.

The developers say they are "totally focused" on sustaining the heritage and legacy of "this globally significant site".

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