Dan Cruickshank at the launch of the Norton Folgate campaign – photograph by Simon Mooney
Last year at a Public Inquiry, SAVE Britain’s Heritage & The Victorian Society fought against the redevelopment of Smithfield General Market and won a comprehensive victory when Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, confirmed the Planning Inspector’s verdict and threw out the plans. Bizarrely, English Heritage who are the government’s advisers on – and supposed champions for – historic buildings, took the side of the developer. They maintained that the gutting of Horace’s Jones’s great late nineteenth-century market for the insertion of an office block was acceptable.
At one point in the Inquiry, the developers even tried to convince the Inspector that the reuse in the new building of salvaged bits of the distinctive Phoenix columns from the original building which they were demolishing was a ‘sensitive restoration.’ Unsurprisingly, it was an argument that failed to impress the Inspector.
Yet, despite that landmark victory at Smithfield and the emphasis it placed upon the importance of protecting Conservation Areas, it appears English Heritage have not taken on board its implications. A year later in Norton Folgate, we find ourselves fighting another scheme threatening a Conservation Area in London with English Heritage on the developers’ side. Astonishingly, they have given their approval to the British Land scheme just as they gave their blessing to the Geffrye Museum’s proposal to demolish The Marquis of Lansdowne two years ago.
There are many echoes of the Smithfield case in the current battle for Norton Folgate. Like Henderson’s scheme at Smithfield, British Land’s proposal involves extensive demolition – in this case over 70% of all the existing fabric. It also involves mutilation of the sound historic buildings upon the site, including the fine warehouses on Blossom St, to allow the creation of large floor plates extending the entire length of the street. These will suit the requirements of the corporate financial industries of the City of London but will be of no use to the small businesses and tech companies that thrive in the East End.
At Smithfield Market, Henderson’s proposed keeping only a ‘crust’ of the old building and inserting offices behind it. Similarly, in Norton Folgate, British Land intend to retain a few facades and – just as at Smithfield – they propose, in one new building, to reuse some material salvaged from the old building they want to demolish. This is an approach that – bewilderingly – English Heritage describes as ‘sensitive restoration’ in their letter of advice to Tower Hamlets approving the scheme, which makes you wonder what ‘insensitive restoration’ could look like.
The folly of English Heritage’s position is exposed publicly in a new report by Alec Forshaw, an Independent Planning Consultant who was one of the heroes of the Smithfield victory. A universally-respected former Head of Conservation at Islington Council, Alec Forshaw has the insight and depth of experience to turn a case on its head through his quiet reasoning and brilliant analysis.
When the Spitalfields Trust approached Alec Forsaw, he recognised the injustice of British Land’s proposal and agreed to produce his own Appraisal for publication. His report examines the Norton Folgate scheme in light of Policy Guidance both nationally and locally, including Tower Hamlets’ own Conservation Area Appraisal. It is a devastating critique, dismantling the scheme point by point and exposing its dire shortcomings.
He rejects British Land’s argument, that the presence of tall buildings in Norton Folgate would mediate between the high-rise blocks in the City of London and the low-rise area to the east, as ‘dreadful and fatuous’ – and he condemns British Land’s stated aim of recycling salvaged fabric from demolition of the warehouses for reuse in one of their new office buildings as ‘vague …impossible to enforce’ and ‘meaningless.’
Alec Forshaw concludes -
“At the heart of this scheme are the aspirations of the land owners and their development partners for large floor-plate offices. It is an ambitious and expensive scheme to construct, and will require high rents from tenants to pay for it. It is the opposite of a light touch … A scheme with less intervention, which retained existing buildings, incorporated smaller scale infill, and provided a wider mix of uses in smaller units, would be cheaper to implement and more flexible for the future.”
“Measured against up-to-date national and local policy the current proposals are unacceptable and should be refused. They are contrary to Tower Hamlets’ planning and conservation policies and the Management Guidelines for the Elder Street Conservation Area …To approve the current scheme would be to threaten the very survival of not only the small Elder Street Conservation Area, but would put the wider Spitalfields and Shoreditch areas under further and greater threat.”
Alec Forshaw’s devastating report demonstrates that the Norton Folgate proposal – like the rejected Smithfield Market scheme – would result in an historic area of London being robbed of its distinctive spirit and sense of place which has evolved over centuries to reach its current atmospheric form.
British Land’s proposals ignore the successful genuinely conservation-led revitalisation of neighbouring areas which has been based on principles of repair and reuse. Instead, they set out to exploit the achievements of those who fought in recent decades to preserve the intimacy, complexity and meaning of one of London’s most fascinating and fragile historic enclaves. British Land have no scruple in sacrificing the neighbourhood to make money at the expense of local people.
Norton Folgate as it is today
British Land want to remove over 70% of the fabric on their site in the Elder St Conservation Area
British Land want to increase the mass of the buildings by more than 50%
English Heritage describes this approach as ‘sensitive restoration‘
Architectural graphics by John Burrell of Burrell Foley Fischer
The Spitalfields Trust’s SAVE NORTON FOLGATE exhibition curated by The Gentle Author is open today at Dennis Severs House and runs until March 15th
Yesterday, I went over to Petticoat Lane to offer my commiserations to Peter Baldacci on the last day of trading for his family on Petticoat Lane after eighty-two years. He told me that, as tenants of the Corporation of the City of London, he and his son Matthew are both reduced to leases of six months’ tenure and the threat of 100% rent increases which makes it impossible for them to continue.
They will be greatly missed – both by the office workers who bought freshly-made sandwiches from MB’s Sandwich Bar in Harrow Place each day and by long-term members of the local community who cherished MB’s Cafe in Middlesex St as a popular meeting place for hot meals at affordable prices.
Matthew Baldacci, June 2014 – “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing”
Since 1830, Petticoat Lane has been known as Middlesex St and yet it is still widely referred to by its earlier name. Such is the enigma of this ancient thoroughfare and market that is recognised more by what it was than what it is. Yet the enduring life of Petticoat Lane is still there to be found, if you look close enough.
Behind a curious concrete staircase that leads nowhere on Middlesex St, I sought out MB’s Cafe with faded old photographs upon the walls of the former Baldacci’s Cafe. M B stood for Matthew Baldacci who ran this cafe and another of the same name round the corner in Harrow Place with his father Peter. Together they were the second and third generations in this family business, begun here by Matthew’s grandfather Umberto.
The original cafes and the street in the photographs where Umberto lived and worked have long gone, lost beneath a brutalist concrete development – the one with the staircase leading nowhere. Yet in spite of this architectural transformation, the Baldacci family and their cafe remained as one of the last family businesses to carry the story of the Lane.
Reflecting the nature of this border territory where the City of London meets the East End, the two Baldacci cafes were oriented to serve customers from both directions. MB’s in Harrow Place was where Matthew greeted the City workers by name as they picked up their sandwiches and rolls daily, while MB’s in Middlesex St was where you found the stalwarts of Petticoat Lane tucking in to their cooked lunches. It was at the latter establishment, hidden discreetly under the stairs, that I met with Peter a year ago and he told me the Baldacci family history.
“It all started with my father Umberto Baldacci, he came over from Italy at fourteen years old and worked in a cafe. He lived in the buildings in Stoney Lane and he opened up his first cafe there in 1932 and they did quite well because he got a second one in the late forties on Petticoat Lane. The one in Stoney Lane was more cooked meals while the one in Petticoat Lane was sandwiches and rolls.
My father was born in 1905 and worked until the end, when he died at seventy-three in 1979. My mother Maria, she worked in the kitchen all day long from early morning and then she cooked his dinner afterwards, that’s how things were in those days – a man expected everything. She worked until three years before she died. When you look back, it wasn’t easy for an Italian woman but I don’t think she’d have wanted anything else. She had come over from Italy at an early age and lived in Kings Cross. I don’t know how they met. My father never went back, he made his home here. I can’t even understand Italian. It’s my one regret that I never learnt Italian.
They built a nice business and he was very happy. The Jewish people made him welcome and it really helped a lot. In school holidays, I used to come and work from the age of thirteen in 1962, maybe earlier, and when I was sixteen I started full time. I started washing up and filing rolls. I loved it. The East End was a very different place then and Petticoat Lane was alive with all different kinds of traders. It was fantastic.
I get up around four-thirty each morning and get down here by five-thirty, I like to be open by six. Then I close by four and I’m home by four-thirty. I can cook, I do everything, if anyone can’t come in I cover for them. I’ve worked in this cafe for twenty-nine years, but I’ve been full time for fifty-three years in total. We’ve got one customer Benny, he’s been coming for seventy years. He lives in Petticoat Tower and comes in each morning for his breakfast. My son Matthew joined me twenty-five years ago and we changed the name to ‘MB’s’.”
At the conclusion of Peter’s tale, Matthew Baldacci arrived fresh from completing the busy lunch service round the corner in Harrow Place. “I started working Sundays when I was fourteen, it was expected but I didn’t not want to do it. I started full time at sixteen, twenty-five years ago.” he revealed, meeting his father’s eyes with a protective smile, “My dad does the book work and I do the running of it. We’re very close.”
Matthew told me there was a sense of change in the air around Petticoat Lane and he hoped that it was only a matter of time before the escalating life of Spitalfields and the City would spill over into this backwater bringing increased trade.
At that time, after all the transformations that the Baldcaccis had seen through three generations, Matthew remained ebullient for the future. “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing,” he assured me confidently, “I have two sons and it’s a probability that one of them will go into it.”
Yet after eighty-two years of service by the Baldacci family, running cafes on Petticoat Lane, it is now a matter of widespread regret that the story ends here and we shall never see Matthew’s prediction come to pass.
Umberto Baldacci’s Cafe in Stoney Lane
The letter from the City of London beginning Baldacci’s tenancy that ended this week
Peter outside MB’s Cafe in Harrow Place
MB’s Cafe under the stairs on Middlesex St
Peter & Matthew Baldacci
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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The Duke of Wellington, 1939 – courtesy of The National Brewery Centre, Burton on Trent
Just round the corner from The Gun that shut forever last week is The Duke of Wellington, which is currently under threat of closure and may also vanish from our streets shortly if the campaign to save it is not successful. Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien, my frequent companion in visiting public houses, came along with me when I paid a lunchtime call recently.
I have always admired The Duke of Wellington swaggering on the corner of Brune and Toynbee St, flaunting its eccentrically-pitched roof and tall chimney stack in the style of a Tudor cottage like a swanky hat and complementing the terrace of shops opposite, each with a dwelling or workshop above and resembling a long tithe barn.
Colin & I were happy to leave the clamour of the street and enter the peace of the barroom, where a highly concentrated game of darts was in progress. Nick Harris, who has run the pub with licensee Vinny Mulhern in recent years, greeted us and explained that eighty per cent of the customers were darts players. “We’ve got so many teams, there are matches every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday,” he admitted to me, “I first came here as a member of a team to play in a match.”
There has been a pub on this site since at least the eighteen-fifties yet, as with many others across the East End, London and the Nation, its days may now be numbered. Recent law permits alteration in use of pubs without the necessity of planning permission, generating an unprecedented number of closures, as pubs that are economically-viable and valued community meeting places are snapped up by predatory developers, eager to shut them down and convert the buildings to other uses that will deliver a quick profit.
Vinny Mulhern’s problem is Mendoza Limited who bought the freehold of his pub for fifteen million pounds. As owners, they have the right to prescribe the list of suppliers that he, as tenant, can buy from. As a consequence, Vinny has to pay £265 a barrel where he paid £130 previously. Meanwhile, he has discovered Mendoza Limited have acquired a string of twenty-seven pubs for ‘conversion,’ employing questionable tactics to further their purpose.
“They’re saying we’ve been buying from unapproved suppliers and they’ve sent in a stocktaker,” Nick revealed. For months now, I learned, Vinny has had his weekly rent returned the day after he has paid it. “I think they are getting ready to send the bailiffs in to change our locks for not paying the rent,” Nick confessed to me, turning emotional, “They don’t care – they don’t realise how much it offends good honest people who are just trying to make a living.”
Before Christmas, Mendoza Limited put in a planning application to gut the pub, demolish part of the building and pack in as many pokey flats as possible, building upon the pub garden and adjoining land. You only have until the end of this week to object.
Vinny Mulhern, Publican
Nick Harris & Vinny Mulhern
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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