Taking Liberties In Norton Folgate
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%
Diagram showing degree of facade retention on part of British Land’s site. Although the Norton Folgate and Folgate Street buildings are to be partially retained, the Blossom Street warehouses are reduced to a facade of brick piers, an approach that English Heritage describes 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