D-Day For Norton Folgate
Reflecting the wider significance of the battle for Norton Folgate, my post today is co-published with Guardian Cities
Please come to the meeting of Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee when the fate of Norton Folgate will be decided tonight, Tuesday 21st July at 7pm, at the Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, E14 2BG
Some simply stepped out from their front doors into the street, but most came from around the capital and a few even travelled across the country to be there. More than five hundred people joined hands around Norton Folgate as a symbol of their wish to see the old buildings restored for reuse rather than demolished by British Land. There were young and old, there were families and dogs, and among them was Stanley Rondeau, whose Huguenot ancestor came to Spitalfields in 1685.
Londoners are growing increasingly frustrated at the wave of large developments which are being foisted upon them and this event permitted the opportunity of expression for those who feel disenfranchised. Most of the towers that are currently proposed for London have been devised to serve the international property investment market rather than provide genuinely affordable homes for Londoners, of which there is a chronic shortage.
Similarly, the vast floor plates of British Land’s development in Norton Folgate are best suited to the corporate financial industries of the City of London and are likely to be occupied by a single tenant. This is already the case with the Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange development of which the entire office space has been leased to an international law firm. Significantly, this redevelopment was imposed upon Tower Hamlets by Boris Johnson, overruling the unanimous vote of the borough planning committee twice, and the fear is that he will act in the same undemocratic way to further the interests of British Land in Norton Folgate.
The Spitalfields Fruit & Wool Exchange was formerly home to several hundred small businesses for whom there is a lack of office space in the capital. If the nineteenth century warehouses of Norton Folgate are redeveloped and only their facades remain affixed like postage stamps onto the front of new buildings, the raised land value will ensure that the rental costs exclude all but large corporate tenants. But Tech City in Shoreditch evolved quite naturally in post-industrial buildings that once housed furniture factories and other small-scale manufacturing, and it would serve locally-based businesses if the old warehouses in Norton Folgate could be restored in a similar fashion.
Thus Norton Folgate has emerged as a key battleground in the current conflict over the future of London, as the potential for the city to become an arid forest of perfume-bottle shaped towers serving the requirements of international capital supplants the historical continuum of the lively metropolis – where rich and poor live cheek by jowl, where newcomers can build a life, and where large and small businesses thrive side by side. This is the sense in which the current battle is one for the identity of London.
Sitting at the boundary of the City of London, Norton Folgate is a former medieval Liberty created when the Priory of St Mary Spittal was dissolved at the time of the Reformation. As an autonomous entity governed by its own residents, the Liberty of Norton Folgate was independent both of the rule of the City of London and of the Church. And, even though the Liberty was absorbed into the London Borough of Stepney in 1900, the spirit of independence is not forgotten and there are those who still claim that Norton Folgate’s autonomous political status was never formally abolished.
In a strange precursor of the current situation, British Land attempted to demolish part of Norton Folgate in 1977 but were halted by a group of young Conservation activitists, including Dan Cruickshank, who squatted in the eighteenth century weavers’ houses to stop the bulldozers. The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust was born and with the help of Sir John Betjeman they saved the neighbourhood, emerging as one of Britain’s most-respected Conservation trusts through the following decades.
Now British Land faces the Spitalfields Trust in Norton Folgate again. Yet the Spitalfields Trust was essentially honed as a machine to stop British Land and many current members of the Trust took place in the first battle, only now they have forty years of experience challenging developers behind them and maintain close contacts with some of Britain’s foremost planning lawyers. Recently, multi-billionaire Troels Holch Povlsen stepped forward to support the Spitalfields Trust by providing significant funds as a war chest for any forthcoming legal battle with British Land. Thus the lines are drawn.
In the nineties, the City of London successfully extended its territory into Spitalfields when the former Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market was redeveloped as a corporate plaza for the financial industries that is already looking dated and worn. This was followed by the redevelopment of the Spitafields Fruit & Wool Exchange which is currently underway, but – like a posse of old warriors – the Spitalfields Trust has chosen to stand up at the boundary of the City to say, “Enough is Enough!” and they are better equipped than anyone else to take on the adversary.
The Spitalfields Trust’s defeat of British Land in Norton Folgate in 1977 was a seminal moment in British Conservation history when public opinion recognised the necessity to balance ‘progress’ in the form of new development against the need to preserve national heritage. With the wellspring of popular feeling against exploitative development at this moment, it is possible that Norton Folgate may become the testing ground yet again in which commercial imperative is set against cultural significance. Additionally, whatever happens in Norton Folgate will affect other looming developments such as the nearby Bishopsgate Goodsyard and – in this sense – it may also become a crossroads that defines direction of future policy in urban development.
British Land seek to demolish more than 72% of the fabric of their site in Norton Folgate which lies entirely within a Conservation Area. If this were to go ahead, then any Conservation Area might be at risk of similar treatment and the term risks losing its meaning. As with the proposed Smithfield Market redevelopment and the Strand terrace, that King’s College sought to demolish, English Heritage is also supporting the developers in Norton Folgate and finds itself on the wrong side of public opinion for the third high-profile case in London in a row. Yet the recent turnaround, when English Heritage changed opinions over the Strand, advocating the retention not the demolition of the buildings when the Secretary of State called a Public Enquiry, renders their advice of dubious currency.
The five hundred people who joined hands around Norton Folgate wanted to express their love of London and its history, of its diverse life and infinite variety. As more of the vast developments currently threatened in the capital are enacted, the passions of Londoners will continue to rise and prospective candidates for the next Mayor of London would do well to pay attention. Tonight, Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee meets to decide upon the British Land proposal for Norton Folgate but, whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to be the end of this story.
Sandra Esqulant of The Golden Heart & Robson Cezar, King of the Bottletops
Photographs by Sarah Ainslie, Colin O’Brien & Edie Sharples
Please come to the meeting of the Tower Hamlets Strategic Development Committee when the fate of Norton Folgate will be decided tonight, TUESDAY 21st JULY at 7pm at Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, E14 2BG
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