Whitechapel Bell Foundry: Facts, Media, Politics

Government approves plan to turn Whitechapel Bell Foundry into boutique hotel (The Standard, 17 May 2021). Well, what do we think about that?

Bell foundry that cast Big Ben can be turned into boutique hotel, UK government says – Decision has drawn wave of criticism from culture and heritage professionals, accusing government of ‘money-grabbing philistinism’ (The Art Newspaper, 14 May 2021). Crumbs.

From the piece:

Andrew Wilson, a curator at Tate, wrote on Twitter that this is “another example of the normalisation of money-grabbing philistinism that this government promotes”. Writing on his blog, Charles Saumarez-Smith, the former chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, says that the government “is play-acting, [putting] a superficial veneer over rather brutal capitalists, who are happy to use British history for their own purposes… a hotel for foreign tourists is more important than a bit of living history”.

Saumarez-Smith also criticises the heritage body Historic England, which backed the boutique hotel project, saying: “I hope that the Commissioners of Historic England, who have so conspicuously failed in their public duty, might consider what went wrong: why they did nothing; why they have allowed this to happen in such a conspicuously supine way.” Historic England said in a statement: “We believe that the proposals have the makings of a successful heritage regeneration scheme, and would provide a sustainable future for this important group of listed buildings.”

Whitechapel Bell Foundry to be turned into a hotel, after Government greenlights plans (The Telegraph, 14 May 2021) – a piece that also quotes the tweets from Andrew Wilson and Charles Saumarez-Smith (Saumarez-Smith then writing a long piece in the same newspaper on 18 May 2021, If Robert Jenrick doesn’t act now, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will be lost for good – A priceless piece of our heritage is on the brink of being turned into a hotel. Why won’t our public institutions protect it? ).

Bell tolls for historic Whitechapel foundry that created Big Ben (The Times, 14 May 2021), a piece which starts:

The housing secretary has ordered a review of planners’ approach to heritage after a decision was made to allow a 450-year-old bell foundry that cast Big Ben to be turned into a boutique hotel.”

Away from the traditional media, there has inevitably also been much tweeting and perhaps it is apt that the Secretary of State took to twitter to announce that review, the announcement so far taking the form just of the final sentence of this thread of tweets:

The one thing you get from the newspaper headlines is that the foundry is being turned into a hotel. Isn’t it interesting/worrying how these stories take on a life of their own, reduced to compelling headlines.? Of course, it’s inevitable – who has the time to read even the Secretary of State’s 13 May 2021 decision letter and accompanying inspector’s report, let alone any of the underlying documents? The foundry is not being turned into a hotel.

To take a step back…

First, what was the site? As described by the inspector:

“2.2 The entry in the statutory list provides a great deal of information about the Whitechapel (or what it terms the Church) Bell Foundry. It suffices to set out here that it is a Grade II* listed building. However, the situation is complicated, to a degree, by the fact that parts of the overall foundry site are specifically excluded from the listing.

2.3 Put simply, the application site has three main elements. Firstly, there is the front range (including 32 and 34 Whitechapel Road and 2 Fieldgate Street). Secondly, behind that front range, lie the courtyard and old stables and thirdly, beyond those, are the old foundry and former cottages. Together, these elements comprise the Grade II* listed building.

2.4 Beyond that lies what has been termed the 1980s building. This building is specifically excluded from the listing. Beyond and adjacent to the 1980s building are two areas of car park and hardstanding which were not part of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry but are parcels of land that have been assembled by the applicant.”

The foundry use had ceased in 2017.

What are the proposals by the applicant, Raycliff Whitechapel LLP? Again, as described by the inspector:

4.1 In simple terms, there are two main components of the proposals that can loosely be classified as the listed building and the new building. In terms of the listed building itself, it would play host to a modern foundry, interpretation spaces, a café and events space, workspaces and workshops. The proposed uses and improved circulation are intended to allow the maximum number of people to access and experience the building.

4.2 The new building would be home to a hotel, with 103 bedrooms, a restaurant, a bar, and a roof-top terrace and pool, and a workspace at ground floor level.

4.3 The ground floor across both the listed building and the new building would be open to the public, with the foundry, interpretation spaces and the café in the historic building, the restaurant bar and hotel reception in the new building. The main entrance to the buildings would be common to both.”

Tower Hamlets Council resolved to grant planning permission and listed building consent on the advice of its officers on 14 November 2019 and the Secretary of State then issued a holding direction on 2 December 2019.

Remember Rory Stewart’s campaign to be London Mayor? Back in December 2019, his campaigning included support for the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry campaign (Rory Stewart Declares His Support To Save The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Spitalfields Life, 19 December 2019).

Photo courtesy of Spitalfields Life website

The applications were called in by the Secretary of State on January 2020. There was an early hiccup in the process when housing and planning minister Chris Pincher mistakenly told MPs in a debate on 11 June 2020 (seeking to defend the Secretary of State’s position in relation to another scheme in Tower Hamlets, Westferry – now incidentally back at inquiry for redetermination but that’s another story):

“I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, it is not unusual for Ministers to look at and call in significant applications, and for them to come to a different conclusion from that of the Planning Inspectorate. My right hon. Friend’s reasons for his decision were clearly outlined in his decision letter of 14 January. He makes it clear that one reason for his decision to allow the application was the very significant number of homes that were going to be built as a result of it, including affordable homes. I might say in response to the hon. Gentleman that in the same week, in an application to the same authority, my right hon. Friend came to a very different conclusion when he refused a planning application made by and supported by the local authority to demolish the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the one that created Big Ben and the Liberty bell. The local authority, the well-known tribunes of the people in Tower Hamlets, wanted to demolish it and build a luxury boutique hotel. My right hon. Friend will always come down on an application based on its merits and in the interests of the people. That is what he did on this occasion and that is what he will always do.”

He later apologised for his mistake – it had only been called in by the Secretary of State, not refused, but an unhelpfully politically charged note in the process for sure.

An inquiry took place, which opened on 6 October 2020 and sat for nine days. The main objectors to the proposals were a group known as Re-Form Heritage, which appeared at the inquiry as a Rule 6 Party, represented by Rupert Warren QC and Matthew Dale-Harris, who called four witnesses including professional evidence on heritage and planning – no “David and Goliath” contest this). Tower Hamlets Council was in support of the proposals (Alexander Booth QC appearing), as was Historic England. David Elvin QC appeared for the applicant.

(Thanks to my Town Legal colleague Tom Brooks for much of the following summary, although any views expressed are mine).

Re-Form argued that:

– Raycliff’s proposals were unacceptable in heritage terms, and would cause, in the language of the NPPF (paras 193-196), “substantial harm” to the significance of the listed building; and

– Re-Form’s alternative vision for the future of the site, as a working foundry for casting both bells and other artistic commissions, was less harmful, so the applications should be refused.

Raycliff’s position was that only a low level of less than substantial harm would be caused by the proposals, that this would be outweighed by their public benefits (heritage and otherwise), and that Re-Form’s idea was undeliverable and unviable.

The inspector concluded that the listed building was “of profound significance” (IR 12.14), noting that all agreed there were elements of the proposals that would cause harm to that significance (IR 12.17), whether substantial (leading to NPPF 194-195) or less than substantial (leading to NPPF 196).

As spelt out by the inspector: the end of the bell foundry business in 2017 was unconnected to the present proposals (“Traditional bell founding on the site…ended for economic reasons mainly to do with a drop in demand for tower bells, and the difficulties, both operational and environmental, the business encountered in operating from a Central London address”); and therefore the starting point for the assessment was a “largely vacant Grade II* listed building that formerly housed traditional bell founding…It is not a situation where a traditional bell foundry is to be closed in order to be replaced by something else”. IR 12.23).

Following the inspector’s conclusion that the proposals cannot be taken to cause harm to the listed building as a result of the closure of the business, the only harm possible was any arising from the physical works now proposed. No harm was found to the other heritage asset in this case, the Whitechapel Conservation Area, and that the hotel extension was said by the inspector to be a “subtle and pleasingly understated” addition (IR 12.52).

The inspector concluded that the harm to the listed building “would be very much at the lower end of the scale of less than substantial” (IR 12.44), would be outweighed by the public benefits of the scheme (albeit with some non-consequential discussion as to how this balancing should be carried out – see below), and so planning permission and listed building consent should be granted.

This advice was accepted by the Secretary of State.

There are some interesting issues arising:

– Obviously, there is no planning control whatsoever to preserve as operational the specific use that was said to be significant in heritage terms – as a “large church bell foundry” (IR 8.46) – clearly the planning system cannot require a business to continue to operate or indeed to prevent other industrial uses of the site, or uses which may be possible by way of permitted development. The Secretary of State concluded that “the end of traditional bell making on the site has…nothing whatsoever to do with the proposals at issue”.

– Re-Form argued that that Raycliff needed to demonstrate that its scheme was the “optimum viable use” of the site (following the reference in NPPF 196). This suggestion was dismissed by the inspector: optimum viable use is an example of the public benefits that are to be weighed against harm in the balancing process, but in such “a situation where the heritage and other public benefits of the proposals so far outweigh the harm they would cause, it appears to me unnecessary” (IR 12.82).

– The inspector followed Bramshill at first instance (Waksman J, 16 December 2019) that not much detail of an alternative scheme for a heritage asset is needed for that scheme to be a relevant consideration. Nonetheless, he found Re-Form’s scheme to be “somewhat sketchy, and lacking in detail [with…] far too many uncertainties” (IR 12.92). Moreover, even if it had been shown to be viable, “the mere presence of an alternative scheme offers no justification to resist a proposal that is otherwise acceptable, and statute and policy compliant” (IR 12.77).

– One of the more surprising aspects of the decision is the inspector going out of his way to endorse the so-called “internal heritage balance” method of assessing heritage harm following Palmer (Court of Appeal, 4 November 2016), despite numerous subsequent judgments emphasising that such an approach should be used with caution (see recently the Court of Appeal judgment on Bramshill which I covered in my 12 March 2021 post).

While the inspector was at pains to make his view clear that such an “internal heritage balance” approach was “perfectly legitimate”, and this was endorsed in the Secretary of State’s letter, it actually made no difference to the conclusion reached.

The inspector thus carried out an initial balancing exercise of heritage harm against heritage benefits, prior to the NPPF 196 test considering the wider public benefits. In doing so, he found that “there would be no harm caused to the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building […and] no need to consider paragraphs 195 or 196 because considered in the round, the proposals would cause no harm to the significance of the designated heritage asset affected” (IR 12.75-12.76).

What the inspector had done, though, was exactly the same as carrying out the NPPF 196 test, and simply stopping after the heritage benefits because the scales were already tipped in their favour, and so there was no need to include the wider public benefits too. In fact, the inspector then carried out the NPPF 196 test doing this anyway (at IR 12.78-12.81), leaving it unclear as to why the “internal heritage balance” approach was taken in the first place.

It’s certainly a topical issue. In the middle of my writing this post, judgment was handed down in Juden v London Borough of Tower Hamlets (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 21 May 2021) – another social media cause celebre, the “mulberry tree” case. See discussion at paragraphs 59 to 87 on ground 3 (“inclusion of heritage benefits when assessing the level of heritage harm”).

– It is common, thanks partly to the shared application form these days, for applications for planning permission and listed building consent to share the same description of development. Unusually, in this case, the inspector sought during the inquiry to understand exactly which works should be the subject of each application, resulting in an amendment to the description for the listed building consent – a useful reminder of the proper scope of listed building consent in section 7 of the Act (for “works which would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest”), and that despite their often parallel consideration by planning authorities, they are separate regimes with separate legislative and policy considerations.

Here was a proposal that was supported by Tower Hamlets officers and members, supported by Historic England, recommended for approval by an independent inspector and approved by the Secretary of State (the decision apparently taken by another minister but “on behalf of” the Secretary of State). In the meantime, commentary in social media and the broadsheet newspapers continues to attack the conclusions reached, repeating arguments that have already been rejected throughout this process.

There are plenty of participants to go at of course – the Secretary of State mentions the Planning Inspectorate (why?); Charles Saumarez-Smith (who appeared at the inquiry) alleges that Historic England “conspicuously failed in their public duty” (how?), and as always everyone has a go at the developer, without putting forward any realistic alternative proposals.

What has led to the Secretary of State’s announcement of a “review of how the Planning Inspectorate and planning policy considers and defends heritage”? An attempt to appease, without implementing substantive changes to the current system, those who wish that somehow a different decision could have been reached? Or something more fundamental? If the latter (and I’m struggling to visualise what form that might take), it needs to get hitched pretty quickly to the planning white paper bandwagon.

Finally, I of course recommend Zack Simons’ 19 May 2021 blog post Old buildings: what’s new in heritage planning? – a brilliant analysis as always.

Simon Ricketts, 21 May 2021

Personal views, et cetera

This week’s 6pm Tuesday 25 May #PlanningLawUnplanned Clubhouse session, provocatively titled, looks more widely at the treatment of planning issues in the media, already with a fascinating list of guest contributors in addition to our usual panel. Invitation to the app here (and, hooray, no longer limited to iphone users).

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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