Developer and investment giant British Land wants to tear down historic warehouses in Blossom Street, E1, to build office blocks of up to 13 storeys. Objectors say the project will include just 40 new homes, with only 10 earmarked as affordable.
Plans submitted to Tower Hamlets planners centre around the ancient Liberty of Norton Folgate and include demolishing Blossom Street’s 1886 Victorian warehouses, said to contain fine interiors of Baltic pine floorboards and cast-iron pillars.
Protesters hope the scheme will meet a similar fate to plans to demolish part of Smithfield Market, which were thrown out last summer by government ministers.
The land is owned by the City of London Corporation, and an alternative development has been drawn up by architects Burrell Foley Fischer in association with the Spitalfields Trust, which is leading a campaign against British Land’s plans.
Its supporters include TV historian Dan Cruickshank, Wolf Hall actor Jonathan Pryce, and Madness frontman Suggs. The Spitalfields Trust says its plan includes a larger proportion of housing than British Land's, with more affordable homes.
When the proposals go before Tower Hamlets council planners next month, the trust will object to British Land’s intention to sweep away so many varied buildings, courtyards and alleys, and, in particular, to the proposed demolition of the Blossom Street warehouses.
In the case of the finest timber and brick warehouses, the developer only plans to keep the pillars of the façades, claiming that it may reuse parts of the interiors. Tim Whittaker of the Spitalfields Trust says he is astonished that English Heritage has referred to this proposed redevelopment of the warehouses as “sensitive restoration”.
“It is nothing of the sort,” he says. “If this goes ahead, it will be deliberate destruction of a heritage asset. Our alternative plan will repair them and put them back into mixed-use buildings that include housing, offices, tech start-ups and shops.
“These amazing warehouses are exactly the sort of place that young Londoners would love to have as homes or even offices. They are gold dust. Where there are gaps, we will fill them with conservation-designed buildings to knit the fabric back together.”
Whittaker adds: “Our plan will not only add to the growing impetus of this popular heritage area, but also create about 123 new and converted dwellings, of which 42 will be affordable.
“The British Land scheme, despite its volume, plans to make only 40 homes, of which just 10 will be affordable. At a time when the Mayor looks unlikely to meet his housing targets, how can anyone justify that?
“In the future, the value of these buildings will be greater if they are retained and reused than if they are demolished or gutted. Which is more valuable — an amazing cultural tourist attraction and heritage asset, or another pile of glass offices?
“This is a golden opportunity for the City of London to create a whole new cultural quarter in Spitalfields, which will also include a high proportion of much-needed housing.”
When asked why demolishing so many historic buildings in a conservation area while building so few homes was better than restoring them and creating many more homes, British Land said: “Much of the existing space at Blossom Street is employment-related and has a long history as a place of work. The new plans retain this, bringing Tech City to Tower Hamlets, with flexible space for small and medium-size enterprises sitting alongside independent shops, restaurants and 40 homes.”
Last July, the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, threw out Henderson Global Investors’ planning application to substantially demolish and redevelop Smithfield’s historic Western Market on the basis that he gave “greater importance and more weight to the conservation of the heritage assets” than to landowner City of London Corporation’s policy to increase office space. He called the demolition of the Western Market “wholly unacceptable”.
An alternative development was put forward by Burrell Foley Fischer in association with Save Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society, which would restore the existing buildings and find new uses for them.
From 1977 to now
The Spitalfields Trust and British Land have locked horns in the same part of town before. In 1977, the then-fledgling trust fought off the developer when its young campaigners, led by Dan Cruickshank, saved much of Elder Street, E1, now one of London’s best-preserved 18th-century streets, by squatting in its houses before buying and restoring them.
This reversed the decline of Spitalfields, which is now a global tourism destination. The developer had claimed the housing stock was unsafe and had to be demolished.
The trust’s success led to Tower Hamlets designating Elder Street a conservation area of special note: “An area of particular, special architectural and historic interest ... dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries.”
Images of British Land's proposed new development at Blossom Street: