I don’t normally participate in direct action, but when I read about the Spitalfields Trust Campaign to Save Norton Folgate calling for people to demonstrate against the proposals to demolish some 72% of buildings within a Conservation Area in East London…I felt I just had to make the journey to join in.
I don’t live here but this area fascinates me and I often visit when in London. Norton Folgate is a former medieval Liberty which sat at the boundary of the City of London and as such was an autonomous entity governed by its own residents. Today with its beautiful Georgian houses once occupied by Huguenot silk weavers still lining its cobbled streets, it is like a time capsule of history, and the thought that the developers, British Land, could consider such widespread destruction of it made me go along last Sunday afternoon to “Join Hands to Save Norton Folgate”
I attended a public meeting back in March this year and then wrote to Tower Hamlets Council to register my objection to the loss of this historic community’s character and identity. I learned that the developers, British Land, planned to replace many of the existing buildings sited within the designated Conservation Area, with a high rise glass and steel corporate plaza. Some 70% of the site could have concrete basements dug out up to 8 metres deep for services, jeopardising the foundations of nearby homes.
Not an after the blitz image but a graphic showing the widespread destruction of the ancient community proposed by British Land.
They propose to demolish many buildings with only some of the facades retained to be stuck onto the new buildings. Such an approach has already been used in a nearby development!!!
A sham facade in another street in Spitalfields pinned to a new building like a piece of theatrical scenery!
In response The Spitalfields Trust engaged architects to draw up alternative proposals that would keep the existing buildings and add new ones of a similar scale in keeping with the local historical styles. These would provide housing and small business units which could deliver much needed jobs for local people.
I arrived at around 2.00pm just as the banner was being strung up across Elder Street and already a long line of people were queuing to register…will enough people attend to make a human chain to surround the buildings that are under threat was the main topic of conversation.
We were each given a map of the area under threat around which we would form the chain…
People of all ages, from all walks of life, locals and some like myself from farther afield came to make their voices heard…and some even brought along their pets!
Floyd the Bassett Hound ready to join paws!
At around 2.30 the assembled masses were asked find a place and to join hands in an attempt to encircle the entire site under threat.
Whilst waiting for the 3.00pm deadline with some friends I had lost touch with for many years, I also met up with the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, whilst further down the line was The Gentle Author well known to many as the writer of the daily Spitalfields Life blog, two of the leading lights behind the day’s event.
Dan Cruickshank a local resident is no stranger when it comes to campaigning in Elder Street. Today’s protest is the second battle against the march of British Land, as back in 1977 he and others from the Spitalfields Trust squatted in empty Georgian properties and campaigned long and hard assisted by amongst others, Sir John Betjeman, to save the area from demolition.
I also talked with complete strangers and discussed the threat to the area of these current plans.
Some residents feared that they would never see daylight again in their back gardens if the high rise tower office blocks (for as yet unknown tenants) were constructed. Some people came from other Conservation Areas and concerned that if this can be done here then what is the use of CA status. Some were discussing other radical building development plans in the neighbourhood including the demolition of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange and a massive new scheme in Shoreditch based upon the Bishopsgate Goodsyard.
At 3.00pm the sun came out and the atmosphere became celebratory when a huge cheer went up as it became apparent that the site was totally encircled! A photographer then walked the length of the human chain to capture for posterity, this brief moment of collective action.
The following Tuesday, Tower Hamlets Council met to discuss the proposed plans from British Land and unanimously rejected them! This is great news for the campaigners and it is good that the members have listened to the voices of the many petitioners and people who joined hands to protest.
I fear that whilst this significant victory has been achieved, appeals will still be lodged with the Secretary of State and the Mayors Office. After all, British Land have been active in the area for the past 40 years and I don’t think they will be happy to just fade into the background. I, along with many others, will continue to monitor proposals for this unique and historic gem in East London and hope that the decision makers will continue to take note of the depth of feeling unleashed by the joining of hands to save Norton Folgate.