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The Whitechapel Bell Foundry should be a working factory, not a boutique hotel

19 September 2019

Around four years ago the world of historic buildings in England witnessed a heritage divorce – or was it a trial separation? In April 2015, the government designated English Heritage, formerly a statutory body, as a charity, redefining its activities and granting a modest dowry in the hope that it could achieve financial independence by 2023. The charity retained some supposedly market-friendly activities from the old dispensation, such as the London blue plaques scheme, along with responsibility for a bulging portfolio of ancient sites and historic buildings (the National Heritage Collection).

What remained became Historic England, with responsibility (as a statutory adviser to the government) for a slew of heritage policy and enforcement, particularly through listing and casework. Public engagement was Historic England’s prime stated objective, yet it no longer had any members (English Heritage kept them) and it has now ceded management of its excellent publishing arm to Liverpool University Press. Step by step, its autonomy is being subsumed into government policy, not least with the launch of ‘Heritage Action Zones’, which aim to pump-prime run-down high streets and coastal towns – to help ‘heritage assets be more productive’. And for all its energetic public-relations outpourings, Historic England has been subject to internal restructuring processes that have, according to current and former staff members, placed a strain on its ability to function: regional offices in Northampton and Guildford have closed, and layers of management have been stripped out, leaving junior staff exposed when it comes to decision-making. The London and South East regions have now been combined into a single office whose remit extends from Hampshire to Oxfordshire, as well as covering the 33 local-authority areas of London. In the words of one employee, ‘the cards were thrown into the air – and dropped’.

As conservation officers at local planning authorities become an endangered species, and development pressures and government policy leave listed buildings and Conservation Areas exposed, Historic England’s role in offering advice to planning departments is crucial. Those who value Historic England, and count on its survival in good heart and with sound finances, are growing uneasy. Its commitment to income generation, ‘including revenue from commercial activities such as Enhanced Advisory Services’, offers the strong possibility of conflict; if Historic England has given advice at a premium to a client who can afford it – a volume house-builder or a wealthy private individual, say – how can it maintain objectivity when it comes to giving advice and consent on listed buildings? Such advice and monitoring might be appropriate and effective in the not-for-profit sector regarding major public buildings but in the context of high-value developments and vulnerable listed buildings things become much less clear-cut.

And it gets more confusing. There are cases of immunity from listing (as at the Southbank Centre, which DCMS has not listed despite Historic England’s recommendation) and others in which listing has been overridden when ‘public benefit’ has been argued (as when Elmbridge Borough Council approved the replacement of Walton Court, the former Birds Eye headquarters, with 375 residential units and some commercial space, citing ‘extraordinary need for affordable housing’). Developers and their advisers can argue that things are confusing, too. Welcoming Roger Bowdler, formerly Historic England’s director of listing, to his new role at property consultancy Montagu Evans this year, Chris Miele (another former English Heritage man) pointed out that when it comes to buildings from the 1970s and ’80s, the ‘risk of listing does not even figure on most of our client’s radar [sic]’.

Listing is carried out painstakingly, to avoid risk of judicial review or appeal, yet little time remains for casework once the future of a building is in question. Where was Historic England when the Joint Committee of the Houses of Parliament pointed out that William Whitfield’s Richmond House, the recently Grade II*-listed former Department of Health building, could not in fact accommodate the temporary chamber that the House of Commons will require when the Palace of Westminster undergoes significant work from 2025? The original assessment, which proposed the use of Richmond House for this purpose, had been based on mistaken measurements; now much of the building, bar its façade, faces demolition to make space for the relocation.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, photographed in 1906.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, photographed in 1906. Courtesy charlessaumarezsmith.com

But the most controversial case is that of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, on which Tower Hamlets planning department is currently deliberating, its answer due this summer. In March, Historic England proclaimed its satisfaction with the application for a change of use at the foundry, until 2017 the oldest continuously working factory in the country and the manufacturer of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, among many others. The developer, Raycliff Whitechapel LLP, has committed to spending £15 million on the listed building, proposing development of the site into a hotel, private members’ club and trimmings (its American owner helped fund Soho House); heritage concerns will be signalled by the turning and polishing of hand bells in the foyer, and by bell-making equipment hanging on the walls – like horse brasses in a suburban pub. Historic England provided Raycliff with Enhanced Advisory Services privately, presumably reassuring it that the listing would remain Grade II* rather than granting a merited Grade I upgrade, and thus clearing the entire site for development. Besides the impression that the government has forced Historic England, a public agency, to go on the game to support itself, the fact that Historic England was prepared to condone this craft pastiche is, in itself, shocking. When the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings responded to the application in February this year, it remained unconvinced that a hotel represented ‘optimum viable use’ and recommended that the proposal be refused unless the authority was ‘convinced beyond doubt’ that bell-making could not continue on the site.

A sounding experiment on the first bell for St Stephen’s Tower, Westminster, commonly known as Big Ben, depicted in the Illustrated London News in December 1856

A sounding experiment on the first bell for St Stephen’s Tower, Westminster, commonly known as Big Ben, depicted in the Illustrated London News in December 1856. Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

On the table was a sophisticated proposal presented by the Factum Foundation and the UK Heritage Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT), the body that successfully brought the Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent back to working life after acquiring it in 2011. This proposal includes a commitment to training bell makers and tuners and an expansion of the foundry’s activity into fine art casting; it is geared towards the establishment of ‘an economically viable, environmentally and socially sustainable working foundry’. Historic England was apparently unaware of this scheme, although UKHBPT had argued for a postponement of the sale and auction of foundry fittings as early as March 2017. Factum-UKHBPT’s arguments and proposals encompass both the quality of the buildings and the cultural and industrial heritage that they enshrine, and their approach is modern and economically feasible – but they do not own the site.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry represents extraordinary historical continuity, the extension of which is now feasible, and it surely merits consideration under the UNESCO definition of intangible cultural heritage relating to knowledge and skills. This is not a dead industry: just consider the renaissance in village bell ringing up and down the country at the time of the millennium, which drew on substantial lottery funds. If Historic England is so eager to face the public, and to fulfil its responsibilities towards that ‘productive heritage’ it espouses, then here, surely, is a perfect fit.

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