The battle for Norton Folgate: is this London’s last chance to protect historic buildings from developers?

By Alex Knight

Eighteenth century law returned to London’s East End this October, as locals elected the first “Headborough of Spitalfields” since 1729. The role traditionally served to protect the local community back when parts of London were under self-governance away from the jurisdiction of the city. 

Its latest occupant, David Donoghue, has a history of fighting developers, having seen off a planned high-rise development in Bishopsgate Goodsyard this year.  The decision to revive this ancient post now shows how desperate residents of the East End are to ensure that the area does not become a playground for the rich.

If you walked through Norton Folgate today, you would be oblivious to the planning battle that threatens an almost forgotten chapter of London’s history. In the shadow of the city’s corporate steel and glass, this small district of streets in front of Spitalfields Market is quaint, populated by vast Victorian warehouses and 18th century houses. Queues form at the Dennis Severs House, whose every room is a different time capsule of London life from the 1720s to the mid twentieth century. With punters congregating at the Water Poet pub and the Instagram generation snapping away, it’s easy to forget you’re a stone’s throw from the trading floors.

Its history is wonderfully vibrant. Catholic martyr Luisa Carvajal ran an illicit nunnery during the late 16th century from a small house in Spitalfields (now an Italian restaurant). Christopher Marlowe reputedly wrote Dr Faustus there. Then there was the famous 19th century fire that sent a stampede of wild animals from the East London Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Work Exhibition onto Norton Folgate’s streets.

But the cobbled streets have seen their greatest drama in fighting redevelopment. Norton Folgate has been on the most wanted list of developers since 1977 when British Land attempted to redevelop two properties on Elder Street. They were met with resistance as a group of squatters, including historian Dan Cruikshank, prevented them from starting work before planning was ultimately denied by Tower Hamlets council. But fast-forward to 2016 and British Land may have finally succeeded in getting their hands on the 40,000m 2 of super-prime real estate. 

The saga began again in July 2015 when Tower Hamlets council threw out plans by developer British Land for a mix of businesses and shops alongside 40 apartments. Champagne corks were soon put back into bottles though, as former Mayor of London Boris Johnson overruled the Tower Hamlets planning committee and sided with the developer. Eventually Johnson’s decision held, despite being the subject of a judicial review, and Norton Folgate was once again condemned to death by developer.

The process hardly seemed democratic, though. There were several procedural irregularities that were even admitted by the judge at the judicial review. It took the Greater London Assembly (GLA) just 24 hours to decide to call the development in, which made them question whether documents had been properly considered. Johnson was also accused of overstating the advantages of the scheme for both his London Plan and the surrounding boroughs.

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A Victorian map of Norton Folgate. Image: Aetheling1125/Wikimedia Commons.

There were claims, too, that the former mayor had not met the statutory criteria for intervening. The power of the mayor to intervene was designed to give him the power to prevent developments that threaten the character of London, through oversized buildings or developments that jeopardise the green belt. Boris has used the power to do the opposite – to reinstate developments that have already been rejected by a council.

This is something that Johnson has form on. He even faced questions from the GLA in 2014, over accusations developers were asking him to call-in plans, as opposed to the mayor following the criteria set out by the Mayor of London Order. During his time in office, Johnson called in 19 developments, including five in 2013 alone. In his final two weeks before leaving office he also rushed through permission for Westferry Printworks and Alpha Square, the latter debated for just six weeks rather than the usual three months.

This paints a very cosy picture of the establishment. It shows the role of local councils’ planning offices means very little and that no decision to reject a development is safe from intervention – no matter if there is no evidence to suggest the wrong decision has been made.

The second dangerous precedent of Norton Folgate is what it may mean for conservation sites moving forwards. Historic England, formerly English Heritage, defines a conservation site as an “area of special architectural or historic interest, which deserves careful management to protect that character”. It is incredible that, as the only body responsible for protecting such sites, it supported the development as a “sensitive restoration”. This was despite claims from the Save Norton Folgate campaign that plans would remove over 70 per cent of the conservation site and leave only the facades intact.

Historic England’s claim that properties in Norton Folgate are decaying and have lain empty for a long period of time are hard to argue against – but, in such a case, their duty to protect the site should have seen them back the Save Norton Folgate campaign’s plans. These would see the buildings restored to their natural state, saving both the interiors and facades before the units were rented at affordable prices as both office space and housing.

The final baleful precedent the redevelopment would set is in extending the boundary of the city. Norton Folgate stands against the shadow of the City’s big glass structures and is set to become further dwarfed by the 15 storey Principal Place currently in construction on the Worship Street side of the district. The planning permission for Principal Place did not help the case against development in Norton Folgate because a business plaza would now be in keeping with its new surroundings.

This self-perpetuating cycle will continue if Norton Folgate is redeveloped. It will almost certainly give the green light for a similar development on the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site, despite the original high-rise plans being rejected by incoming mayor Sadiq Khan. If these last frontiers do fall foul of the developer, the glass of the City, along with its expensive residential and office space, spreads even further across East London, becoming progressively harder to stop.

Norton Folgate currently sits in purgatory. Developers say they won’t start work before the end of the year; the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are raising funds to get a Court of Appeal judge to intervene, their final chance to save the historic district. Meanwhile, the buildings remain standing in their effortless beauty, unaware that the battle to save them has become about far more than a former liberty in London’s East End.

Alex Knight is a London-based writer and presenter of the documentary “Freedom, Escape and Demolition” on the history of Norton Folgate. You can see an extract here.

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