Anger as controversial plans to redevelop former bell foundry get green light

Controversial plans to redevelop the former home of Britain’s oldest manufacturing company – a foundry that produced some of the world’s most famous bells – have narrowly been given the green light.

But campaigners branded the proposals “heritage vandalism”, and said they will consider the decision and then decide whether to launch a judicial review.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established in east London in 1570 and is famed for making Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, the symbol of American independence.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry planning application
Whitechapel Bell Foundry planning application

But in 2017, owners Alan and Kathryn Hughes announced the closure of their Whitechapel Road foundry due to a “downturn in orders” and moved the operation elsewhere in the UK.

A contentious planning application to turn part of the site into a 103-room hotel was approved by Tower Hamlets Council’s development committee on Thursday by the chair’s deciding vote.

The UK Historic Buildings Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) had proposed an alternative plan for the site, which it does not own, with the aim of restarting foundry manufacturing.

Chairman Stephen Musgrave said he was “very disappointed” with the committee’s decision.

Speaking after the meeting, he said: “We have an extremely strong planning case.

“The people we gave put up tonight were not able to explore the full detail of all that so therefore the case was not properly able to be put.

“It was all very disappointing, it should have been deferred in order that we could have a proper debate.”

Mr Musgrave said the UKHBPT would review the meeting and a decision to decide whether a judicial review could be launched.

The proposals, submitted by Raycliff Whitechapel LLP – an Oldham-based limited liability partnership, proposed refurbishing part of the Grade II* listed foundry to create new workshops and a cafe.

The redevelopment would see an unlisted 1980s extension to the rear of the site demolished and replaced with a hotel along Plumbers Row and Fieldgate Street.

Part of the listed foundry building would be refurbished to provide new workshops and a cafe, which will serve as a “living museum” and provide “long-term public access through the site”, a council report on the application said.

While the plans were recommended for approval, there were around 780 objections and two petitions against the scheme lodged with the council.

The foundry’s former owners said they both supported the plans, according to the council report.

Historic England said it believed the proposals would provide a “high degree” of heritage benefits through repair, restoration and public access.

But Councillor Ehtasham Haque told the committee that approving the plans would amount to “historical vandalism”.

He added: “There is no justification for this substantial harm because a, the hotel can be built anyway, and b, the foundry can continue as a working foundry.

“Stop this heritage vandalism and throw out this application.”

After the first objector had given their presentation, Councillor John Pierce asked the audience not to clap the speakers.

The foundry is listed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest manufacturing firm in Britain and moved to the Whitechapel Road site in 1738.

Its most famous creation was Big Ben, the bell in Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster.