Home > News > Secretary of State approves proposals for the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Following a virtual call-in inquiry in October 2020, the Secretary of State has accepted the recommendation of Inspector Paul Giriffths and granted planning permission and listed building consent for works to repair and restore the important listed GII* former Whitechapel Bell Foundry (where both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were cast) which closed in 2017 since traditional bell founding, and the casting of tower bells in particular, had ceased to be viable. Permission was also granted to demolish the 1980s addition at the back of the former foundry and to build a hotel on a site adjoining the listed building (including the site of the demolished 1980s extension). The London Borough of Tower Hamlets had proposed to grant permission and LBC and the scheme was supported by Historic England (both of whom appeared in support fo the proposals at the inquiry) following lengthy discussions and amendments to the proposals but the Secretary of State called in the proposals since they had given rise to public controversy. Contrary to some  press reports, the proposals before the Secretary of State did not involve the conversion of the listed foundry buildings into a hotel but their restoration and reuse as a foundry for smaller bells and art works, and a series of artisan workshops.

With regard to the objections that the works would end the association with traditional bell-founding, the Inspector stated at 12.27

“12.22 …Traditional bell founding on the site ended in 2017. The evidence shows that it ended for economic reasons mainly to do with a drop in demand for tower bells, and the difficulties, both operational and environmental, the business encountered in operating from a Central London address.

12.23 The proposals at issue came forward long after the Hughes family business had ceased operation on the site. On that basis it is clear to me that any harm caused to the significance of the Bell Foundry as a Grade II* listed building as a result of that cessation was not caused by the proposals under consideration. The baseline for consideration of the proposals is a largely vacant Grade II* listed building that formerly housed traditional bell founding and associated operations. It is not a situation where an operational traditional bell foundry is to be closed in order to be replaced by something else.

12.24 On top of that, while I accept that if traditional bell founding was still going on in the building, its special interest and significance would be greater than it is today, without those activities, the suggestion that the end of that use has caused substantial harm to its significance is to my mind hard to reconcile with what I saw during my site visit.

12.25 It is accepted that as the PPG sets out, ‘substantial harm’ is a high test and the Courts have held that to attain that level: one was looking for an impact which would have such a serious impact on the significance of the asset that its significance was either vitiated altogether or very much reduced. Or put another way, substantial harm would be caused if: very much if not all of the significance of the asset was drained away.

12.26 With that in mind, if Re-Form is right, and substantial harm has been caused by the end of traditional bell founding on the site, then a visit to the building now would be a sorry affair indeed. However, I saw a building richly steeped in architectural and historic interest. I do not seek to downplay the impact of the end of traditional bell making on the site; it has certainly caused some harm. However, that harm is very clearly less than substantial, and nothing whatsoever to do with the proposals at issue.

12.27 It might well be argued that allowing the proposals to go ahead would mean that traditional bell founding could never return. However, it seems to me unlikely in the extreme that an operation like that carried out for centuries on the site, by the Hughes family and their forerunners, could ever return to the site. The applicant’s evidence shows that both the economic, the environmental, and the operational, challenges would be far too great.”

Referring to the detailed consideration of the Inspector, the Secretary of Stated found:

The Question of Use
13.  For the reasons given at IR12.20-12.23, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the baseline for consideration of the proposals is a largely vacant Grade II* listed building that formerly housed traditional bell founding and associated operations (IR12.23). He further agrees, for the reasons given in IR12.24-12.29, that while the end of traditional bell making on the site has certainly caused some harm, that harm is very clearly less than substantial, and nothing whatsoever to do with the proposals at issue (12.26); and that there is no harmful impact as a result of the proposals in use terms (IR12.29).

Physical works to the listed building
14.  For the reasons given at IR12.30-12.44, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the physical changes in the listed building, through the removal of historic fabric, and the introduction of contemporary features, will cause a degree of harm to the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building, and its significance (IR12.42). He further agrees that viewed in isolation, the harm caused to the significance of the designated heritage asset would be very much at the lower end of the scale of less than substantial (IR12.44).

The 1980s building and the Hotel
15.  The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector for the reasons given at IR12.45-12.48 that the removal of the 1980s building would cause no harm to the character or appearance of the conservation area or the setting of the listed building, provided of course that what replaces it is appropriate in terms of its scale form and design (IR12.48).

16.  In that regard, for the reasons given at IR12.49-12.53, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the proposed hotel would have an appropriate form that despite its height would sit comfortably against the Bell Foundry, that it would address the street in an appropriate manner, and that its detailed design is subtle and pleasingly understated (IR12.52). He further agrees that the inclusion of a gantry and a bell on the roof of the part of the hotel nearest to the junction with the Bell Foundry, seems an appropriate reference to the former use of the site (IR12.52) and that, overall, the proposed hotel would enhance both the character and the appearance of the conservation area, and the setting of the Bell Foundry as a listed building (IR12.53).

Reinstating a Use in the Bell Foundry
17.  The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR12.54 that bringing back activity to the building would enhance the character of the conservation area, and thereby its significance.”

On the balance of harm and heritage and other benefits, the Secretary of State considered an internal balance of heritage harm and benefits (as did the Inspector) but also determined (as the Inspector had in the alternative) if there were first, a finding of harm and great weight was accorded to it, adds secondly all the benefits were weighed against that harm, this nonetheless led to the conclusion that such harm was outweighed by the benefits and would enhance the listed building and conservation area. He rejected alternative proposals suggested by Re-Form Heritage, the main objector to the proposals.

Heritage Benefits
18.  For the reasons given above, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR12.55 that the enhancement the proposals would bring to the character and the appearance of the conservation area, and the setting of the listed building, are significant heritage benefits. He concludes that this is a matter that attracts considerable importance and weight.

19.  In respect of the listed building, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector for the reasons given at IR12.56-12.65 that the proposals would result in a series of benefits, including extensive repair and maintenance work which would go a long way towards securing the long-term future of the listed building (IR12.56-57). The proposal would reintroduce foundry operations into the building in areas where traditional bell founding used to take place(IR12.58-12.62), and the provision of free public access to large parts of the ground floor of the building would reveal the significance of the building to a much wider audience (IR12.63). The Secretary of State further agrees that the comprehensive nature of the proposals, and the roadmap for the immediate future, means that the building will not be at any great risk of future harm through incremental and/or cumulative changes (IR12.65). He considers that the benefits to the listed building carry great weight.

Other public benefits 
20.  For the reasons given in IR12.66-12.69, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the proposals would deliver other public benefits including significant economic benefits (IR12.67), the provision of a significant proportion of affordable workspace (IR12.68) and in the approach to providing employment for local people and apprentices (IR12.69). He considers that these benefits each attract moderate weight.

The approach to decision-making
21.  The Secretary of State has carefully considered the Inspector’s commentary on the approach to decision making set out at IR12.70-12.97. He agrees with the Inspector that the proposals would greatly enhance both the character and the appearance of the Whitechapel High Street Conservation Area, and considers that this is in line with London Plan Policy HC1, Local Plan Policy S.DH3 and the Framework.

22.  For the reasons given at IR12.73, the Secretary of State agrees that the approach of an internal heritage balance is a perfectly legitimate one. On this basis, he agrees with the Inspector for the reasons given at IR12.74-12.75, that the heritage benefits that would be brought forward in relation to the listed building and its setting would far outweigh the limited harm that would be caused, there would be no harm caused to the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building, and its setting would be enhanced. He further agrees that there is no discord in relation to the requirements of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, and there is clear compliance with London Plan Policy HC1 and Local Plan Policy S.DH3.

23.  The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR12.76-12.77 that the proposals would accord with the requirements of Framework paragraphs 184 and 193, and in this scenario, there is no need to consider Framework paragraphs 195 or 196 because considered in the round, the proposals cause no harm to the significance of the designated heritage asset affected. He further agrees that the issue of Optimum Viable Use and the presence of the alternative Re-Form proposals is a matter of limited consequence as the presence of an alternative scheme offers no justification to resist a proposal that is otherwise acceptable, and statute and policy compliant (IR12.77).

24.  While he has not pursued the alternative approach to decision-making as set out by the Inspector in IR12.78-12.83, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s assessment on this, and further agrees with the Inspector’s analysis at IR12.84-97. He agrees with the Inspector that whichever route is taken, the harmful elements of the proposal in relation to their impact on the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building, and its significance as a designated heritage asset, are far outweighed by the benefits, in heritage and public terms. He further agrees that the proposals would enhance the setting of the listed building, and thereby its significance, and would enhance the character and appearance of the Whitechapel High Street Conservation Area (IR12.101). (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, and there is clear compliance with London Plan Policy HC1 and Local Plan Policy S.DH3.

25.  The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR12.76-12.77 that the proposals would accord with the requirements of Framework paragraphs 184 and 193, and in this scenario, there is no need to consider Framework paragraphs 195 or 196 because considered in the round, the proposals cause no harm to the significance of the designated heritage asset affected. He further agrees that the issue of Optimum Viable Use and the presence of the alternative Re-Form proposals is a matter of limited consequence as the presence of an alternative scheme offers no justification to resist a proposal that is otherwise acceptable, and statute and policy compliant (IR12.77).

26.  While he has not pursued the alternative approach to decision-making as set out by the Inspector in IR12.78-12.83, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s assessment on this, and further agrees with the Inspector’s analysis at IR12.84-97. He agrees with the Inspector that whichever route is taken, the harmful elements of the proposal in relation to their impact on the special architectural and historic interest of the listed building, and its significance as a designated heritage asset, are far outweighed by the benefits, in heritage and public terms. He further agrees that the proposals would enhance the setting of the listed building, and thereby its significance, and would enhance the character and appearance of the Whitechapel High Street Conservation Area (IR12.101).”

David Elvin QC represented the Applicant, Raycliffe Whitechapel LLP.

Rupert Warren QC and Matthew Dale-Harris represented the rule 6 objector, Re-Form Heritage.

A Copy of the Decision and Inspector’s Report can be found here.

icon-accordion-chevron icon-arrow-left icon-arrow-right icon-chevron-down icon-chevron-left icon-cross icon-download icon-letter icon-linked-in icon-phone-outline icon-phone icon-search icon-search icon-select-chevron icon-top-right-corner icon-twitter