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Anger at council plan to convert ancient bell foundry into boutique hotel

22 November 2019


Campaigners for Whitechapel Bell Foundry protest before a planning-committee meeting at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, on Thursday of last week

Campaigners for Whitechapel Bell Foundry protest before a planning-committee meeting at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, on Thursday of last week

CAMPAIGNERS fighting to conserve Britain’s oldest bell foundry have condemned a council decision to let it be converted into a boutique hotel.

The Whitechapel foundry, in east London, produced some of the world’s most famous bells, including Big Ben, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, and the Liberty Bell, in Pennsylvania. It is listed in Guinness World Records as the country’s oldest manufacturing firm, dating back to 1570. Last week, Tower Hamlets Council decided, by the casting vote of its development committee’s chairman, to approve the creation of a 100-bedroom hotel on the site, despite a community-led campaign to save the foundry.

The plans, by a New York-based investment company, were supported by the foundry’s former owner, Alan Hughes, whose family had owned the site since 1904. Mr Hughes closed the works in 2017 after years of struggling with rising costs, and moved operations to a new location (News, 9 December 2016). The campaign to save the site was supported by high-profile figures such as the artist Sir Antony Gormley, and the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Tristram Hunt.

The UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, which had proposed an alternative plan to keep the site working (News, 6 July 2018), said that it was “deeply saddened”. In a statement, it said that the decision meant that the foundry would “be gone for ever, along with the skills, the jobs, and the community pride and social cohesion that sprang from the site”.

The director of the trust, Clare Wood, said: “The committee seems to have been swayed by the developer’s sketches of a small imitation bell workshop as part of a themed coffee-shop space; their decision seemingly based on a few unrealistic visualisations. The heart and soul of the building — and its reason for being — will be gone. Instead of being a revitalised place of pilgrimage of global interest and a huge boost to the local economy, it will be another boutique hotel of no interest to anyone but its transient clientele.”

A Labour member of Tower Hamlets Council, Ehtasham Haque, said that campaigners were considering legal action to have the permission reversed.

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