During the summer and autumn of last year, a particular form of contemporary rage was expressed about Brick Lane, that celebrated avenue of London history, change and creativity running through the Spitalfields district of the East End.
In June, a march and rally took place on Brick Lane itself, with placards urging the world to “save” and “reclaim” it. A Guardian journalist on the scene described the event as “a protest against gentrification” in the form of plans for “a new shopping mall and offices” which those responsible wanted to build “without consultations with locals”. At nearby Altab Ali Park a co-chair of the East End Preservation Society said someone wanted to “drop a development bomb” which would “destroy what is left of Brick Lane”.
What were those plans? Who were the “bomb”-droppers? Had “locals” really not been consulted? What was it the protesters wanted to “save” and “reclaim” Brick Lane from?
Answering the last question requires a journey through the area’s distinctive past and a grasp of the meanings attached to it. Spitalfields has several claims to fame. For centuries it has provided a start in London life for influxes of incomers from overseas, including seekers of asylum from France and eastern Europe, and seekers of employment from Ireland and that part of South Asia which, since 1971, has been Bangladesh.
It has long been a place of commerce and industry. Brick Lane itself, originally Whitechapel Lane, owes its name to brick and tile manufacture in the area during the 15th Century. It has been recorded as Brick Lane since the 16th Century. The original Spitalfields Market began operating in the 17th. Silk weaving is another celebrated strand of Spitalfields thanks to Protestants (Huguenots) escaping religious persecution under the Catholic Louis XIV and establishing themselves there: by the start of the 18th Century there were nine Calvinist churches in the East End. Irish weavers came too.
Jews fleeing Russia and Poland settled in the area from the 1880s, transforming its character and economy once more. In the 1970s, arrivals from Bangladesh grew rapidly in number and Brick Lane became synonymous with two things: one, vicious harassment of the (mostly) new arrivals by National Front thugs and resistance to it; two, a plethora of curry houses drawing visitors from far and wide. The electoral ward containing most of Brick Lane is called Spitalfields & Banglatown. Around 40% of the people living there are Bangladeshi Londoners.
But it hasn’t been all change and churn this past half millennium. From the mid-17th century until the back of the 20th, one industry stayed embedded in Brick Lane – brewing. And one firm in particular built a beer empire there. The Truman Brewery evolved from a small brew house started in the 1660s to the biggest beer producer in the world. Its Brick Lane premises were its production powerhouse, and the huge chimney sprouting from its heart became, and remains, a local landmark. But after being swallowed up and merged by Grand Metropolitan, changing customer tastes hastened decline.
The brewery closed in 1989, though some of its complex of buildings, occupying both sides of Brick Lane were rented out. A lease was let to Iraq-born Ely Zeloof, who had come to the UK from Israel in 1972. Zeloof worked in the clothing business as an importer and exporter, initially with two of his brothers on Fashion Street, a turning off Brick Lane. He later set up his own business in nearby Commercial Street. It was after outgrowing his warehouse there that he took space within the Truman estate. In 1995, Grand Metropolitan put the whole site on the market. Zeloof, taking a calculated risk, bought it.
What use could made of the jigsaw of blocks and yards that had grown up over hundreds of years for the specialised purpose of brewing? One of Zeloof’s sons, Ofer Zeloof, took the lead. The Zeloof family is artistic as well as entrepreneurial. Ofer began giving free space in the buildings to artists and musicians and hiring it out for film productions, photo shoots, trade fairs and exhibitions, or letting it longer term.
Bars, cafés, a restaurant, an art gallery and shops were established. The ground floors of larger buildings were adapted into small retail units. Ofer founded Fashion East, a not-for-profit organisation to help young designers, and Free Range, a season of graduate exhibitions in art, architecture and photography. He opened a nightclub, 93 Feet East and Café 1001.
The brewery’s rebirth under Ofer Zeloof – who retired from the property side of the business a few years ago – was of a piece with a wider metamorphosis. Fruit and vegetable wholesale had moved from Spitalfields Market to New Spitalfields Market in Leyton in 1991 and Old Spitalfields Market went over to fashion, arts and crafts. The 21st Century has seen Brick Lane become a hive of hipsterism as well as a centre for Bangladeshi “Indian” restaurants – perhaps more so, as the number of curry houses has been falling. Vintage clothing outlets have flourished at the north end of Brick Lane where it meets Bethnal Green Road and the brewery is home to the cavernous Vintage Market.
Today, the Truman Brewery is home to around 300 businesses, of which all but a handful are classified as small or medium-sized and over 200 of those as “micro”. All of its 100 retail firms, including all 16 food and drink outlets, meet a definition of “independent” that excludes companies operating more than ten similar ones in London.
The place teems with activity. And the brewery company, guided by Ofer Zeloof’s brother Jason, would like more of it. To that end it drew up plans some time back for making different use of a corner of its land at the junction of Brick Lane and Woodseer Street, primarily occupied by a car park. The plans involved putting some shops and offices there instead. It was these plans from which the protesters who had taken to the street in June believe Brick Lane should be saved and reclaimed. But on 14 September last year, the planning committee of Tower Hamlets Council approved them.
The decision unleashed a whole new wave of rage. That very evening, a playwright, Justin Sherin, wrote on Twitter that the council had actively chosen to “put a shopping mall full of High Street chains” on Brick Lane. He characterised this as the “targeted destruction of arguably the most important Asian community outside Asia”, and although the decision was made by Tower Hamlets, not the City Corporation next door, Sherin described it as “the biggest eastward grab by the City of London yet”. His “targeted destruction” tweet has been re-tweeted over 1,500 times and liked nearly 5,000 times.
Journalists, already excited by the protests, did not deploy such emotive language or make such dramatic claims. However, their coverage was framed by the same conflict template: developers versus “locals”; money versus an ethnic minority; the unwelcome march of “gentrification”. This included the BBC, whose website coverage highlighted opposition to what it called the “controversial” development plans. But although some people objected strongly to them, they weren’t “controversial” with everyone.
For Tower Hamlets Council, at that time under Labour control, they weren’t controversial at all. Far from it. For a start, the alleged “bomb” was not terribly big. The council had two committees for determining planning applications: a strategic development committee, which handled large and complex schemes, and a plain old development committee which dealt with the rest. The Brick Lane scheme was allocated to the latter. It was also too small to be referred up to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
By the time of the June protests, the development committee had already considered the application. The report about it prepared by the council’s planning department for the development ommittee meeting of 27 April 2021 examined the proposals in detail. The roughly rectangular development site as a whole covered 0.45 of a hectare – about 1.1 acres or two thirds of a typical football pitch – representing around 9% of the brewery land.
The largest component of it was the car park, shown in an aerial photo of the site of the planning officers’ report (on page 25) and marked as Plot S1. On this space, the brewery owners proposed construction of a building ranging in height from two to five storeys to provide flexible office space on its upper floors, commercial space at ground level and a gym in the basement. The commercial space envisaged included shops with entrances on Woodseer Street, replacing the brick wall that seals off the car park and forms part of the brewery estate’s border, and widening the pavement there. The new building was designed to “step back” from Woodseer Street to moderate the reduction of daylight for those living in the terraced houses on the other side of it.
The next biggest part of the plan was for the building that already stands on the northern side of the development site, next to the car park. On the aerial photograph, this is marked as Block H (also known as 146 Brick Lane). The Truman company intends to convert the ground floor so that it can be used for shops. The plans showed this adapted old building and the new one on the car park bisected by a pedestrian walkway, provisionally called New Dray Walk, which would connect to the existing Dray Walk on the other side of Brick Lane and terminate at a small new public square at the east of the site to be called Black Eagle Yard.
The third and smallest component of the scheme, marked Plot S2, is also at the eastern edge of the development site. It foresees a separate three-storey building already there, now being used for offices, having two storeys added and being linked to an adjacent building to form premises for a restaurant at 25-35 Woodseer Street. Another restaurant is included in the plans, to be installed in another distinctive feature of the brewery complex, an enclosed bridge spanning Brick Lane which links the two halves of the brewery estate.
The council’s planning department recommended that the committee gave permission for the scheme to go ahead. Crucially, its report described the plans as “consistent with development plan policy for this site”, which is the basic test a planning application must pass. Of the design and building form, the report said these would “respond appropriately to the positive aspects of the local context” and “improve the attractiveness of the public realm”, in part by knocking down the wall along Woodseer Street, which was built in the 1980s when other brewery buildings, much the same size as their intended replacements, were levelled to make way for the car park.
The scheme was also praised for designing “a visually interesting, well detailed and proportional addition to the site and the local area more generally”, one which would also “enhance the character and appearance” of the conservation area it falls into. Other plus points included parking for bicycles, a “strategy for minimising carbon dioxide emissions” and “biodiversity enhancements”. Furthermore, said the report, “The scheme would contribute to local employment and training”, there would be apprenticeships and affordable workspace, and an agreement to ensure the presence of independent retailers.
The officers’ report also documented that, contrary to the tweet of the Guardian journalist, “locals” had, of course, been consulted, as they have to be about planning applications. Two rounds of statutory consultations had been carried out during 2020, the second and larger of which sought responses to amendments made to the plans by the applicants, which included the replacement of glazed facades with a brick finish. Statutory consultation was augmented by the brewery company’s own community engagement exercise.
The plans had long been in gestation, and an initial pre-application meeting with the council had been held in October 2016. For some years, therefore, steps had been taken to ensure that the scheme complied with the council’s planning policy requirements for the area. Even so, the development committee wanted a bit more from the Old Truman Brewery Company before providing a green light. Its decision was deferred so that the conditions attached to giving permission for the scheme could be negotiated further.
Those conditions were designed to regulate any dilution of the flavour of that part of Brick Lane which, of course, the Zeloof family had been central to creating. By the time of the September 2021 meeting the conditions had become more stringent, placing requirements on the company to more generously discount the 10% of floorspace to be affordable over a longer period for small businesses, to ensure that independent retailers and local businesses were beneficiaries, and to generally, in the words of the report, bring about a “selection of occupiers that reinforce the unique character of the area”.
The assessments of the planning officers and the revisions to the conditions attached to approving the plans counted for nothing in the eyes of the most vehement opponents of the scheme. Fury was directed at the councillors who voted to approve it, in particular Kevin Brady, who was present at both the April and September meetings as a substitute for committee members who were unable to attend.
Brady was a well-qualified stand-in: since his election to the council in 2018 he had chaired its strategic planning committee and prior to that he had worked in the planning department of a local authority in another part of England.
He was portrayed rather differently by Brice Stratford, founder of a theatre company called The Owle Schreame, in an article for The Critic. For Stratford, the committee’s decision was “the latest betrayal of London’s working-class communities” and Labour councillors had “gleefully twisted the knife that they long ago plunged into the heart of Brick Lane”. In this venomous rendition of the story, Brady, who works for a theatrical agency, was portrayed as “a failed actor” a “classic bourgeois citizen of nowhere” and “the worst kind of New Labour busy-body culture tourist”.
Could the outcome of the committee’s vote have been different? Should it have been? The September decision was taken by just three councillors, when a full committee line-up would have been six. Brady’s colleague Kahar Chowdhury was the other who voted to approve. Committee chair Abdal Mukit voted against.
A fourth councillor who took part, Leema Qureshi, was unable to vote because she, unlike the other three, attended the meeting virtually. The council’s rules say that when a decision about an application has been deferred it can only be voted on by committee members who were at the original meeting, which Qureshi was, and they have to be at the subsequent meeting in person, which she wasn’t. The Evening Standard reported Qureshi saying she would have voted against had she been able and only failed to attend the meeting in the flesh because she had placed herself in Covid quarantine.
In the event of a two-all draw at the September meeting, Mukit, as chair, would have had the power to deploy his casting vote, though this might not have made much difference. Rejecting the plans would not have guaranteed they went away. The applicants would have been able to appeal against such a decision and, given the clear recommendation of the council’s planning department, would surely have been favourites to win. And contesting an appeal costs money – perhaps up to half a million pounds. That would have been a lot for a local authority like Tower Hamlets, serving some of the most deprived people in the country, to have spent on a potential exercise in futility.
For those outraged by the decision, though, such practicalities are as nothing compared with what they see as principles at stake in the war against “gentrification” in which Brick Lane and its environs are seen as a symbolic battleground. The alliance to “save” it is composed of elements familiar from other campaigns against property development in London – conservationism, identity politics, the far left.
A number of heritage groups objected to it, variously complaining that it would be too big, out of character, create too much footfall in a substantially residential area and be bad for business for the curry houses, a row of which begins directly south of Woodseer Street.
One of the groups, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust – usually known simply as the Spitalfields Trust – whose leading light is architectural historian and television presenter Dan Cruickshank, has been taking legal action, focused not on the merits of the brewery plan itself but the council’s handling of it, so far without success. They are understood to now be preparing to take their case to the Court of Appeal.
Another entity fighting the brewery plans is called Nijjor Manush, “an independent campaign group that aims to educate, empower and organise Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK”, as it puts it on its Twitter biog.
The Nijjor Manush website doesn’t disclose the organisation’s origins or say where it is based, although it seems to have been given space by the Spitalfields Trust from which to organise its Brick Lane campaigning. That extended to May’s council election period during which they distributed leaflets disparaging Kevin Brady.
The group’s broader orientation is apparent from tweets endorsing the Wards Corner “community plan” for Seven Sisters and a declaration in response to Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister that “Increased ‘representation’ of marginalised groups can ONLY be progressive when it is part of, & connected to, a broader political and economic liberation project”. It continued: “Our response, therefore, must be a renewed commitment to recovering our proudest traditions of radical working class and socialist antiracism”.
Nijjor Manush seem quite taken with the new Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman, who, in a remarkable comeback, regained power in May, consigning Labour to a heavy defeat. During the campaign, Rahman, responding to coverage of the Truman Brewery scheme, pledged his opposition to what he called “predatory” developers in his borough. Rahman’s win – and Labour’s heavy defeat – has been depicted by him and far left media as proof that the route to electoral triumph in “left behind” areas is to be very socialist.
This argument has also been successfully sold to the Guardian comment section, consolidating the media consensus that what the Old Truman Brewery Company wants to do in Brick Lane is unpopular and bad, and recruiting this to a wider political case that the way for Labour to win elections in lately fragile heartlands, whether in east London or the north of England, is to be more oppositional and left wing.
Is such a fiery constellation of furious denunciations, conservationist ardour and political agendas a reasonable or proportionate response to someone wanting to build some shops and offices on a car park, even in a place as unique and treasured as Brick Lane?
There are reasons for doubting it. It seems very likely that rejecting the Old Truman Brewery’s planning application in September would have only delayed the inevitable and might have been financially perilous for Tower Hamlets Council. There are also grounds for wondering if the true scale of opposition to the brewery plans matches its fervour and media reach.
Much has been made of the responses to the council’s consultation, which at the time of the April 2021 development committee meeting numbered over 7,000 objecting to the scheme compared with just 79 supporting it. However, the balance of sentiment was more complex than the bare totals suggest. Only 12% of the objectors identified themselves as Tower Hamlets residents and half of them provided no address. There are busy networks of people prepared to respond in the negative to any consultation about development plans accused of facilitating gentrification and “pushing out” minorities or the poor. To some in the trade they are known as “Trot mailing lists”.
There are also some assumptions that might be questioned. Computer images of the scheme have prompted critics to deride it as “a mall”, a “soulless” place, where “corporate” interests will take up residence, contaminating the entire neighbourhood. But the derogatory use of such terms are expressions of tastes and values not everyone shares.
If the brewery company decides to introduce some mainstream retail there – and doing so to excess would surely counter-productively dilute the complex’s special appeal – it could be more attractive to many local people than the boutique and somewhat culturally niche brands that dominate at present, including to Bangladeshi East Enders. (As it happens, when I met Lutfur Rahman for the first time, in 2014, he took me to the Starbucks on Whitechapel Road to do our interview).
And “corporate” presences of other kinds have been comfortably embedded in the brewery for some time: one of its buildings houses a datastore, another was, from 2008 until 2019, the European headquarters of multinational advertising company Digitas and has since been the European headquarters of Urban Outfitters, where 500 people are employed.
The urge to “save” or “reclaim” Brick Lane in the name of local residents and businesses contains traces of presupposition too, not least about the recent history of an area whose past has been so marked by sudden and far-reaching change.
The curry house presence there, although resilient, has been in decline for most of this century. And its peak period owed much to trade from adjacent territory often depicted in these debates as the base of hostile forces bent on invasion – the City of London.
The “save” mentality also seems to take as read that all East End Bangladeshis wish nothing more than to remain so, as if, as a group, they are uniquely immune among Londoners to the attractions of migration to the suburbs. Does a community as entrepreneurial as theirs monolithically eschew asserting its right-to-buy before selling up and moving to somewhere bigger and greener in, say, Redbridge?
This article, long as it is, could delve deeper still into the methods and motivations of those involved in this latest chapter in the saga of Brick Lane. Is the conservationist vision for the area, with its handsome and expensive Georgian terraces, to foster a type of inner London Stratford-upon-Avon – genteel, timelessly preserved and drawing to it even more tourists than it does now? Do ideological concepts of radical resistance even begin to acknowledge the particular dynamics of East End Bangladeshi community politics – the real explanation for Mayor Rahman’s return – and the electoral need for Labour politicians under pressure to align with its loudest voices, if only for appearances’ sake?
A final thought: Brick Lane has never stayed the same for very long, and in the greater sweep of history the Truman Brewery’s car park plans could turn out to be very small beer.
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