John Biggs: Battles about change in Spitalfields are always evolving yet nothing new

John Biggs: Battles about change in Spitalfields are always evolving yet nothing new

How does an area with a history as rich as that of Spitalfields negotiate and manage change? It is a question that illuminates a much broader one about “gentrification” in London – and elsewhere – in a place that is already very different from how it was just a few decades ago.

In 1981 only 67 homes in Spitalfields were privately owned. Today, several thousand are, though there continues to be a large working-class and diverse community in the area, around which new housing has grown. Once, Spitalfields was filled with sweatshops and factories. Now it boasts a massive visitor economy and is also a location for new and higher skilled service and technology industries, with fewer low-skilled jobs.

Spitalfields has for over 200 years been an entry point for migrants to London. That is largely because it provided cheap and mostly unregulated housing, which often meant very poor quality dwellings, chronic overcrowding, appalling public health and endemic insecurity. But there was also an opportunity to lodge with others, to engage in a bustling, often informal, economy and to start building a new community. Such places are like the fertile foothills of a volcano, and every creative city needs one.

The fact that so many migrant communities can identify Spitalfields as where they put down London roots tells you there’s something special about the place. And it has generated legends and narratives filled with stark contrasts. There have been many struggles for improved housing and for equality in the face of violence and racial discrimination. These have helped to define the historic role of the Spitalfields area and are etched strongly in the collective memories of those who have long lived there, or done so in the past.

This fosters a profound nostalgia and a sense of East End identity, which can be sources of strength. But that doesn’t mean the area, just like any other, should never have to accommodate further change.

Different people will have different ideas about what type of change there should be and how much of it, depending on how they see the area’s role. For a capitalist, places like Spitalfields are like the grit in a city’s oyster, essential for producing pearls – and there is always a demand for more pearls. For a communitarian, they have a vitality and character that will be lost if not preserved.

As a society we can choose to be both capitalist and communitarian at the same time, and in Spitalfields the tension between them is against the backdrop of the area becoming more bourgeois. With this has come a new narrative about it, with conservation and quality of life issues more to the fore.

This has been apparent in campaigning against plans to redevelop a corner of the Truman Brewery site which straddles Brick Lane, the famous street that bisects Spitalfields from north to south.

Under the plans, offices and shops, some of them with higher rents, would be built on a car park. Opponents argue that the car park would be put to a range of better uses but for the malign intentions of its owners who, even though no housing of any kind is being proposed for the site, are accused of gentrifying the area to the disadvantage of local people. Tower Hamlets Council, which I led as Mayor at the time planning consent was granted, has been accused of failing to prevent the scheme when it could have.

What can we learn from this argument? Is “gentrification” a lazily-used term for stirring up opposition to any sort of change some people don’t like? Who does the land in question truly “belong” to – its owners or the wider community?

The legal answer to the second question is simple. The 1945 Labour government nationalised land use planning but it did not nationalise land. Yet if a neighbourhood feels like “my neighbourhood”, surely there is a sense in which the land within it is “my land” too. That sense drives a recurring national theme, whether it’s about housing targets in the Tory shires, the sanctity of the Green Belt, or the threat of “gentrification”’ in cities.

The brewery planning argument is, therefore, a quite natural East End manifestation of a community and its opinion makers and political influencers wanting to stop change for a range of reasons – some altruistic, some self-interested. In this context, gentrification is largely a negative term – an “othering” word designed to emotionally charge opposition. As such, it makes many politicians quake.

One of two things will now happen. Either the planning process will be concluded and life will move on, or a campaign to stop the development of the site will secure the judicial review of the council’s decision it seeks and gather more momentum. This could encourage the Town Hall, under my successor as Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, to support a radical challenge to the planning system. It is an option he might find appealing. In Spitalfields, life is always interesting.

John Biggs was directly-elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets from 2015 until May 2022. Follow John on Twitter.

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