Tower Hamlets: What’s wrong with the Old Truman Brewery redevelopment plans?

Tower Hamlets: What’s wrong with the Old Truman Brewery redevelopment plans?

Many objections have been made to plans to redevelop the former Truman Brewery building on Brick Lane and many claims about those plans and the owners of the site have been made too.

As so often, opponents of the scheme have attracted media interest, including from the Evening Standard, which in April reported that “more than 7,000 people have objected to plans to build a shopping mall and corporate offices” on part of the old brewery site. At the weekend, a Guardian journalist, tweeting about a “protest against gentrification of Brick Lane” claimed the brewery’s owners want to go ahead “without consultations with locals”.

What exactly are the plans and how accurate are the journalists’ reports above?

Brewing at Old Truman Brewery building stopped in 1989, having begun around the time of the Great Fire of London. The Brick Lane premises evolved into a centre for arts, events and an agglomeration of restaurants, bars, workshops and fashion markets, typifying a trend found in much of east London as the capital’s population grew and young artists and entrepreneurs formed new clusters in and around buildings originally constructed for different purposes. There are presently about 300 businesses on the site.

Brick Lane was, of course, already legendary for its Bangladeshi restaurants, themselves a relatively new feature of a street whose character has famously been through many changes down the centuries. By the mid-1990s, Brick Lane had acquired an additional dimension. Many flocked to it. Others mocked it as hipsterisation. Either way, it was the start of “gentrification”.

Tower Hamlets Council has long favoured a “small business focus” for the brewery site, as can be seen from its 2007 City Fringe Area Action Plan (see Banglatown and Brick Lane sub-area section). The document’s “future character statement” said:

“Brick Lane will continue to be an international cultural centre linked to new and expanded facilities elsewhere in the City Fringe…The Old Truman’s Brewery will continue to be a focal point of production and consumption activities as it is developed into a rich blend of business, retail and leisure-led uses, with significant elements of small business workspace suitable for creative and cultural sectors, some shops and public realm improvements.”

The Council’s approach to the site hasn’t changed: it sees potential for the brewery land and its environs to be made fuller use of in ways that nurture economic opportunity and growth while complementing and harmonising with what’s already thriving in today’s Spitalfields. In this, the borough is aligned with Sadiq Khan’s London Plan.

The proposals currently before the Council, submitted by the site’s owners (who’ve owned it since the brewery closed), are regarded by officers as “consistent with development plan policy for this site”. An officer report presented to councillors in April said the “office-led, mixed-use” scheme’s design would “respond appropriately to the positive aspects of the local context”. Shops are envisaged too, along with two restaurants, one of them extending into the enclosed bridge across Brick Lane that once linked the two halves of the brewery.

The site comprises three plots. One is a car park. On that space would be built a building rising to five storeys with offices, shops and a gym. Some of the shops would face on to Brick Lane end of Woodseer Street which currently features only a boundary wall, providing “active frontage” instead.

On another plot stands the building where most of those 300 businesses are based. This would be retained, the report says, with a “reconfigured ground floor to provide new retail units”. The office block currently on the third and smallest plot would be refurbished and made two floors higher, bringing it up to five. There would be a pedestrian walkway between the two sides of the development. This, presumably, is what the Standard meant by a “mall”. It is not clear in what sense the adjective “corporate” applies to the offices.

How are local people responding? There are a number of amenity group concerns, several of them relating to architectural character and reflecting an aversion to “soulless” incursions associated with the Square Mile nearby, though the officer report is content on this score.

The report also records concerns that local Bangladeshi businesses would be “negatively impacted” by possible rent increases. But it assigns the issue “very limited weight given the small scale of the changes proposed in relation to the wider Truman Brewery changes over recent decades”, including “activities and land uses that are recognised as being positive” in the area.

In summary, the officer report says the scheme “would contribute to local employment and training, apprenticeships, affordable workspace, and independent retail provision through planning obligations secured in a legal agreement.”

There have been many more letters of objection than of support – 7,051 compared with 79 – though only 12 per cent of the objections were clearly from residents of Tower Hamlets, while 24 per cent were from other parts of London and 13 per cent from elsewhere in the UK (paragraph 4.8). And, of course, these figures of themselves disprove the Guardian journalist’s claim about “locals” and consultation. In fact, there have been two local consultations – one in May and the other in December of last year (paragraphs 4.2-7).

A decision about the scheme was supposed to have been made by the Tower Hamlets development committee on 27 April, but put back due to concerns among councillors about the Section 106 agreement relating to local businesses. Committee member Kevin Brady says “it was noted the owner’s intention was to continue their long-standing model of tenancies being overwhelmingly small, independent businesses and the committee sought clarity on that.”

Negotiations with the site’s owners ensued and the development will eventually come before councillors again. It is hard to imagine that the next chapter of Brick Lane’s remarkable story will not be written before too long.

Article updated to include Councillor Kevin Brady’s quote about the S106 agreement.

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