Shoreditch has recently gained some fake shops. Attached to the front of derelict warehouses in Norton Folgate is a temporary art installation entitled Trading Places: glossy prints representing the past, present and future of east London commerce. Evoking similar projects in Northern Ireland and Tyneside, it looks as if it's intended to hide away boarded up properties left empty by the global recession. But these buildings haven't been abandoned because they're economically unviable. Despite the area's appearance of urban wasteland, this is some of the most desirable property in London, on the booming City fringe.
Trading Places is actually a PR piece paid for by mega property developer British Land, as part of its long running battle with Tower Hamlets council and local campaigning groups. The buildings it covers up have been left unoccupied and in a state of disrepair as the planning process drags on, with the developers efforts to "regenerate" the area regularly opposed by local people since the 1970s. British Land want to redevelop Norton Folgate into a typical 21st century mixed-use space, consisting of boring offices, boring shops and boring luxury flats.
Their plan is to demolish many of the warehouses, retain their facades in a nod to local conservation rules and replace them with taller, blockier buildings linked by pretend-public space. The fake shops are just one part of their PR war against the council and local charity The Spitalfields Trust. They've also got a Twitter account filled with retweets of enthusiastic support scheme's architects and slick marketing videos full of nodding white people talking about opportunities for local people.
All of these efforts to garner support from the public for the project don't seem to have had the desired impact, going by the regular public protests and the hundreds of letters objecting to British Land's plans that have been submitted to the council. However, the developer needn't be worried. With Tower Hamlets poised to reject the plans, Boris Johnson "called in" the application and granted it permission to go ahead earlier this year. That decision is currently subject to a judicial review, but it looks like British Land have won and will start pulling down buildings soon.
It turns out that property developers don't really need to convince local people or local government that their plans are acceptable. Instead all they need to do is convince the mayor, who, in the spirit of Tory localism, regularly overrules the planning decisions made by London councils. Down the road, M&G Real Estate have just completed demolition of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, a development opposed by Tower Hamlets since 2008 until it was eventually "called in" by Boris in 2012. Several hundred local small businesses have been evicted to make way for a drab new building, which will be let in its entirety to an international law firm. In January, Hackney council was reduced to the unprecedented step of asking residents to write letters to the mayor opposing the development of the Bishopsgate Goods Yard using a bus stop poster campaign. The council was opposed to plans for several enormous tower blocks on the site threatening a "dark future for Shoreditch" until Boris once again "called in" the application.
This is what the new urban democracy looks like: massive corporations allowed to sidestep the planning permission process by going straight to Johnson. Boris's legacy is one of allowing massive commercial development while ignoring the needs of the city in terms of housing and workplaces for normal people. Developers like British Land claim to be interested in building a liveable city but their only real aim is to increase the value of the land they develop. The sight of rotting buildings awaiting demolition and "regeneration" is all too common in east London, but they're not empty because no one wants to live or work in them. Instead they are left to crumble as planning applications bounce back and forth, while toothless councils see their hopes to secure some tiny percentage of "affordable" housing fade away.
If British Land were interested in maintaining the character of Norton Folgate, or in providing jobs and homes for the residents of Tower Hamlets, they would be following the Spitalfield Trust's masterplan for the area, one which would cost less, take less time to complete and doesn't involve the wholesale demolition of existing buildings. The problem is that there's less profit to be made from sensitive restoration of what's already there. Much better to rip it down and replace it with something bigger, uglier and more expensive trying to hide behind a retained facade – one last poke in the eye for people who actually live in the area, who have fought against you every step of the way.
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