The battle for Brick Lane: Will this new build end Banglatown?
Campaigners are back in court to stop the Old Truman Brewery development
Morning — Brick Lane has changed a lot over the past few decades, but some fear that might be about to accelerate. Campaigners are once again in court battling to stop a development they fear could harm the historic East End and the curry houses of Banglatown. That’s after your Thursday briefing below.
Plus: a major incident is declared at a London hospital, while a crow terrorises long-haired locals.
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What we’ve spied
😬 A real facepalm moment for Londoners who voted for Shaun Bailey as footage surfaced of his mid-lockdown Christmas party. The now infamous video shows staff from the former Conservative mayoral candidate’s campaign team drinking, dancing and falling into a table at a party in December 2020. One person can be heard saying it is OK to film "as long as we don't stream that we're, like, bending the rules". The Met has since reopened its investigation into the event, with commissioner Sir Mark Rowley strongly hinting that new fines could be issued. It has also put new pressure on Shaun Bailey to decline his peerage, with one senior Tory MP saying he should “consider his position”.
💃 And the partygate embarrassment for London Conservatives doesn’t end there. It turns out that the ‘dancing woman’ in the video is now working for another London mayoral hopeful — Moz Hossain KC. Malin Bogue, who was seen in the video dancing in a red dress with Jack Smith, previously worked for Shaun Bailey’s mayoral campaign, but is now part of the team behind Hossain, a barrister who is one of three bidding to be the Conservative mayoral candidate in next year’s election.
💸 People are spending a higher share of their wages on rent than at any other time in the last 10 years, according to Zoopla. That’s across the entire country, but no prizes for guessing that Londoners are being squeezed the most. Rents in the city are up 13.5% year-on-year, with the average renter spending 40% of their income on rent. Ouch.
🚨 A man has been arrested after two people were stabbed at a London hospital. Armed police attended the incident at Central Middlesex Hospital, which was temporarily locked down but has since reopened. The Met said the incident was not being treated as terrorism-related.
📣 Not a single child has been strip-searched in Hackney for 14 months. The announcement comes as part of a report on Child Q, the 15-year-old girl who was strip-searched in school in Hackney in 2020. The report also concluded that the search was unjustified, and that racism was "likely" to have been a factor.
👨⚖️ The 2016 Croydon tram crash driver has been cleared of ‘not taking reasonable care’. The court heard that Alfred Dorris drove three times the speed he should have when his tram derailed turning a sharp corner six years ago, but on Monday he was acquitted of failing to take “reasonable care” of the health and safety of himself and his 69 passengers. The jury deliberated for less than two hours and its verdict was unanimous.
🦅 Keep your wits about you in north-west London — a crow is apparently dive-bombing long-haired locals. The Gospel Oak crow has been swooping from above on mostly female victims, though it appears to have left the area in recent days. While we’re birdwatching: a barn owl has been spotted in Hampstead Heath for the first time since 1946.
👗 The outfits of the late Tina Turner are going on display in the V&A. They’ll be part of the museum’s Diva exhibition, which also features dresses worn by stars like Pink, Cher and Marilyn Monroe and opens on Saturday. Btw: the National Portrait Gallery finally re-opens today after being closed in 2020 for a major refurb.
🎉 There’s a big celebration in Brixton today to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush. A new mural is being unveiled at Brixton Village, where they’ll also be a commemorative party with musical performances and Caribbean food stalls, running from 2pm to 10pm.
Was it legal for just two people to make a decision that could change Brick Lane forever, despite 7,000 objections? That’s the question now being mulled by judges, after the campaign to stop the redevelopment of the Old Truman Brewery on the iconic east London street had its day in court on Wednesday.
Brick Lane is still famous for its curry houses, and the surrounding area of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Spitalfields is still the heart of the British Bangladeshi community. But Banglatown, as it came to be known, is already past its heyday. At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s over 60 curry houses lined Brick Lane. Public cash from the borough council had helped turn the cafes first opened by people arriving from the Sylhet region on British merchant ships into a booming hub of independent restaurants, modelled in part on the success of Chinatown. Food wasn’t Banglatown’s only focus — council support was also given to Bangladeshi music, culture, clothes — but its restaurants achieved the most fame. Among the first establishments to attract diners from outside the local area, with its traditional biryanis and “big-pot” cooking style, was the Famous Clifton. Its most well-known diners included two future prime ministers of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, the Kray Twins and Richard and David Attenborough.
A boutique chocolatier took over the Famous Clifton’s old spot when it closed down, and then a Japanese noodle bar. The curry houses of Brick Lane, which are concentrated in the south end of the street, are increasingly sharing their space with the ‘flat white economy’, which till recently had stuck to the street’s northern end, towards Shoreditch. By February 2020 there were only 23 curry restaurants left, according to research by the Runnymede Trust, a decrease of 62% in 15 years. Vegan pizzerias and French delicatessens have popped up in their place. One of the more notorious new arrivals was the Cereal Killer Cafe in 2014, a symbol of 2010s hipsterism that was the target of anti-gentrification protests. That closed though in 2020, with the owners citing the impact of the pandemic.
Though they may not be strictly Banglatown, many of Brick Lane’s new inhabitants are, like the curry houses, independent traders in their own right, with a lockdown to recover from and rents to pay. And now they face a new threat, at least according to campaigners — one that could price them out and alter the area’s character.
The Old Truman Brewery, built all the way back in 1666, now acts as the unofficial boundary between the north and south ends of Brick Lane. It was once one of the largest brewers in the world, sending Imperial Stout to Russia and IPA to the British Raj. It closed in 1989, and gradual attempts at sensitive regeneration since then have turned the site into an arts and events centre with shops and bars.
But in 2021 the owners of the brewery, the Zeelof Partnership, possibly took a step too far. They submitted plans to build a five-storey building on the site of a car park at the intersection of Brick Lane and Woodseer St — four floors of offices up top, and a shopping mall below, plus a gym and two restaurants. Though they wouldn’t be altering any of the existing brewery buildings, they wanted to provide a new space for big brands and corporations to potentially set up shop.
Opposition was fierce — Tower Hamlets council received more than 7,000 objections from the public. They ranged from the architectural — that the steel and glass design wouldn’t be in keeping with the historic East End street, with its warehouses and terraces — to the economic — that a new influx of wealthy office workers would mean new kinds of businesses on Brick Lane and higher rents. There were fears it could disrupt the “fragile ecosystem” of Banglatown’s curry houses. Some identified a wider trend, grouping the plans with a string of developments in the Spitalfields area — the Fruit and Wool Exchange, Bishop’s Square, Norton Folgate — as evidence of “a tsunami of soulless corporate development spreading from the City of London”.
It all came to a head in September 2021, when Tower Hamlets council’s planning committee met to vote on the plans. After concessions from the brewery’s owner — that 45% of workspaces would be rented out affordably and 20% of units earmarked for independent businesses — the committee gave the green light, by two to one.
That vote, taken by just three councillors, was controversial, to say the least — and is why campaigners found themselves at the Court of the Appeal on Wednesday. The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust has been raising funds for what is now its second legal challenge against the brewery, after a first failed attempt at the High Court. This time the Trust’s argument is centred on its claim the planning decision was undemocratic, because some councillors on the committee had been barred from voting. It’s a slight procedural headache that’s basically due to Tower Hamlets council’s own rules that prevent councillors from attending a vote on an application if they were absent from an earlier meeting. While the council argues that kind of rule is needed to ensure councillors are informed about what they vote on, the Trust hopes judges agree that this conflicts with more fundamental rights of councillors to have their say.
Speaking to the Spy after the hearing, the Trust said it was pleased with how its case had been represented in court. An actual ruling is not expected for some time — possibly July. If it wins, the Trust expects an appeal from the brewery and more legal wrangling, and if they lose, they’re prepared to keep fighting, provided they get the funding. So an actual resolution might be some way off.
But as for Banglatown, views on the brewery development’s impact are mixed. Seán Carey, a social anthropologist and fellow of the University of Manchester who’s studied Brick Lane, told the Spy: “There are different opinions among local Bangladeshi business people, especially curry restaurateurs, regarding the proposed development of the Old Truman Brewery.
“Many think that the increase in footfall will lead to more people eating curry and that will boost their bottom line. That will almost certainly be the case for the curry restaurants located near the brewery. Furthermore, I can’t say I blame them for taking that attitude, because they are still recovering from the pandemic and now they are facing another financial hit because of the cost of living crisis – rents, energy, bills, food, and so on. Ditto a significant proportion of their customers. However, I think that the benefits will be significantly less for businesses operating at the southern end of the Lane towards Whitechapel.”
He went on to say: “Interestingly, if you go into the brewery site, there are a few ethnic minority food businesses — a Tibetan momo van, for example — but you won’t find many local Bangladeshis operating businesses or working there. So while the owners of the brewery — the Zeloof family — claimed when seeking planning permission for the development that it would generate hundreds of jobs, I think we can predict those jobs are not going to go to local working-class ethnic minority groups.”
And aside from the specific brewery development, there are still concerns about the impact of wider gentrification on Brick Lane.
Ansar Ahmed Ullah, director of the Swadhinata Trust, which represents those of Bengali origin in the area, told the Spy: “The Trust is unaware of any threats to Bengali heritage in Brick Lane but is concerned about Bengali-owned businesses struggling in the current crisis and also historically Bengalis being priced out of the west of Brick Lane by gentrification.”
The Old Truman Brewery Ltd did not respond to the Spy’s request for comment.
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