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The long-running saga over the development of Spitalfields has been billed as the battle of the 'beads and bangles' - people of the East End market v the pinstripe brigade of the ever-expanding square mile - and both sides are dead set on having their own way. Of course, the old market is also hotly tipped as a new home for City firm Allen & Overy (A&O).
No doubt A&O will take heart from last month's news that Tower Hamlets has given the go-ahead to the final phase of the redevelopment of the Old Spitalfields Market. The decision means that the regenerator, Spitalfields Development Group (SDG), and its joint venture partner the Corporation of London, can start work on the scheme, which has been designed by Foster and Partners, the architect firm run by Lord Foster.
Despite the progress, it might be best for A&O to keep the champagne on ice for the moment. Jil Cove, a former probation officer who has been fighting the SDG for 14 years, appears distinctly unfazed by this latest instalment. She has just received an old press cutting from the East London Observer, sent by a planning officer. Its headline reads: "The Spitalfields problem - what should be done with the market?" It is dated 11 January 1912. "We're carrying on a long tradition," she laughs.
Another resident and veteran campaigner Jackie Remfry has just applied for a judicial review relating to Tower Hamlet's conduct in the outline planning permission that was granted in 1997. "Mosley's brown shirts were thrown out of the East End by the locals; Hitler tried to bomb it out of existence; and now the City is trying to accomplish what they didn't," she says, only half-jokingly. Both women, in taking on the might of the City, are leading lights in the wonderfully-named Smut (Spitalfields Market Under Threat).
It would be hard for a contrast between the SDG and Smut to be of any greater 'David-and-Goliath' proportions. "I live on £9 a week. I've done that for a year and it's bloody hard," says Remfry, who is supported by legal aid in her action. She is presently unemployed, but in the past has run a number of art galleries, such as the Mercury Gallery on Cork Street and Smith's Gallery in Covent Garden. Remfry claims that attempts have been made to hack into her bank account to find out if she is earning other money. "We can't say who - but I'm pretty sure who they are," she says.
Remfry was also involved in the fight to save Covent Garden from the developers' bulldozers. She moved out because the area had become "a theme park" for tourists and shoppers. "It was no place to live, and to find the same thing happening again to Spitalfields is awful," she says.
|"Judith Mayhew will talk about there being a global city, but if you don't have the human side of the city then no one will want to live there, even with the office space"|
Jackie Remfry, Smut
Cove's involvement with the campaign dates back to 1988, when a parliamentary bill was passed to close down the original fruit and vegetable market. She represented traders and locals fighting the bill in both Houses of Parliament and won significant concessions without the use of a lawyer.
Cove was undaunted by all that the City had to throw at her and struggles now to recall the names of any of the lawyers involved. However, she does recollect that a certain George Carman QC might have been involved. "Ever since then it's been a continuing battle," she reflects.
Both campaigners see the Spitalfields development as the most vivid expression of the City riding roughshod over Londoners. "They're being predatory and encroaching into our space as a result of which land prices and house prices are crippling, and local people can't afford to buy locally," Cove argues. By contrast, the SDG reckons that its £250m development has the support of the locals, and with a £22m package of benefits, including 118 social houses, it will actually benefit the community.
The original fruit and vegetable market, which was established under the reign of Charles II, moved from Spitalfields to Leyton in 1993. Forty per cent of the market is protected as a Grade II listed building, dating back to 1887, and it is the remaining building, added in 1928, which the SDG wants to redevelop. The protestors are up in arms about office blocks going up on any part of the site, which they regard as "a vital community asset" and one of the last urban spaces in Tower Hamlets.
It was Clifford Chance adviser Judith Mayhew who derided the Spitalfields locals as "beads and bangles people". She was talking in her capacity as head of policy at the Corporation of London. But how do the campaigners react to the accusation that they are standing in the way of economic progress?
"Local communities matter," says Remfry. "Judith Mayhew will talk about there being a global city, but if you don't have the human side of the city then no one will want to live there, even with the office space. They need the human side and they need the market and the community to make this a living city."
|"A&O would be the catch of the century for the developers if they could get them, and I've no doubt that they're schmoozing them now"|
Jil Cove, Smut
As for Smut's relations with prospective tenants, according to Cove, the A&O lawyers "started off quite friendly and then they got arrogant". The protestors, who have leafleted A&O's offices, believe that many of its young lawyers are sympathetic to the cause. But any relationship with senior management could well have soured since Smut published senior partner Guy Beringer's phone and fax number and exhorted people to let him know what they think.
The SDG has yet to find a client to sign on the dotted line for the 750,000sq ft scheme - and it will no doubt be keen for the City law firm to stay on board.
"A&O would be the catch of the century for the developers if they could get them, and I've no doubt that they're schmoozing them now," says Cove. The SDG has been in talks with a number of leading City players, but as yet no deal has been clinched. "As soon as we get a tip-off that there are certain people, such as Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs, interested and being courted by the developers, I write to them and tell them that they don't want to come here, and so far nobody's signed up," Cove explains. "There are a variety of reasons, but one of them is the fact that they wouldn't be welcome."
Andrew Clark, the A&O litigation partner who is responsible for finding a new home for the firm, says that Spitalfields is just one of several sites that the firm is looking at. "Clearly, anyone looking for the size of building we're looking at, Spitalfields has to be one of the options," he says. Other possible venues include Lehman Brothers' Northgate Scheme in Hackney, 201 Bishopsgate, London Bridge City and Paternoster Square.
Of course, Spitalfields comes with a number of planning headaches, which Smut has been quick to exploit. The SDG was originally granted outline planning permission in 1997 for an office-based scheme on the understanding that it would house the Liffe futures exchange, but within days of gaining the permission the Liffe deal fell through.
The grounds for the present judicial review are based on Tower Hamlets' failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment before outline planning permission was granted in 1997. The two buildings which comprise the development, 1 and 10 Bishops Square, were originally intended to be the Liffe trading floor and support building respectively. Last month Tower Hamlets approved outstanding matters of detail for No 10.
But Smut argues that the 1997 planning permission was given unlawfully, as it has been accepted that an environmental impact assessment was required for No 1. "We're saying that, clearly, the whole site should have been subject to an environmental impact assessment in 1997," says Susan Ring, a partner at Cambridge law firm Richard Buxton who is representing Remfry.
Ring says that Tower Hamlets should consider revoking the planning permission and the developers should supply a new planning application for the whole site, as opposed to the present "mishmash" of arr-angements. She continues: "It's disgraceful that the developer is continuing to try and build out the support building when it's not supporting anything."
Richard Harwood, the barrister from Eldon Chambers who is representing the campaigners, says that it is not clear that anyone would want to occupy No 10 as a support building. "But what they're trying to do is have a consent on part of the site as a way of levering consent upon the whole," he explains. The judicial review has already proved an effective weapon for Smut, as last year the campaigners managed to have a planning permission quashed when it was discovered that the developers had got their figures wrong.
According to Harwood: "They had mistaken what the previous office figures were, and so the council hadn't appreciated an increase of office and retail space of about 20,000 square metres - think of five large Tesco supermarkets all together."
The developers are taking the new legal action in their stride. According to SDG chief executive Mike Bear, they are "naturally disappointed at this frustrating delay". He continues: "In 1997, when planning permission was granted, the planning authority [Tower Hamlets] didn't consider that an environmental impact assessment was needed; as far as we're concerned, the planning permission is legal and we look forward to starting work as soon as this spurious challenge is dismissed." The SDG is expected to make a new planning application from Foster and Partners at any time. Brian Greenwood at Norton Rose is handling the SDG's planning work.
Ring pays tribute to her "determined and committed" clients. "But if there had been lawyers involved in 1997, we could have immediately said that there's a problem here," she says. Although, as the lawyer points out, this is the usual story when residents take on developers. "There's been a cosy world between the developer and the council, and they just expect to develop what they want, subject to minor amendments by local campaigners, but who never put a spanner in the works and have the whole thing thrown out and started again," she says.
Nevertheless, the mood in the Smut camp is resolute. According to Cove: "At some point this matter has to be resolved in a way that is acceptable to us, because we've been doing this for 14 years and we can carry on for another 14 years." As she puts it, Spitalfields is "the buffer between us and the City", and if the bulldozers do come in, then the bankers and the lawyers will be in the heart of the East End. "They're in my space," she says, "and I don't want it."
|The Spitalfields development - the environmental impact|
At the end of November, Jackie Remfry, a Spitalfields resident and a leading member of Spitalfields Market Under Threat (Smut), launched judicial review proceedings against Tower Hamlets Council in another attempt to stop - or at least delay - the bulldozers from flattening the famous market.