Invasion of the market-snatchers

It finally looks like A&O will be taking up residence in the Spitalfields Market development thanks to its assurances of community integration. But as Jon Robins reports, opponents of the law firm's move believe the promises are worse than empty – they're meaningless

At a lively meeting of the Tower Hamlets Planning Committee last month, it was agreed that planning permission would be granted once the developer's obligations to the local community, together with A&O's groundbreaking 'social compact', had been finalised. The regenerator, Spitalfields Development Group (SDG), and its joint venture partner the Corporation of London, will pay out £5m to a community trust and provide 118 social homes in Whitechapel, as well as backing a number of community centres. The lawyers have pledged to provide pro bono legal advice, reading and numeracy training and school mentoring in the area.

“There could well be up to 3,500 A&O staff in Spitalfields and just to have it as a hermetically sealed building with nothing to do with the local community would be a nonsense,” explains a spokesman for A&O. “But it's not just a sop or a question of us doing what we think we have to. A lot of this work is already happening.” A&O lawyers will not be packing their bags until 2006, but when they do make the move east they will be expected to voluntarily sign up to local projects.

Unsurprisingly, such altruism does not placate the more strident locals who have been fighting the Bishops Square development, which will see the western end of the market bulldozed to make way for a Norman Foster building.

“I've read the compact and I don't think it's worth the paper it's written on,” fumes Jil Cove, a former probation officer who has been fighting the SDG from the start. “At the end of the day, it only talks about encouraging staff to do work. If firms have got social consciences, which they claim to have, why aren't they doing things now?”

In fact, A&O has been involved in the area for a while. The firm valued its pro bono contribution at £3.694m last year, with a share of that going to the East End. In particular, A&O has been active in Tower Hamlets, one of the most impoverished parts of London, through a wide range of projects, including its ongoing partnership with St John's School in Bethnal Green and the CitySide regeneration project.

A&O's community spiritedness appears to have been a crucial part in winning over the local authority. “It was an integral part,” says head of planning at Norton Rose Brian Greenwood, who advised SDG and drafted the compact. “We're still negotiating the legal agreements and conditions, and the social compact was one component of the talks.” The agreement was based on a less extensive arrangement drawn up by the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (Liffe) when the firm was considering moving in.

The existing occupiers – such as ABN Amro and the Royal Bank of Scotland – have not felt the need for such a public display of charitable works. According to Ian Trehearne, head of planning law at Berwin Leighton Paisner, the A&O deal is unique. Obligations under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 have become an increasingly significant way for planning authorities to force developers to provide for social housing. “But this is new because it's moving [the responsibility] to the occupier, who isn't directly connected to the developer, to do social projects in the borough,” Trehearne says.

He compares the Spitalfields development with a Section 106 agreement he drafted concerning The Hospital in Covent Garden, which was the brainchild of musician Dave Stewart and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to convert the former St Paul's Hospital into a studio complex. Such agreements come with their own legal problems.

“I'd be a bit anxious if I was SDG insofar as working out the nature of the obligations I was letting myself in for,” says Trehearne. “I'd also be a bit worried if I was A&O, because what they don't want to do is get contracted to do things that they can't actually deliver.” For example, Trehearne warns against agreements to take on a certain number of trainees from local schools or assurances to buy services in the immediate vicinity. “There's a reasonable chance that Allen & Overy will take services from Tower Hamlets, but it doesn't want to get tied into the local economy when, in 10 years time, that local economy won't look the same,” he adds.

In fact, the A&O compact reads as a list of well-meaning intentions rather than defined commitments in terms. Norton Rose's Greenwood says the key word is 'flexible'. “The document envisages a working relationship between Allen & Overy and Tower Hamlets,” he says. “If [for example] A&O go into one school one year, it may be that another school has a more pressing need for their help next year. There are no rigid objectives, but it's about a continuing relationship.”

The spokesman at A&O says that the exact nature of the firm's involvement will become clearer over time. “We're trying to identify schemes and schools which would welcome support from an organisation like ours,” he adds.

According to the SDG, last month's planning meeting is the last piece of the jigsaw. “I'm delighted that we're about to embark on the final phase of a regeneration project that has spanned over 15 years and transformed Spitalfields from a deteriorating area to a vibrant, thriving community,” commented SDG chief executive Mike Bear.

“It's been 15 years of resisting the degeneration of the area,” quips Jemima Broadbridge who, together with Cove, is a leading light in the wonderfully named Smut – Spitalfields Market Under Threat. Broadbridge is also unimpressed with the A&O compact. “I'm sure they have an excellent track record in their external relations, but this isn't going to curry any favour with the local community,” she says. “They have a whole department devoted to environmental law, but here they are shafting the community in Tower Hamlets by taking part in this.”

Time is finally running out for the campaigners. At the moment there is a 90-day period for any appeals to object to the development, which closes at the end of January. However, Smut has proved a very effective irritant – not least when last year it launched judicial review proceedings over the original outline planning permission, which was granted in 1997. The permission was based on 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. Local resident Jackie Remfry threw an almighty spanner in the works by arguing that Tower Hamlets had failed to conduct an environmental impact assessment before outline planning permission was granted in 1997. Tower Hamlets backed down a week before the hearing.

The campaigners bemoan the failings of a planning system that allows the concerns of locals to go unheard. “People feel betrayed by a planning process that allows this to happen,” the group complained last month. “Boroughs adjacent to the City of London are not equal partners but pawns in the game of the City's planned expansion.” They had been calling on Jeff Rooker, Minister for Housing and Planning, to instigate a public inquiry after three applications by the group.

“Apparently they only call in issues of more than local importance,” says Cove. “This time we had proof that it was such an issue. But I guess that money and the Corporation of London speak louder… I don't know what else you can do to try and persuade people that it's not just a local issue.”

Smut has a petition of more than 40,000 names, as well as an independent survey of the Spitalfields Ward conducted by the Social Evaluation Research Association, which showed 90 per cent of local residents in favour of predominantly community-based uses of the market space. By contrast, the SDG believes that it has won over the hearts of the local community and business, including 70 per cent of the market tenants. It also points out that the market will continue.

Richard Harwood, the barrister from 39 Essex Street chambers who represented the campaigners, says: “Smut has been influential, especially in those factors that have so far saved the market from an unsympathetic scheme. Even the developers would probably say that the current scheme is better than the 1997 scheme.”

Sowing the seeds of discontent?

Just down the road from Spitalfields Market is Bishopsgate Goods Yard, which some would say is the latest stand-off between the City and the East End. Earlier in the month railway enthusiast Keith Hammerton won a stay of execution in the High Court for the railway yard and its historic railway arches. One leading architectural critic reckoned it was “as important in its way as the victory in the 1970s, which prevented a large part of Covent Garden being bulldozed for a six-lane highway”.
“I think that it's more than a temporary reprieve,” claims Martin Edwards, a barrister at 39 Essex Street, who advised Hammerton. “At the very least it's a massive question mark over the whole scheme.” Cambridge law firm Richard Buxton, which acted in the Spitalfields case, advised Hammerton, and barrister Richard Harwood of 39 Essex Street, who represented another party in the Bishopsgate challenge, was also involved in both cases.
London Underground hopes to develop the site, which it has compulsorily purchased, for the extension of the East London Line. Many commentators – not least renowned architecture buff Prince Charles – have called for the new line to go over the arches as opposed to bringing the bulldozers in.
Since a public inquiry back in 1995, locals and railway enthusiasts have run a campaign to save the yard. “The London Railway Heritage Society argued that it was far more important than had previously been recognised, and had some of the oldest railway architecture in the world,” says Edwards. In particular, the Braithwaite Viaduct, completed in 1839, was older than first thought.
Hammerton argued that the powers to construct, which had been granted in 1997 by a transport and works order, had expired. “The question was whether London Underground had managed to commence developing in time,” explains Harwood, who has acted for a former occupier. “The particular issue was whether they had complied with the various conditions requiring them to act before they started the development.”
The planning permission failed because London Underground failed to fulfil a condition requiring it to provide an exchange of land on an alternative site. “Whether this completely finishes off the planning permission depends on the judge's view of a determination by the local authorities as to whether demolition could have taken place anyway,” Harwood adds.
Edwards sees both the Spitalfields and Bishopgate challenges as part of a trend of third parties being increasingly willing to take on planning authorities. But he argues that the progress of campaigning groups is at once helped and hindered by the Government's plans to reform the planning system.
“On the one hand the Government is saying you can have more information about the planning system, but on the other hand, under last year's green paper reforms, it's trying to squeeze local residents out of the decision-making process,” Edwards argues. “So you're creating a problem for the future.”