Plans to redevelop Victorian warehouses on Norton Folgate, on the edge of the City, were given the green light by London mayor Boris Johnson yesterday despite an offer from pro-conservation campaigners to buy and renovate it themselves.

British Land will now be able to proceed with its plans to mostly demolish the derelict buildings, in a conservation area, after Mr Johnson overruled Tower Hamlets council’s decision to block the development. The two-acre site is owned by the City of London Corporation.

Nigel Webb, head of development at British Land, said it was “acutely aware of the historical significance of the site” and said the offices would mostly accommodate technology start-ups and other small and medium businesses. There would be space for 2,400 workers, City Hall said.

British Land said it would retain six buildings and keep the façades of two others. Brick, not steel or glass, would be used for the new buildings’ exterior and they would be designed to fit in with the surrounding area, the developer said.

The fight over Norton Folgate is typical of tensions across the country as an impulse to protect historic areas comes up against the needs of rapidly growing cities.

The pro-conservation campaigners recruited a financial backer: Troels Holch Povlsen, a billionaire Danish fashion tycoon. They offered to buy the site off the City of London Corporation at the same or better price than that it agreed with British Land, and commissioned architects for a redevelopment.

Mr Povlsen was not available for comment and a City spokeswoman would not say how much the site had sold for, or when it had been bought.

The campaigners insisted they were “100 per cent” certain they could have matched British Land’s bid. In 2012, Mr Povlsen was reported to have accumulated 120,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands, not far off the 134,000 Prince Charles owned at the time.

Norton Folgate development

The City rejected their approach, saying it had already agreed a contract with British Land to buy the site, and that “we hope the area will now become a key part of the economic success story of inner London”.

£1m

Asking price for former underground public toilet nearby

“If this is allowed, then every conservation area is at risk,” said Oliver Leigh-Wood of the Spitalfields Trust, speaking on Monday morning before the decision. “The City corporation should be examining their soul . . . The British Land proposal, with full knowledge of the City corporation, is to erase history.”

In a sign of how valuable property in the area is, a former underground public toilet nearby is on the market for £1m. An estate agent is offering the “charming and quirky premises” in Spitalfields, which was formerly a nightclub called Public Life that had space for 60 people. The club was shut down by the council after 13 people were arrested for suspected drugs offences during a police raid.

The campaigners have also applied for a judicial review into alleged procedural irregularities by the mayor.

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