An attempt to answer questions following the controversial decision by Tower Hamlets Council in permitting the application by Truman’s to build a shopping mall in Brick Lane.

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

― Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Photographs by Sarah Ainslie

Once upon a time in the East End…

Tuesday 14th of September marked the 700th death anniversary of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet, and author of, The Divine Comedy. The poem demanded a revolution in how we understood the wretchedness of life, the fate of the sinful, and the path out through a call to love. It also transformed how we understand the relationships among perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of violence.

700 years later, fast-forward to the Development Committee at Tower Hamlets Council. On Tuesday, 14th of September. Our very own version of the Divine Comedy.

We had the spectacle of the Development Committee, by a single vote, approving the controversial application for a shopping mall in Brick Lane by the Truman Brewery. After the furore in the press, planning committee members including the Mayor stated their hands were tied. Is that really the case?

Inferno: At the Development Committee in Tower Hamlets Council

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”

― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

There was a planning reason to refuse the application. Watching the proceedings of the Development Committee, it seems that the Chair of the Committee, Cllr Abdul Mukit Chunu MBE disagreed. Throughout the proceedings, he referred to the Neighbourhood plan going to referendum in November, drafted by the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Planning Forum. The plan makes a specific reference to defending cultural heritage in the area, with a particular reference to cultural assets of the Bangladeshi Community. 

The other two committee members made no reference to the Neighbourhood Plan and proceeded to vote for the application, stating there are no planning reasons to object, One of them even stated that the application was a case of social cleansing, but alas there are no polices.

Dante in his Divine Comedy gave each act of vice in life a physical manifestation. What we witnessed at the planning committee that night was a manifestation of a failure in politics. With policies and actions reflecting an indifferent attitude towards the plights of working-class communities who traditionally inhabited the inner city boroughs of London. All masked within a language of progress and change. A kind of palliative care administered by a local authority in the name of free markets and Social Darwinism.

As in Dante’s comedy, there was an element of poetic justice, with a social media and national press, including a Guardian editorial calling out Tower Hamlets Council for its indifferent and reactionary attitude.

Is the social media and press furore a reflection of the anger on the ground? Is the application really opposed by the locals? Or is it an artificially created storm in a teacup? A conspiracy by an unholy alliance of student activists, heritage lobby, environmentalists, coordinated by the London branch of the Comintern?

Cllr Puru Miah & Cllr Andrew Wood dissect the Development Committee decision. And also discuss the statement issued to the press by Tower Hamlets Council and the Mayor.

Purgatorio: A Community under begins to fight back

“Justice does not descend from its own pinnacle.

― Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio

At the heart of the #SAVEBRICKLANE campaign against Truman’s application was thousands of individual conversations. Detailed discussions with traders and residents in and around Brick Lane. The result of which is 140 traders and over 500 residents in and around Brick Lane objecting to the planning application by Truman’s Brewery.

One of the common themes that came out of the conversations was that this was a community under attack. Decades of neoliberal regeneration policies pursued by Tower Hamlets Council has left them behind, resulting in levels of inequalities more akin, to a Banana Republic, than that of a modern European democracy. Despite being the third-richest local authority area in the 6th largest economy in the world. Tower Hamlets has one of the worst health inequalities in the United Kingdom and the highest child poverty rates in Western Europe. 

The result of the above failure is seen in the trenches dug in local cemeteries to bury the dead during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first wave of the pandemic, over 10% of all total deaths in London occurred in Tower Hamlets.

So what are the next steps following Tower Hamlets council approving the plans?

Paradiso: Towards an East End Common-wealth and a Civic Identity – A Community Master plan

“From a little spark may burst a flame.”

― Dante Alighieri, Paradiso

Campaigners on the #SAVEBRICKLANE campaign don’t see this decision as an end, but a milestone at the beginning of a long campaign to save, empower and enhance Brick Lane and the surrounding East End, we all know and love. Some are focusing on overturning the procedurally dubious decision by Tower Hamlets Council. While others are focusing on making sure a precedent is not set in the area, by reviving an old community lead vision for the area.

Once upon a time, there was a Prime Minister called Margaret Thatcher, who as part of her 1987 manifesto commitment of looking after the inner cities, funded along with Prince Charles a community master plan for the old Truman Brewery site on Brick Lane. Fast-forward to the 21st century, we have a community campaign that wants to revive that plan for the area, being opposed by officials in a Labour administration.

The master plan proposed and discussed by campaigners goes beyond the narrow economic confines proposed by the Thatcher government. The plan seeks to make, into a sustainable reality of the built environment, a cohesive and sustainable civic identity and vision for the East End. If successful, it can be replicated and expanded to cover all areas of the East End. 

Watch this space…

“God’s greatest gift to man

In all the bounty He was moved to make

Throughout creation-the one gift the most

Close to his goodness and the one He calls

Most precious-is free will.”

― Dante Alighieri, Paradiso
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)