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It must be Monday: Protesters ready to stop council digger churning up heritage Arnold Circus

PUBLISHED: 21:47 25 October 2020 | UPDATED: 21:52 25 October 2020

Defiant... Susannah Kow... stopped digger in its tracks. Picture: Mike Brooke

Defiant... Susannah Kow... stopped digger in its tracks. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

Protesters are out yet again this morning to try and stop a big mechanical digger churning up the heritage Arnold Circus.

Protest to stop historic Arnold Circus being churned up. Picture: Mike BrookeProtest to stop historic Arnold Circus being churned up. Picture: Mike Brooke

They were out at the weekend led by a slight, little Susanna Kow, no taller than 5ft, but a determined tenant from the historic Boundary Estate behind Shoreditch Church.

She confronted a council contract crew with her neighbours when they turned up to break the surface around the listed Victorian circus.

The road gang wasn’t supposed to start until today (Monday), but suddenly arrived on Friday and again on Saturday—each time Susanna standing her ground.

“I managed to stop the work twice,” she said. “I called my neighbours who all rushed down to support me. The workmen left after that.”

Snapped... mechanical digger churning up the road on Friday, October, 23, three days ahead of schedule. Picture: John MoberlySnapped... mechanical digger churning up the road on Friday, October, 23, three days ahead of schedule. Picture: John Moberly

But they’re back again today, she fears, so Susanna is arranging yet another protest with supporters to stop them in their tracks.

Members of the Spitalfields Trust with TV’s veteran historian Dan Cruikshank arrived on Friday to challenge work being started on Tower Hamlets Council’s “Liveable Streets” programme aimed at stopping through traffic in neighbourhoods from Shoreditch to Bethnal Green and Bow.

The historic Arnold Circus was not the place for “expensive and ill-conceived enhancements”, an area celebrated worldwide for its unique design and architecture, the trust pointed out. The simplicity of the Arnold Circus design “should not be tampered with”.

Conservation groups are calling for “a proper heritage assessment” before digging up Arnold Circus, the centrepiece of the listed Boundary Estate which is the world’s first municipal housing scheme built in the 1890s.

TV's veteran historian Dan Cruikshank joins campaign to save East End's heritage. Picture: John MoberlyTV's veteran historian Dan Cruikshank joins campaign to save East End's heritage. Picture: John Moberly

The families, meanwhile, complain about “lack of proper public consultation”, just a leaflet and online voting in October 2019, then the digger turning up on their doorstep a year on.

“The diggers have already damaged the road,” Susanna fumes. “Heritage experts say the current plan for Arnold Circus needs proper investigation.”

Meetings have now been held with the council in an 11th hour bid to halt the work while a detailed heritage assessment is carried out.

East End Preservation Society’s co-chair John Moberly said: “We asked if the council had consulted any heritage organisation and were told it hadn’t – they don’t have a statutory requirement and say they’ve done everything required in law.

Susannah and her determined neighbours standing their ground. Picture: Mike BrookeSusannah and her determined neighbours standing their ground. Picture: Mike Brooke

“None of us have been involved in this design that the consultant has come up with. Arnold Circus is a nationally-important heritage asset, a piece of social history which should be treated with immense respect.”

Council resources are being ploughed into pedestrianising the streets, while the families point to leaky roofs and the run-down listed blocks of flats looking frail at the edges that need sprucing up first.

John added. “The council seems to spend money employing designers to come up with new concepts for what is nationally and globally important architectural history.”

Consultations were carried out online and with leaflets which asked if people wanted “more lighting, CCTV and greenery to make this area safer and cleaner” — nothing about Arnold Circus heritage.

Jean Locker, has lived on Boundary Estate 30 years... Jean Locker, has lived on Boundary Estate 30 years... "We heard that work was starting, for some the only information they've had. That's not good enough." Picture: Mike Brooke

Retired nursery worker Jean Locker, 66, who has lived in the listed housing complex for 30 years, said: “We knew something was going on and had a leaflet telling us we could vote on it. Most of it had to be done online, but many of my neighbours can’t negotiate on computers. Online is impossible to a lot of people.

“Then we heard last week that work was starting—for some people that’s the only information they’ve received, the minimum legally required. That’s not good enough.”

The area is recognised as model philanthropic housing by the London County Council which has 10 listed structures around Arnold Circus alone, at the top end of Club Row, where the architecture and landscaping are harmonious and exceptionally high quality, Spitalfields Trust points out in a letter to the mayor.

The trust doesn’t oppose pedestrianising Arnold Circus, but insists that “a complete transformation is unnecessary”. Even the original blue cobblestones survive under the tarmac laid down in the 1950s with the possibility of uncovering them again.

Another protest to save Arnold Circus due Monday morning, October 26. Picture: Mike BrookeAnother protest to save Arnold Circus due Monday morning, October 26. Picture: Mike Brooke

The council insists it consulted residents and businesses in Bethnal Green in October 2019, with 2,000 responses to a survey online and to booklets pushed through letterboxes. Allowances are being made for Arnold Circus with its “historical significance and unique character”, the town hall promises. All existing Yorkstone paving would be preserved.

Promises were made to “take feedback in the consultations before deciding on final plans” — but Spitalfields Trust says this has failed at Arnold Circus, with the digger turning up before any heritage study has been carried out.


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