Campaigners fuming over changes to historic Shoreditch estate

Banners at the circus. Pic: Clara Murray

Campaigners are battling a “rushed” move by Tower Hamlets Council to pedestrianise a heritage Shoreditch council estate that residents say will cause chaos and destroy its architectural heritage.

Locals are calling the changes “inappropriate” for the Boundary Estate, which was the UK’s first social housing development. It was built in 1900 to replace a notorious East End slum.

Protests first erupted when workmen began to break up Victorian pavement slabs on the historic Arnold Circus on October 22. Horrified residents stepped in to block the path of the digger. Now, the Save Arnold Circus Campaign wants the council and its contractor Liveable Streets to rethink the plans in consultation with residents and heritage experts.

Iconic design

“This estate is iconic in terms of design and its place in social history,” Robin Hatton-Gore, an artist who has lived on the estate for 30 years, told Eastlondonlines. “We are not against pedestrianisation per se, just how the council has chosen to go about it… there has been no transparency or consultation. [The new design] is bland, generic and inappropriate.” 

The council’s plans involve closing most of Arnold Circus to cars as part of a long-term initiative to cut traffic and rat-running in the borough. The circus sits at the heart of Boundary Estate’s eight radiating streets and includes raised gardens and a gazebo. Under the new scheme, additional plants, seating and cycle lanes would replace the tarmac roadway. 

Leila McAlister. Pic: Clara Murray

While the council held a consultation on the designs last year, campaigners said it was “superficial”, and not enough was done to involve residents. “We thought it was a hoax at first,” said Leila McAlister, owner of a café and grocers’ shop on the estate. “Basically no one knew about it, so the idea that everyone had been consulted is a sham.”

She and other residents believe the design is against the spirit of the “unique and beautiful” architectural setting. But it was only when protestors, backed by BBC architecture presenter Dan Cruickshank and conservation group Spitalfields Trust, stepped in that the council agreed to carry out a full heritage and conservation survey. The council has not yet confirmed with Eastlondonlines when the survey will happen.

Issues on the ground

Adam Dant and Watson at Arnold Circus. Pic: Samuel Shaw

Resident of seven years, Myk Zeitlin, 60, told Eastlondonlines: “The main problem is that people at the council think it’s a fantastic project, push it through and don’t take into account the issues on the ground.”

Those issues include antisocial behaviour on the circus, which Zeitlin has been speaking to the council about for years. Partiers on the way to or from Shoreditch High Street’s club and bars often stop off at the gardens to drink and blare music from cars. He believes the new plans will undo progress on the issue by “opening up” the space, making it harder to gate off the area at night. He added: “The council is simply not listening.”

Printmaker Adam Dant, 53, told Eastlondonlines buses have used the full circus to turn around at the end of their routes for several years. But with six of the eight entry streets now shut, bus drivers are struggling to navigate a newly tight corner. Over the past three weeks, buses have hit bollards and caused traffic tailbacks. People living at the junction are complaining of increased fumes and noise.

Video: Save Arnold Circus Campaign / Clara Murray

Dant is shocked that such a big change to the road layout was put in place without a trial involving TfL: “It seems obvious to have a dry run before embarking on a big project.”

Talks continue

Locals say it didn’t have to happen this way. The council has already successfully worked with community group Friends of Arnold Circus on a renovation project, completed in 2010. “Why didn’t this happen again?” McAlister told ELL. “[Liveable Streets] count cars but know nothing about the social context at all.”

The works are currently paused pending further conversations with residents. A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council told Eastlondonlines: “Following several months of engagement, we consulted residents and businesses in Bethnal Green on proposals in October 2019. More than 2,000 responded to the survey both online and via a printed booklet sent to all addresses in the area. Before works start [again], further consultation on the detailed design is continuing with local residents and community groups.”

Works on hold. Pic: Samuel Shaw

Councillor John Piece, Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee has been involved in conversations about the plans. He told Eastlondonlines he does not believe the campaigners represent the residents of the community. “The Save Arnold Circus is a coalition of stakeholders and not a group of residents. Some of the group but not all live in the area,” he said.

Campaigners last met with councillors and Liveable Streets two weeks ago. They proposed two options: to rethink the designs entirely, or to carry out a test run of the road layout changes before committing to permanent change. An update was promised this week, but they have had no word since. For now, the workmen’s barriers and digger are still in place.

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