On Tuesday, good sense prevailed, as the City of London Planning Committee refused planning permission for an office skyscraper some 48 storeys high which would have loomed large over Britain’s oldest and most iconic synagogue – Bevis Marks.
It takes a special place to mobilise a coalition of thousands of objectors that included Sefardim, Ashkenazim, secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, heritage buffs, architecture experts and hundreds of non-Jewish allies. Over the past year, we have come together to organise, to write in and raise our voices about the need to preserve the integrity of the Grade I listed 320-year old Synagogue.
Yesterday, our voices were heard. The result really is unprecedented. The City of London hardly ever refuses tall buildings. This truly felt like a David and Goliath moment.
In a modern dynamic city there will always be a contest between growth and preservation, between communities and developers — the key to good planning is to get that balance right. For centuries, Bevis Marks, the only non-Christian place of worship in the City has seen the city around it transformed — from the introduction of cars and tube lines to the shiny glass towers that now dominate the skyline.
Change is to be expected and embraced if it brings work, prosperity and opportunity to the City. But that change must respect the historic environment and the people already there. People more than any office block make the City what it is. The problem with the proposal for a tower at Bury Street and another at Creechuch Lane which would be even closer to the synagogue is that they fail to respect that environment.
If built, the towers would loom large and completely dominate the synagogue stealing the natural light which bathes the synagogue’s precious outer courtyard, darkening its glorious interior and degrading its historic setting. The synagogue has withstood lots of change and many challenges over the last 320 years, including nearby terrorist explosions, but the cumulative effects of these towers are the straws that would break the camel’s back. And it’s not just the Synagogue that would be harmed, Historic England, the government’s conservation body also warned of the high level of harm to the Tower of London.
For now, our arguments have won the day. But this has been no ordinary planning battle. It is about something more than bricks and mortar. It is, as the City Councillors came to realise, about what Bevis Marks means to British Jewry and our place in this city and this country.
Bevis Marks is not a museum or a monument but an active synagogue and symbol of Jewish rebirth and of Jewish life in this country. It symbolises the place, where following the re-admission of Jews in the 17th century to Britain after centuries of expulsion, Jewish communities re-established themselves and thrived in this city.
That is what sets Bevis Marks apart. Whilst so many of the great synagogues of Europe were ravaged by war and their congregants decimated by the Holocaust, services at Bevis Marks have continued uninterrupted since 1701, even during the Blitz, until today. And whilst the centre of gravity of Jewish communities in London may have shifted away from the inner city, Bevis Marks remains a symbol of survival and hope. A living, breathing sanctuary in the heart of the metropolis – one that connects us to Jewish history but also to its present and future.
So many of the supporters who spoke out against the application described their personal and emotional connections to the synagogue. This was true for me. My mother’s family is from Gibraltar. Bevis Marks is where my parents were married, where I and my sister were married, where we have celebrated countless chagim (holidays) and semachot (joyous events), inspired by the choir and bathed in the beautiful candlelight of the candelabras. When the developer talked up the benefits of creating a “community hall” in its office block, this sounded laughable when compared with the existing, real life community next door.
Tuesday was a great win but there’s little time to celebrate. The campaign to safeguard Bevis Marks is far from over. The developer of the Bury Street scheme can still appeal to the Planning Minister, Michael Gove. There is another planning application for an office tower at Creechurch Lane, right on the Synagogue’s doorstep, that would have an even worse impact, which will be considered before the end of the year.
But the decision did feel like a line in the sand, a wake-up call to the City’s planners that they cannot ignore its heritage and the communities that breathe life into the City. The desire to show London is open for business is understandable. But after a year in which the future of the office has been fundamentally questioned, the headlong desire to pursue shiny office towers at all costs must stop. As the City consults on its plan for the 2030s, setting out what kind of place it should be, I am hopeful that our campaign will help to ensure that Bevis Marks is safeguarded for future generations.
Above all, our campaign shows what we can achieve when we come together as a community, organise and raise our voices. The battle for Bevis Marks shows both our pride in our Jewish history and our optimism for our future.