Last night I walked to the other end of Bow Road, ladled myself a cup of mulled wine and watched Danny Boyle illuminate a giant red ribbon. My Thursday evenings aren't usually like that.
This is the former St Clement's Hospital, which looms over Bow Road like some Victorian haunted house. It started life in 1849 as the City of London Union Workhouse, before being converted into an infirmary where mental patients came for examination and assessment. 100 years ago it became a hospice for the chronically ill, the Bow Institution, with beds for more than 750 patients. By 1959 it had changed its purpose once again, becoming a psychiatric hospital, and so it stayed until 2005 when the local NHS Trust closed the place down. Since then the buildings have been boarded up and sealed off, awaiting demolition or transformation into flats. Normally this would mean a commercial development with an inadequate proportion of affordable housing, but St Clement's is going to bevery different, and East London will be all the better for it.
These four and a half acres are to be the site of London's very first Community Land Trust. Bought up by the community, for the community, and 100% affordable. Some of the old buildings will be reused, others will be knocked down, and a mixture of flats and family-sized homes fitted into the rectangular site. From Bow Road all the way down to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, the Trust will ensure that properties are bought and sold at below market price. The local community have been involved in planning what goes where, with a series of workshops at the start of the month attended by 350 people. Impressively these have already borne fruit, and the outcomes were presented (with videos and slides) at a public meeting last night. [some details]
How wonderful that this new housing stock will be used by ordinary folk rather than being the sole preserve of bankers and buy-to-let investors. To celebrate, they invited a local millionaire round to switch on the lights. Danny Boyle lives less than quarter of a mile away, in one of the gorgeous Georgian streets off the Mile End Road. Previous to that he lived up a tower block directly overlooking the hospital site - he told us so - and how exciting to discover that 2012's Man of The Year is an E3 resident. Danny stood on the makeshift stage and offered his support, praising all the good work that's been done so far and hoping for great things to come.
We stood and smiled and listened, well-wrapped in our woolly hats and scarves. Most of us had a plastic beaker of mulled wine in our hands, although that had nearly run out because so many people had turned up. The miniature very-mincey mince pies were disappearing fast too, served up from a table strewn with wintry evergreens. It's hard to imagine a commercial housing developer going to such an effort, but such is the attention to detail a group of community-focused East Londoners can muster. Three, two, one, Danny pressed the button which illuminated a 15ft red ribbon on the front of the hospital. A bow in Bow, how clever. It was a striking sight, and caused many a passer-by to turn and stare and wonder why this dead building had suddenly awoken. [video]
The first meeting of the St Clement's Community Forum will be held at 7pm on Thursday 17 January at Bow Road Methodist Church, and everyone is welcome. Work on the vision for the Community Land Trust will continue, and a planning application is due to be submitted next spring. This won't be the usual bland overpriced matchbox development, it'll have a conscience and a heart. With values similar to those in Danny's Olympic Opening Ceremony, St Clement's is a development of which London can be properly proud.