Friday, 28 December 2007

Row hots up over vision for market

Lawyers attack expert witness evidence at public inquiry into future of Smithfield

Reputations were on the line as two competing visions for the future of the ancient Smithfield market clashed at an increasingly heated public inquiry.

Star witnesses, including architect Sir Terry Farrell and the entrepreneur founder of Camden Market, Eric Reynolds, appeared on Friday to give evidence to the planning inspector charged with deciding the fate of the Victorian market arcade which developers and the City of London Corporation say must be demolished.

The resulting grilling left Mr Reynolds reeling under charges that his evidence was “meaningless drivel” and his vaunted business acumen was “irrelevant”.
The walls of the South Bank inquiry room are emblazoned with images of the glass and bronze office and shopping centre that developers Thornfield plc wants to build in place of the currently derelict General Market Building.

But challenger English Heritage, which claims the plans were cooked up in secret between Thornfield and the City with an eye on profits and no regard for the market’s historic fabric, envisages a regenerated market of small stalls and independent traders and called Sir Terry and Mr Reynolds to put the architectural and business case.

Sir Terry, whose celebrated portfolio includes the Swiss Cottage leisure centre and the TV-AM building in Camden, said the “concentration and variety of historic fabric in the Smithfield area makes it one of the most important historic areas in London”.

The Thornfield plans would “dramatically diminish both the character and extent of the distinctive market complex”, while English Heritage plans could “draw people in from near and far,” he added.

But while opponents challenged his view without questioning his qualifications, lawyers for Thornfield savagely attacked the standing of English Heritage’s second expert witness, Eric Reynolds.

Mr Reynolds, whose expertise in regenerating London markets was forged in the creation of Camden Market in 1974 and has been repeated at Spitalfields and Chelsea, produced a business plan for English Heritage in which he claimed that the existing Smithfield buildings could be retained and converted into a thriving attraction bringing in £2.5 million a year in rent.

But Thornfield barrister David Forsdick questioned him on his qualifications and attacked his figures, forcing him to concede that he had never invested substantial amounts of his own cash or that of his business Urban Space Management in any of the projects in his portfolio.

Mr Forsdick said: “What money did you invest in Camden Lock?”
“Something over 20 years of my life,” replied Mr Reynolds. “Money?”, repeated Mr Forsdick. “Very little,” said Mr Reynolds.
“You obviously haven’t got the expertise in qualification terms to give us a valuation,” concluded Mr Forsdick.

The Thornfield lawyer’s attack on English Heritage’s witnesses – he said he was “absolutely gobsmacked” by “the most astonishingly bad behaviour for a public body” in putting forward Mr Reynolds’s unsupported “assertions” – was matched earlier by English Heritage, whose barrister called the evidence of the City of ­London’s chief planner ­“nonsense” and “perverse”.

Grilled by QC Robert McCracken on why the Thornfield plan contained no housing, as required by law, City planning chief Peter Wynne Rees was forced to list reasons why Farringdon was unsuitable for new residents.

“It is far from an ideal site for housing because of the busy road and night-time economy,” Mr Rees said. “There is large-scale urination and vomiting in the streets outside, which is already a problem for the market and is threatening the viability of the meat market.”

The public inquiry will conclude in the new year when planning inspector Ken Barton makes a recommendation on the site to government.

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