Developers want to restore the run-down Victorian buildings known as the General Market, Fish Market and Red House, which have stood derelict and threatened with demolition for at least a decade.
They hope to attract “Neal’s Yard-type” delis, butchers, bakers and cheese shops to a district currently overlooked by tourists and residents but associated with supplying food to Londoners for 1,000 years.
However, conservation campaigners have condemned the scheme — known as Smithfield Quarter — because it will also involve building office blocks up to six storeys high within the former market buildings. They say it is a “de facto demolition” only possible because the brick structures are not listed — unlike the more famous wholesale meat market at the eastern end of the complex.
The Smithfield Quarter scheme is backed by fund management group Henderson Global Investors, which has a long lease on the buildings from the freeholder, the City of London Corporation, and says the inclusion of 170,000 square feet of office space is the only way of making it commercially viable.
The General Market perimeter would get 21 two-storey shops and restaurants with an internal public piazza beneath three office “pavilions”, with more shops and restaurants in the other buildings.
Geoff Harris, director of property development at Henderson, said: “Our proposals are a thorough and legitimate response to the challenges of putting these buildings back into proper, long-term, sustainable use.” The plans have been amended to ensure that they are more in keeping than earlier versions with the original historic design. The proposal is likely to come before City planners this summer, with the opening in 2017.
Clementine Cecil, director of Save Britain’s Heritage, said the plan plays “fast and loose” with the history of the market buildings designed by former City surveyor Horace Jones. "We do not consider this a conservation project – it is a thinly veiled application for modern office blocks. "The interiors of this building, which was formerly an important public space, will all be removed, leaving only three sides of the original building."
The group’s “office-free” alternative involves turning the buildings back into traditional markets with basement exhibition and event space and it is considering submitting an alternative scheme to planners in the next month.