Friday, 30 August 2013

Public inquiry should decide on Smithfield future

From Mr Alec Forshaw

Sir, Councillor Tom Sleigh’s letter (August 10) justifying the City of London Corporation planning committee’s recent decision to allow the redevelopment of the former General Market at Smithfield makes dispiriting reading. It illustrates the poor advice that committee members are fed by their officers. Cllr Sleigh states, for example, that 75 per cent of the fabric of the General Market will be kept, but he clearly has not looked very closely at the plans, which completely gut the magnificent interior of Horace Jones’s 1880s market. He states that the City needs more offices, without realising that more than 1m sq ft of offices is already in the pipeline within a few hundred metres of Smithfield, and there are vast amounts of offices consented elsewhere in the City, which no one wants to build because the demand has collapsed (for example, The Pinnacle, 100 Bishopsgate, 60-70 St Mary Axe).

Put bluntly, the City is failing to compete with other more attractive parts of London as a location where people want to work. Office rents in the West End are at least double those in the City. King’s Cross, Waterloo and Silicon Roundabout are providing vigorous competition.

Cllr Sleigh compares the approved Henderson scheme at Smithfield to Spitalfields Market, without realising that the amount of retail and café space proposed at Smithfield is tiny, nothing like enough for it to become a destination. There is a far better alternative scheme for Smithfield, promoted by the entrepreneurs who run Borough, Spitalfields, Greenwich and Camden Lock markets. They would repair the existing historic buildings (scandalously neglected by the Corporation), convert all the space to retail/market/café/ entertainment use, and pay the City Corporation a rent of £700,000 per year. This is exactly the injection of vitality that this part of the City needs, serving existing and new office workers in the area and attracting visitors.

Sadly the City Corporation are too blinkered to know what is good for them, let alone to be trusted with the conservation of historic buildings which are of London-wide if not national interest. Boris Johnson won’t want to ruffle the City’s feathers, and will no doubt rubber-stamp the office redevelopment (as he did recently with the City Corporation’s office scheme at the Fruit and Wool Exchange in Spitalfields). The secretary of state should step in and call the public inquiry that this important decision requires.

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