Campaigners fighting to save Smithfield Market from a controversial £160m redevelopment scheme have dismissed claims of “blackmail” after developers kicked off the 12-day inquiry by appearing to threaten to leave it derelict if plans are rejected.
International fund management giant Henderson Global and opposition, Save Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society, went head to head at the Guildhall on Monday over the latest instalment in a decade of fighting over the use of the disused general and fish market in Farringdon.
The hearing began with a heated row over whether Save could introduce last-minute evidence from Cathedral, a rival developer whose own report carried out on the site argues in favour of keeping all of the Victorian architecture, designed by Horace Jones in the mid 19th century, which has stood largely empty since 1999.
Christopher Katkowski QC, who represents Henderson, which acquired the property in 2010, called the request “a contempt for the rules” that was “unacceptable”.
Although Inspector Colin Ball ruled out introducing the evidence, he agreed they could stand as a third party.
But it was further questioning that led to the project’s architect John McAslan, who proposes keeping 75 per cent of the building but demolishing the covered market, walking out over questioning by Save’s solicitor David Cooper about his hiring of a former English Heritage director, Paddy Pugh.
Mr McAslan stormed off on Monday saying the line of questioning was “offensive”, returning a minute later to receive an apology from Mr Cooper.
In his personal statement to the inquiry Mr McAslan had said that: “A refusal of planning permission would condemn the buildings and the conservation area to further... decay and vacancy.”
It followed a comment made by Geoff Harris, director of property development at Henderson, who told the Financial Times: “If we lose, it will stay as it is.”
But in Save’s opening statement, solicitor David Cooper said on Monday that “Henderson’s threat of letting the building continuing to decay is ridiculous and I am sure they do not really mean it.”
Eric Reynolds, founder of Camden Market, has put forward a scheme to turn the building into a working market. He will give evidence next week.
Mr Cooper added: “We have had this all before with Covent Garden and Billingsgate and Spitalfields and they are all back in use, making a nonsense of these assertions.
"Let us be clear, we are producing a viable scheme that can be funded and delivered without there being any material alterations to the historic market hall and the roof.
“Henderson has made no discernible effort to produce any such scheme. The Henderson scheme will mutilate the buildings to such an extent that it would cause substantial harm and any benefits will be far outweighed by the damage caused.”
A spokeswoman for the Victorian Society told the Tribune: “Concerning the ‘blackmail’... the Victorian Society’s point is simply that we often hear it said – as here – that if planning permission for a scheme is not granted, the building will remain unused and become a scar on the environment. In practice we find that in fact financial imperatives mean that a new use is soon found for the building.”
On Monday, representatives for Save repeatedly made the point that the building had not been offered on the open market – which would be a true test of its “viability.”
Henderson claim that the development, which has been approved by London Mayor Boris Johnson, would fulfil requirements for employment in an area identified for “intensification” with such close proximity to the impending Crossrail.
The inquiry was called for by communities secretary Eric Pickles in September last year and continues next week.