Before asking “what now?”, it’s worth asking “what happened?” — if only to absorb the lessons from the most bitter planning battle fought in the City since Gerald Ronson won permission to build the Heron Tower.
Veuve Clicquot champagne poured into commonplace wine glasses greeted preservationists gathered for an impromptu party on a roof terrace overlooking Smithfield market on Tuesday evening. SAVE Britain’s Heritage was celebrating a government decision to reject plans by fund manager TIAA Henderson to insert a 118-foot-high block containing 138,000 square feet of offices and shops into Victorian buildings at the western end of the market.
A long-running battle won. Cheers! Before asking “what now?”, it’s worth asking “what happened?” — if only to absorb the lessons from the most bitter planning battle fought in the City since Gerald Ronson won permission to build the Heron Tower in July 2002.
This particular fight began in 2008, with the killing of plans to flatten the General Market building fronting Farringdon Road, and replaced it with a giant office block.
It’s facile to wholly blame Henderson, except perhaps for its insulting response to the decision by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to dismiss its scheme as “wholly unacceptable”.
Pickles was “influenced by a disingenuous campaign employed by a small minority of objectors”, said Henderson. Otherwise, the fund manager did its best, employing fine architect John McAslan. But the development appraisal spreadsheet must rule.
Henderson’s mistake was to let itself be led by two blameworthy players. The City of London is the freeholder. Its refusal to come up with a vision for the area while simply letting the buildings rot is inexplicable. English Heritage? Britain’s preservation body lost its virginity, after great pressure, accepting the dangerous argument that it was not “commercially viable” to preserve the buildings intact. Nor was it at Covent Garden.
The City, like Henderson, is licking its wounds and barking. Not quite as loudly as the fund manager. The decision was “deeply disappointing for the developer”, said Mark Boleat, chairman of the City policy committee. “We felt that the new building offered a sensitive redevelopment.” Note the past tense. The preservations are not above barking either. There are threats of slapping a “repair order” on the City.
But the mood at the party was otherwise upbeat. One of the UK’s biggest property companies, Development Securities, now owns the Cathedral Group.
Cathedral has long argued a commercially viable scheme that retains the buildings is viable. “Put the buildings on the market,” is the cry. The war can now go two ways. More battles between the City and SAVE. Or, peace talks, Perhaps over a proper-shaped glass of something fizzy?