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.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Masons fail in Sessions House Licence bid

Clerkenwell’s Masonic Centre tonight failed in its bid for a much-extended alcohol and late-night refreshment licence.  Islington Council’s Licensing Committee decisively rejected its application.

The Masons have sold the Sessions House for £6.5M to a company controlled by a businessman who wishes to run it as an invitation-only private members’ club, with a business in private events and parties, conferences etc, to be known as “Clerkenwell House.”  It would not be a night club and there would be no dancing or instant admission.

Virtually no details of the nature or operation of this proposed Club had emerged prior to the hearing, but a brochure was passed round, not previously seen by anyone, giving the proposed “rules” of the club.

The Masons claimed that the Club would be an upmarket one, reflecting the steadily upward trend of the area, and that there would be little obvious change from the current operation of the Centre, but objectors – present in force – asked what sort of Club, conference or private hire centre would need a 67% increase in alcohol sales hours,  until 6.00am?  How intensive would the use of the building need to be to service the £6.5M purchase price, plus the stated further £4M in repair costs?  How would the rules of the Club be enforced, in particular, against private party-goers attending events in the building?  “Up-market” status was no guarantee of moderate behaviour.

Sadly, there were no answers -  because the application was being made by the Masons, who are moving out, and not by the as-yet undisclosed buyer, who, despite investing heavily in the project, had not so far consulted with anyone locally about his plans, and was not present to answer the many questions local residents had.  Why was this?  The Masons weren’t saying.

Residents stressed that they accepted that the Sessions House – as one of Clerkenwell’s landmark buildings – needed to be safeguarded by having an economic use, but not at the cost of reintroducing problems previously associated with Turnmills, Ghost, Dust and Murphi’s – some of which continue to be caused by other nearby premises.

It is not clear what the Masons will do next.  They can appeal to the Magistrates, but it seems to me that a far better course would be for the new owner to introduce himself to the community, consult widely on his proposals, and then make a new application on which he can answer the resulting questions.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Smithfield: alternative option for reviving historic London market

Plans to redevelop Smithfield could mutilate the London building - but there is an alternative

The Meat Market at Smithfield, where the General Market
 and Fish Market face redevelopment

Smithfield Market in London is the greatest parade of 19th-century covered market halls in Europe. Now a storm is breaking over the buildings at the western end - the General Market, with its distinctive dome and arched galleries, and the unusual triangular Fish Market.

Henderson Global Investors, backed by the City of London Corporation, is proposing to gut almost all these market halls and replace them with office blocks looming above preserved street frontages. This would be the worst mutilation of a major Victorian building in 30 years.

Save Britain’s Heritage, the conservation group that I founded in 1975 with Simon Jenkins, Dan Cruickshank and others, is determined the site should reopen as a retail market modelled on those at Covent Garden, Greenwich and Spitalfields.

In all these places covered markets have played a key role in revitalising areas, making them attractive places to work, shop, eat and drink. Smithfield has the potential to be a still bigger magnet, as it stands above two major rail routes: Crossrail running east-west to Heathrow, and Thames Link, which connects Gatwick and Luton airports.

National preservation groups, including the Victorian Society and World Monuments Fund, backed by celebrities such as Alan Bennett and Julian Lloyd Webber, have condemned the plans, which the City Corporation voted this month to approve.

London’s markets have a long history - Smithfield dates back to the 12th century, and Covent Garden and Spitalfields to the 17th century. Originally, stalls would have been set out in the open air but rising standards of hygiene led to covered markets. Many of these structures are triumphs of Victorian engineering. As a result, London’s historic markets have always been as enjoyable to visit for their architecture as for their produce.

Yet in the brave new world of postwar town planning there was little interest in the preservation of these buildings. London’s mighty Caledonian Market was bulldozed in the 1960s. London’s Covent Garden Market would have gone too had the Greater London Council in 1973 been allowed to push through its plans for a six-lane road parallel to the Strand, flanked by office blocks and high-rise hotels, but public outcry won the day.

Billingsgate Fish Market in 1961

Save has been campaigning for endangered historic buildings for nearly 40 years, with a focus on finding lively new uses and financially viable solutions. Thirty years ago we faced a similar challenge to the present one. In 1980 the City Corporation announced plans to move Billingsgate Fish Market, located on the river Thames near London Bridge, to the Isle of Dogs and said that the £8m cost had to be paid for by replacing the handsome Victorian market building with a new office block.

Save challenged the City Corporation and together with the then Richard Rogers Partnership, we produced an alternative scheme showing how the market could be kept for public use, and offices built on the nearby lorry park. When the City finally marketed the building on the basis of our scheme it raised £22m.

In 2000, the City Corporation invited Eric Reynolds, the market entrepreneur behind the revival of Greenwich and Spitalfields Markets, to put forward proposals for Smithfield General Market, but never pursued them.

The General Market had been built as a retail market in the 1880s and Reynolds proposed it should be revived partly as a food market on the lines of Borough Market south of the Thames. Instead, the City backed an office block proposal – selling a long lease to developers Thornfield.

At a public inquiry in 2007-8, Save and English Heritage, the Government’s adviser on historic buildings, secured the rejection of Thornfield’s plans. Ministers agreed that the General Market and Fish Market should be offered for sale on the open market before demolition was considered.

Thornfield then went into administration and, instead of being offered for sale, the market buildings were transferred with Thornfield’s assets for a consideration of £50m to AIMco Re Holdings (but ultimately controlled by FREP Holdings Canada).

English Heritage now did a curious volte-face, accepting plans by Henderson Global Investors (as agents of FREP Holdings Canada) to gut the General Market that would leave just three preserved frontages on the basis that there was no viable alternative.

Eric Reynolds is now offering to invest £28m in converting the General Market and Fish Market as public markets, with different groups of stallholders present on different days.

Working with London architect John Burrell, Save also wants to revive the former railway sidings beneath the General Market. This is an amazing netherworld, akin to the water cisterns beneath Istanbul. The idea is to create a London fashion hub to host the growing number of fashion shows in the capital.

Revived historic quarters have brought enjoyment as well as economic benefits to almost every city in Europe. A recent report by architects Allies and Morrison, with Strutt & Parker, has shown that repairs to historic buildings in high streets (including market buildings) can increase footfall by up to 6 per cent.

Map of the Smithfields Market

The whole Smithfield quarter, like Covent Garden before, has flourished by a process of natural regeneration, as independent shops and restaurants have moved into the premises of departing wholesalers.

In Covent Garden the clincher was the decision to preserve and reopen the market halls. Smithfield General Market offers the opportunity for London to lead Europe in showing how another group of market halls can be a catalyst for economic revival. But this is now an issue that can only be resolved in the forum of a public inquiry.

The playwright Alan Bennett draws a telling comparison with the great medieval church next to the market. “If you go to St Bartholomew’s and then walk through Smithfield, it is like walking from one cathedral to another. You wouldn’t pull down St Bartholomew’s, nor should you pull down Smithfield. Smithfield was the scene of many martyrdoms - this would be another.”