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Butchery at Smithfield?

As developers and the Corporation of London prepare to eviscerate Smithfield General Market, why is English Heritage holding the axe for them?

The Victorian Society regrets that English Heritage has given its approval to plans to demolish much of Smithfield General Market, a major part of one of Europe’s most impressive historic market complexes.

The buildings were designed by Sir Horace Jones, designer of Tower Bridge, in the later nineteenth century, and are a characterful part of the Smithfield conservation area, one of the most distinctive parts of the City of London. In 2008 English Heritage successfully opposed demolition of the complex at a public inquiry. Yet now EH has accepted proposals by leaseholders Henderson Global Investors to demolish most of the General Market, retaining part of the perimeter buildings, to be replaced by a higher office block that will harm key views of the conservation area. Next door the Victorian Fish Market and Red House will be overshadowed by a new seven storey office block that will sit incongruously behind their facades.

The repair costs associated with the “very poor condition of the buildings” persuaded EH that new office development is required to make a scheme that brings the site back into use viable. However, in its letter to the planning authority EH inexplicably failed to mention the planning regulation at the heart of this case. Paragraph 130 of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework states that “Where there is evidence of deliberate neglect of … a heritage asset the deteriorated state of the heritage asset should not be taken into account in any decision.”

The Corporation of London has owned the freehold of the buildings since construction. Their current decayed state is its responsibility. Given the resources available to the Corporation the conclusion is obvious. This is EH’s view as well; in 2007 EH’s Director of London Region, Paddy Pugh, noted that the Corporation “has neglected these buildings for many years” and in the 2008 public inquiry EH stated that because of this “the costs of repairs should not form part of the economic case for demolition”.

Chris Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society, commented: “It is worrying that English Heritage’s submission on this scheme failed to address a key principle of heritage legislation; that owners and developers should not benefit from neglect of historic buildings. Given the serious questions that have been raised over their arguments, we hope that EH will rethink. But the City Corporation has let London down by leaving the General Market empty and decaying for so long. It is not too late for them to change their minds; an urban market on the lines of Borough Market could bring these characterful historic buildings back into use, while reinforcing the special character of Smithfield. Replacing the market halls with an office block would rip the heart out of the area. It is time the Corporation stopped trying to give one of its most colourful assets the William Wallace treatment."

Too many good buildings in conservation areas in the City are being demolished. The Victorian Society hopes that the Corporation will realise that being one of the most interesting and quirky urban areas in the world is one of its key advantages vis-a-vis Canary Wharf. There is only a sustainable future for the City if every new development adds to this richness rather than eroding it.

Tuesday 16 April, 2013

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