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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.

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.”

Marcus Binney is executive president of Save Britain’s Heritage


Letter in response to this article:

Developments such as Smithfields are key to City’s future / From Mr Tom Sleigh

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