The David and Goliath battle to save Smithfield
have been demolished 10 years ago, replaced by a glass-and-steel retail and office development – all at the blessing of the City of London.
One of these committed campaigners is Eric Reynolds, the founder of Urban Space Management, which specialises in regenerating market buildings. He was involved in two “bruising” inquiries, in 2008 and again in 2014, that pitted activists against the financial and political weight of the City of London, the Mayor, big-name architects and wealthy developers. “If you’d been there on the dramatic days you’d have seen that there was maybe 30 people on their side of the room,” he says. “And on our side there was me. In the first inquiry I was on the stand for three days.”
The General Market was designed by the architect Sir Horace Jones in 1883, who also designed Smithfield’s Meat Market, Poultry Market and Fish Market, creating a unique and unified group of buildings; last week it celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of one of the Victorian market buildings. The General Market was intended for fruit and veg but became another meat market, nicknamed “the Japanese Village” because of a pagodalike dome; this was replaced by the current dome in the Fifties. While the meat market on the eastern side is still in use, those on the western side have been empty for decades.
Surrounded by a wall of shop fronts – now shuttered – and constructed over the slope to the buried Fleet river, the building was innovative, sitting directly on top of a train line so livestock could be brought directly into the market building. Thameslink trains still trundle past the vast subterranean space that Ament will use for the museum’s permanent gallery. “People on the train will be able to see into the museum and visitors can see them too,” says Ament. “It will give the museum a real sense of being in London.”
Reynolds’s relationship with the building began in 1996, when the City asked him to revitalise a space falling into disuse. Reynolds had regenerated Spitalfields by populating it with small traders, and a similar plan had been conceived for Smithfield.
But the City changed its mind and brought in a developer, Thornfield Properties, which wanted to demolish the site and replace it with a seven-storey office block, described by Prince Charles as “an act of vandalism”. The scheme was opposed by English Heritage, SAVE (a group campaigning to protect Britain’s heritage), the Victorian Society and Urban Space Management, and was ultimately rejected after a public inquiry by Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, in 2008.
In 2014, a revised plan was submitted by new owners Henderson Global Investors, so the old team got back together. This time, architect John McAslan wanted to retain the façade and build an office block inside, which would have obliterated outstanding features such as the great central dome and the roof supported by rare wrought-iron Phoenix columns. “It was a real David and Goliath case,” recalls Christopher Costelloe, director of the Victorian Society. “We were fighting the City and a very well-resourced developer. The particular challenge is that our lawyer fell ill in the middle of the inquiry so we had to represent our- selves and cross-examine witnesses.”
To add to their woes, English Heritage switched sides and backed the development. Eric Reynolds, now chairman of SAVE, knew that if the campaigners were to be taken seriously, they needed a realistic substitute. “We wanted a credible alternative to demolition, which is nearly always the simplest, cheapest and fastest thing to do,” says Reynolds.
“That means we are not just preserving a wreck, or a tombstone, we are giving it viable life. That’s the basis on which we won. We were dismissed as fluffyheads who couldn’t make it happen, but my team had read the spreadsheets more carefully and found a £12million gap in their revenue… Our scheme actually looked as if it would produce a profit whereas theirs would lose money.” Eric Pickles, then the communities secretary, sided with the campaigners. The City of London was ticked off for allowing the building to deteriorate, and had to pay the developers before settling on an alternative use – a new home for the Museum of London. Reynolds was the first person to introduce Ament to the museum’s future home. “Eric grabbed me out the office and took me round, peeking through keyholes and cracks in doors,” recalls Ament.
The museum is now fundraising and finalising plans with architects Stanton Williams and Asif Khan. It is also working with heritage architect Julian Harrap to record the history of the building as it is being refurbished.
Should the City of London be applauded for agreeing a proactive solution to their predicament following two humiliating reversals? Ament, excited by the potential of a site that will give the museum considerably more space and a far better location, describes it as “visionary”. Reynolds is less impressed. “Have they redeemed themselves? Not in the least,” he says. “It’s still deteriorating, there’s still buddleia growing outside and shop fronts that are shuttered.
“A normal person would have said these shops are capable of being in use, so let’s recycle that money and do simple maintenance to slow down the damage. The only long-term vision they have is that they must maintain people in the City so they don’t leave and go to Canary Wharf.” The City of London declined to comment on the two failed schemes it backed.
If either inquiry had been lost, the General Market would have gone for good, costing the country not only a magnificent and important historic building, but also a chance to enjoy its alternative future.
What advice would Reynolds offer for campaigners facing similar odds? “Do your homework,” he says. “If we’d gone in armed only with emotion, we’d have lost straight away. We did the numbers and we worked hard to show that our scheme could be done for less money, there was viable rent, and somebody prepared to do it.
“We were also very fortunate that the inspector was careful and considerate, and spent time in the area to understand the context. And we were lucky we had a minister who wasn’t just saying, ‘Let’s have another tower.’ That was just timing.”
The Smithfield Market complex was designed by Sir Horace Jones