Secretary of State Eric Pickles this month refused an application by the City of London and Henderson Global Investors to demolish a part of Smithfield known as the Western Market and build office blocks. Using strong terms, Mr Pickles said the proposed development would cause “substantial harm to the significance of the Smithfield conservation area”, and praised alternative proposals supported by conservation groups.
A plan by architectural practice Burrell Foley Fischer, put forward by the Victorian Society and Save Britain’s Heritage, would keep all the old buildings and create new uses for them.
In his landmark statement the Secretary of State said: “There is some tension between the City of London Corporation’s policies aimed at increasing City office space, and those setting out a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment.”
He concluded that he gave “greater importance and more weight to the conservation of the heritage assets”, and called the proposed demolition of these buildings “wholly unacceptable”. Campaigners in Spitalfields now hope the decision will help to defeat a development proposal there by British Land.
Directly east of Smithfield, on the City of London border, is historic and increasingly trendy Spitalfields, its 18th-century brick buildings dwarfed by the neighbouring City’s glass towers. A similar row is brewing there over British Land’s proposed big development.
The property investment company currently plans to demolish many buildings, including some from the 18th century, and create 300,000sq ft of space suitable for different types of users, including tech-city firms from neighbouring Shoreditch.
Central to the Spitalfields development is Blossom Street, a rare road of four-storey Victorian warehouses, which British Land wants to knock down, retaining only the façades, and build 10-storey offices behind them. Campaigners believe Mr Pickles’s decision in Smithfield will help to protect the two-acre site — which is within the Elder Street conservation area — from such development.
The conservation area is officially classified as “an area of particular, special architectural and historic interest… dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries”. Elder Street itself, just round the corner from Blossom Street, is a now-famous street of fine 18th-century houses, half of which British Land demolished in 1977.
Back then, the developer was prevented from knocking down the rest by squatters, including TV historian Dan Cruickshank, who bought the derelict houses. They are now among London’s most valuable homes. Cruickshank — who is still an Elder Street resident — and others set up the Spitalfields Trust, which is spearheading the campaign to save Blossom Street.
The cobbled, gas-lit street’s classic 1886 warehouses are in good condition, with timber floors, cast-iron pillars, and loading bays. Inside and out, they look very much like those in New York, or like a set for a Hollywood romance or a costume drama.
The Spitalfields Trust disagrees with their demolition. It wants the warehouses kept “as the asset they are” and put back into imaginative use —for example, by small tech-companies spilling out from neighbouring Shoreditch.
Tech industry analyst James Governor, of Redmonk, agreed that to demolish them would be out of tune with current thinking, since trendy tech companies prefer such buildings to big, new, glassy offices.
“Start-ups like to graduate into small private spaces,” Governor said, adding that massive floor spaces are “not applicable” for this type of creative work.
When asked how demolishing the warehouses would be better than retaining them, British Land said it was “currently in a period of consultation” and declined to comment further.
The Spitalfields Trust is in talks with John Burrell of Burrell Foley Fischer, who drew up the preferred plan for Smithfield, to develop alternative plans for the Blossom Street site, to reuse existing buildings and design sympathetic new ones, in order to retain and enhance what it considers to be the special architectural quality of a popular tourist destination and uniquely historic area.
It cites the section of the Secretary of State’s report on Smithfield that “paid special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of conservation areas, as required by the Planning Act 1990”.