In July 2013 the City of London planning authority resolved to approve Henderson Global’s application for redevelopment of Smithfield Market. The scheme, designed by award winning architect John McAslan, proposed retention of the brisk and stone perimeter buildings, demolition of the central core and the construction of 3 new blocks of offices and shops.
The decision was called in by the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, and a public inquiry opened in February 2014. The Inspector at the inquiry determined the resolution should be overturned and permission refused. On 8 July Eric Pickles affirmed the decision of the inspector.
The decision to overturn the recommended approval appears to be based upon the historic importance of the existing buildings, even though the General Market buildings themselves are not listed. The decision arises as a result of a long-running objection by SAVE and the Victorian Society. This is not the first time powerful lobbying has prevented the development of this site, as a previous scheme was overturned at appeal in 2008.
Although there is clearly a case for preservation of unique and important landmarks, it seems perverse that in this case the buildings in question were not listed and the scheme had the support of English Heritageand a majority of market tenants.
Whilst this case highlights the power of organised lobbies, it must also call into question the exercise by the Secretary of State of his power of calling-in.
How does this decision sit in the light of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)? Does it show that, at the end of the day, the NPPF is merely a statement of political aspiration rather than the guidance for planning authorities it was intended to provide?
The NPPF has at its core a presumption in favour of sustainable development. In his ministerial foreword to the NPPF, Greg Clark defines sustainable as “ensuring better lives for ourselves doesn’t mean worse lives for future generations”. He also defines “development” as “growth. “We must respond to the changes new technologies offer us” Mr Clark states. “Our lives and the places in which we live them, can be better, but they will certainly be worse if things stagnate.”
Smithfield lies at the heart of the City. In an increasingly competitive global market, the ability of the City to be a predominant business centre depends largely on its ability to accommodate the demands of the businesses it seeks to attract. With office space in the City already at a premium, the refusal to redevelop sites such as Smithfield in a manner suited to the 21st century must call into question the future of the City. If every old building must be preserved how is London to meet the increasing demand for office space? Will we see a plethora of Gherkins and Shards dominating the skyline, or an uncontrolled urban sprawl spreading into the Green Belt (yet another sacred cow)?
Having lain derelict for c.20 years will we now have to see Smithfield remain undeveloped for another 20 years, degenerating into a blot on the landscape rather than the alleged important heritage asset.
Henderson have 6 weeks to challenge the decision by making an application to the High Court. The Secretary of State cannot withdraw or alter the decision, and it can only be overturned through the courts. Such challenge can only be made on the grounds that the decision reached was either outside the powers of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA) or any relevant requirements of the TCPA have not been complied with. Henderson also has a statutory right to review all of the documents annexed to the Inspector’s report.
This decision provides further ammunition for the conservation lobby. It would be unfortunate if this leads to a policy of refusal on other urban regeneration schemes, which will only serve further to frustrate the provision of much needed inner city commercial and residential space.
This article was first published in Property News (online) in September 2014.