Andrew Gilligan: Market Inquiry: Is It Just A Stitch-Up?
September 20, 2010 by Andrew Gilligan
Even before the public inquiry into Greenwich Market has finished, the developers who want to knock it down are behaving as if they’ve won.
Look on the website of Bespoke Hotels, the operator of the hotel proposed to replace the existing market buildings – and you will see them describing it as a fait accompli: “Greenwich Market Hotel is set to open in 2013 and will be the centrepiece of the total redevelopment of the market square,” the website says. “The new boutique property… will replace a block of buildings on the eastern edge of the market and will include an additional bedroom block on the upper floors in a new purpose-built property at the centre of the market.”
That raises the serious question of whether the inquiry - with its two weeks of hearings, its mountains of paperwork, its expensive lawyers – is merely a charade. Do Bespoke Hotels know something we don’t? Has a whisper been passed?
Until this disturbing development, opponents of the scheme seemed to have had the better of it at the inquiry. Massed ranks of councillors from all parties lined up to oppose the scheme – one, Maureen O’Mara, saying that it would “tear the heart out of Greenwich.” The council, true to its original, unanimous vote against the plans, has committed resources and people to fight the case that the development should not happen.
Transport – something first identified by this blog – has emerged as a key issue, with the inspector questioning why the developers had submitted no travel plan, as they were asked to by Transport for London, to back up their absurd claim that the new hotel would create no more than 16 extra journeys in the peak hour – with almost all of those people travelling by public transport. Guests arriving at luxury hotels with heavy luggage do not, of course, come by public transport – and there will be up to 200 of them staying each night, not to mention deliveries, staff, restaurant visitors, and so on.
The hotel’s main entrance will be in the middle of the one-way system, causing enormous disruption to traffic as coaches, taxis and cars drop off guests. A new transport objection may be that the hotel’s existence would sabotage the council’s plans to pedestrianise part of the one-way system. That, however, is a much less good argument. Not only would any pedestrianisation scheme be a mistake in itself, but it might actually solve the transport problems caused by the hotel – which could be served without disruption by turning King William Walk into a hotel-only access spur.
Much better to concentrate on the dozens of ways in which the development breaches the council’s own planning policy – the Unitary Development Plan – and the at least two ways it breaches national planning policy guidance.
Interesting, too, that the council’s barrister has focused on the developers’ somewhat sharp practice in reporting the results of its public consultation. As we have noted in the past, true to the finest traditions of “nonsultation,” a large number of respondents who in fact raised significant objections to the proposed design were counted as supporters by the developers. Another piece of alleged manipulation brought up at the inquiry was the developers’ selective use of photographs in their planning application to make the new scheme look more acceptable than it is. Bespoke Hotels describes its new concrete slab as “brimful of character,” which is a pretty clear indicator of the mindset we’re dealing with.
As well as the council and councillors, the objectors included dozens of local residents. Perhaps most interestingly, the developers’ changes to the scheme appear not to have convinced any of the original objectors. The Government’s heritage watchdog, the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), said the revised scheme was still ‘alien’ and the scale of the proposed hotel still ‘dominating.’
While the retention and refurbishment in amended design of the existing roof in place of the previously proposed canopy roof was welcomed, CABE remained concerned that the relationship between the roof and the proposed cantilevering building was still not ‘fully resolved’.
The circular layout of the new central block, CABE said, did not address the needs of the proposed retail units, and along with the amount of hotel accommodation, appeared ‘alien’ in the context of the existing market.
It all sounds quite promising – but then there’s that worrying confidence of the developers. Let’s hope they’re just getting ahead of themselves – and that their arrogance may, as it has all along, prove counterproductive. But there’s still the distinct possibility that this is all a stitch-up.