THE BIGGEST victim of last month's council decision to reject the redevelopment of our market was not the market's owner, Greenwich Hospital. The Hospital may be wounded, but it still has its hands on the real estate. The biggest victim was our so-called "conservation group," the Greenwich Society, whose credibility has been destroyed.
According to its constitution, the purpose of the Greenwich Society is to "secure the preservation, protection and enhancement of the built environment and the landscape broadly within London SE10," to "maintain the quality of life for those living or working in or visiting Greenwich," and to "encourage high standards of development and architecture within the area."
That seems clear enough. But over the market, unforgivably, the Greenwich Society appointed itself a PR cheerleader for the developers, for a plan which would have demolished the built environment, not preserved or protected it, and for architecture whose standards were more bog than high.
The Society's glowing endorsement of the scheme as "admirable," an "object lesson in how to gauge local opinion" and a "well thought through modern improvement" now looks deeply silly in the light of the council's condemnation of the redevelopment as "unbalanced," "detrimental," "visually obtrusive," and "out of keeping with its historic surroundings."
The Greenwich Society's spokesman, Ray Smith, appeared - complete with picture - in the developers' glossy leaflets, enthusiastically endorsing the demolition. The Society faithfully peddled the Hospital's untrue PR lines in the press, including the claim that the development had "75 per cent" support. On this website the Society's chairman Tim Barnes claimed, quite falsely, that I'd said the market would be closed down. And he rubbished his opponents as "not representative" of local opinion.
It turns out, however, that it was the Greenwich Society which did not represent local opinion - unsurprisingly, since it made no effort whatever to find out locals' views before it backed the demolition. Mr Barnes' presumptuousness, assuming that whatever he and his executive committee decided was automatically the settled will of the local public, was one of the most unappealing aspects of the Greenwich Society's behaviour.
The council's decision is a sign not only that the Greenwich Society has lost its bearings, but that its views no longer carry any real weight. The developers thought the Society was one of their trump cards. The council simply ignored it.
Why am I saying all this? Partly because it needs saying - but partly because the Greenwich Society is up to exactly the same tricks about the year's other big planning issue, the loony idea of holding the Olympic horse events in Greenwich Park.
Once again the Greenwich Society has forgotten the objectives so clearly stated in its own constitution. Once again, it has fallen naively into the arms of a large monied interest prepared to invite it to a few meetings, make it feel "consulted" and flatter its executive committee's sense of self-importance.
Once again, the Greenwich Society has become a cheerleader for something which has no benefit for Greenwich and which carries quite substantial risks. Mr Barnes has said that I "seem impervious to the assurances that have been given [by LOCOG]...that there will be no lasting damage to the fabric of the Park or to the trees, and that the Park will not be closed off to users until the run-up to the Olympics in August 2012 when security considerations require closure for about 6-8 weeks."
You might think I'm "impervious" to such assurances because they come from the same people who also assured us that the Games would cost £2.4 billion; or because no detailed environmental studies of the effects of the event on the fabric of the Park have yet been completed to back up such assurances.
But actually there's a simpler reason why I'm impervious to those assurances - which is that they haven't actually been made by LOCOG. On the contrary: London 2012's director of sport, Debbie Jevans, has explicitly said that substantial parts of the park will be closed off to users for much longer than "about 6-8 weeks." LOCOG has explicitly admitted that there will be damage to some trees - they will have to be "pruned." So once again, the Greenwich Society's PR tendencies are getting ahead of themselves; and once again, they appear to be backing a project on the basis of a false understanding.
The Society's only response, so far, to its humiliation over the market has been to quietly remove all reference to its support for the redevelopment from its website. If the Greenwich Society is to survive as anything other than a joke, it needs to make much bigger changes than that. It needs to start honestly fulfilling the purpose it was set up for, to "preserve and protect the built environment and the landscape." There can be no piece of landscape more in need of protection right now than Greenwich Park.
This coming Wednesday, the 23rd, the four local societies, including the Greenwich Society, will meet to discuss the Olympics in the Park with LOCOG. It's a full members' meeting - if you are a member of any of them, I urge you to attend. At it, we will see whether the Greenwich Society has learned any lessons at all from its recent experiences.