I was struck by a comment from a reader called Paul on last week's column about Greenwich Market, and think it deserves a wider circulation. He wrote of the danger that in the run-up to that longed-for event of which we all dream, the Olympics, Greenwich will become little more than a series of building sites.
As well as the market, there's the Olympic development in Greenwich Park, the Ofer Wing of the Maritime Museum (which will also affect the park), the foot tunnel, the old Village Market site, the new pier, the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Reach. As Paul says, "no tourist will want to walk around a load of building sites for the next three years and it won't be long before word gets out that Greenwich is closed. In the rush to celebrate the Olympics fortnight, it seems that a long-term overview has been thrown out of the window."
There are plenty of places that are unattractive, provide inadequate public amenities and need lots of work doing to them. But Greenwich isn't one of them. I think (I'm biased, of course) that it's one of the nicest areas in London. It just doesn't need "regeneration," especially not the airport-terminal kind that awaits us in the market.
Naturally, there are grotty bits - in the town centre, I'd nominate that bland, faceless block which houses Somerfield. But those aren't the bits they'll be tearing down. Those are the bits they'll be copying.
So why has everyone suddenly, it seems, decided that what Greenwich needs is a complete rebuild - all at once? As Paul suggests, the Olympics must have something to do with it. One of the worst things about the Games is the way that a single fortnight has come to dominate, even monopolise, official thinking, as if it is somehow more important than all the months and years which go before it and after it.
It isn't, of course. The Olympics will be with us for two weeks. The new market could be with us for a century. But the way it's looking, the priorities of the two weeks will mean that the project for the century is rushed through the planning process without proper scrutiny, then thrown up in months - and is, as a result, far worse than it should be.
We need to stop. We need to take our time. We need to tell ourselves that in the long run, the Olympics simply do not matter. Within months of the closing ceremony, they will be all but forgotten by almost everyone. The market, however, will be in our faces for decades. The short-term goal of a shiny Olympic fortnight is not remotely a good enough reason to compromise Greenwich's long-term future.
We need to tell ourselves that even during the fortnight, the Greenwich end of the Olympics will not matter. The centre of attention will be on the athletics and the swimming, seven miles to the north. The horse events will get half an hour on TV. There won't be many Olympic-related visitors to Greenwich - they'll all be heading for Stratford. Greenwich Council may want to put on a show, but not many people will be coming.
Building white elephants at Stratford is bad enough. But at least some people will want to see them, and they will be safely out of sight of the rest of us. Building white elephants in the middle of a successful town centre is far worse - and the error is compounded by the fact that not many of the people the "improvements" are supposed to attract will even be interested.
PS: I forgot to give the address for objections to the market planning application last week. Emails should be sent to email@example.com, quoting reference numbers 09/0829/F and 09/0830/C. Gittens' postal address is Crown Building, 48 Woolwich New Roas, SE18 6HQ.
Act soon - you only have until 26 May.