Rain hammering against stained glass windows. A flash of lightning, thunder rolling overhead. The inspector raised his eyebrows… and got onto with the job in hand. Welcome to the world of the planning inquiry, where all is mild and good-humoured.
Despite this unassuming exterior, there’s real passions and real consequences at stake as the inquiry into Greenwich Hospital’s plans to redevelop Greenwich Market gets under way at Woolwich Town Hall. The first morning’s submissions revealed a huge gulf between Greenwich Council’s aspirations for the area and the charity’s vision for the town centre.
Since the plans were first thrown out in August 2009, a few changes have been made to the proposal – notably retaining the market’s current roof. But the bulk of the plans remain – to redevelop the area around the market to incorporate a boutique hotel, which would involve two years of demolition and reconstruction work in the town centre, and a temporary home for the market in the naval college grounds.
But why? Acting for Greenwich Hospital, Neil King QC told the inquiry the proposals would “revive an important area plainly in need of regeneration” – words many locals would expect to hear about Deptford or Woolwich, but Greenwich town centre? They would “respect and not harm” the world heritage site, he said, claiming the council was pursuing an “unbalanced” approach by opposing the plans. “They are another stage in the evolution of the market and the immediate area,” he added.
Greenwich Hospital can also claim local MP Nick Raynsford as a supporter of the redevelopment, while English Heritage, the University of Greenwich and the Greenwich Society had either backed or not opposed the scheme, Mr King said. Indeed, Greenwich Council’s own planning officers had recommended acceptance of the original scheme.
But in the charity’s way is a rare combination – Greenwich’s councillors and local public opinion. About 40 people turned up on a weekday to watch the proceedings, and of the 10 people down to speak, all were against the proposals. For the council, Tim Jones said the scheme would “do real and significant harm in an exceptionally important location” – with no accommodation for service vehicles and disabled car parking.
For one thing, it looks as if they plans as the stand now clash with the council’s plan to pedestrianise part of the town centre by April 2012 – with all 20 car parking spaces in the market removed by Greenwich Hospital and no plan for how visitors would get to the hotel.
“There’s a big difference between a car-free development and a development with no parking,” council transport planner Kim Smith told the inquiry, adding no mention had been made in the application as to how the hotel’s 100 full-time staff would get to work. Visitors and service vehicles would have to arrive via King William Walk, she added, which if pedestrianisation went ahead would only be open to vehicles during restricted hours, causing problems for residents. Even with the road as it is now, Ms Smith, continued, taxis and service vehicles risked blocking an important transport artery – although this would not be illegal.
Any constraints on disabled visitors’ access to the site, she said, were solely down to the design of the new hotel not incorporating any car parking space. A comparison with Bermondsey Square Hotel, run by prospective site operator Bespoke Hotels, was misleading as that sat in the congestion charge zone, was 10 minutes’ walk from London Bridge station and mainly served visitors to the City.
For Greenwich Hospital, Neil King said that a council officer and Transport for London had told the developers that the effects on traffic would be “negligible”, and under cross-examination, Ms Smith agreed that public transport should absorb much of the demand from visitors.
From the early exchanges, it looked rather like a combination of passion and practical experience of life in Greenwich versus dry interpretations of planning law – if Greenwich Hospital can convince the inquiry that everything has been done by the book, then it’s likely the development will go ahead. Greenwich Council will be looking for holes through which to shoot the scheme down – like the lack of travel plan.
While the inquiry is chaired by Philip Asquith, the final decision will be made by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, to whom Mr Asquith will make a recommendation. The inquiry will continue hearing submissions until 15 September, with a site visit planned for the following day and closing submissions the day after that. All sessions are open to the public, beginning at 9.30am.