Kapow! A blow to butchering developers that will resonate for years
The popular and commonsense decision to save Smithfield, the finest family of Victorian market buildings in Britain, from partial demolition is a ray of light in a London cityscape being devoured by greed. Not only does the decision revalue historic buildings across the country; it also assures a place in history for Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, alongside John Betjeman, who campaigned to save St Pancras, Michael Heseltine, who listed Billingsgate, and Robert Carr, another Tory, who as home secretary listed and thereby saved Covent Garden.
The significance of what Pickles has done in endorsing the even-handed but scathing assault by the inspector, Colin Ball, upon a "wholly unacceptable" scheme - which would have brought the demolition of parts of the 1863 West Market buildings designed by Sir Horace Jones, the surveyor to the City of London and builder of Tower Bridge - will stretch into the future and go far beyond Smithfield or the capital itself. For it says all buildings in conservation areas enjoy protection. Pickles and Ball have turned the tide of demolition sanctioned by the City and by London's mayor, Boris Johnson, in which, until now, anything went. They have revalued heritage within the planning system for decades to come.
How, you might ask, did buildings as significant as Smithfield's General Market, the Red House cold store and the decorative Fish Market come to be neglected for 30 years anyway? The inspector accuses the complacent City of London Corporation and its unaccountable planners of "deliberate neglect" - a criticism that will resonate across the country, especially with the philistine city fathers of Liverpool.
Most important of the questions raised by this public inquiry is why these buildings were not recommended for listing by English Heritage when the agency considered them in 2003. That is the root of the trouble and why it has been left to planning inspectors to stop two unsuitable redevelopment schemes.
For it is not just the City's neglect that is a scandal or the vile threat of the present owner, Henderson Global Investors, to go on allowing the buildings to fall down if it does not get its way. There is the greater scandal of the supposed custodian of the country's historic fabric, English Heritage, actually condoning the evisceration of these historic buildings and lining up beside the developers at a public inquiry.
Something has gone wrong if it is left to tiny under-resourced pressure groups such as Save Britain's Heritage and the Victorian Society to defend the public interest against brutal odds. To the inspector's everlasting credit, he was persuaded of what was right: that the significance of the market hall and its extraordinary roof of iron and timber, supported by globally innovative, wrought-iron Phoenix columns, was at least as important as the facades that Henderson's scheme proposed to save.
English Heritage should have seen the significance of these buildings and their imaginative construction before it emerged at the inquiry. John McAslan, the King's Cross architect and designer of Henderson's scheme, should have seen it, too. He walked out under questioning, prompting the memorable headline "A very cross examination".
A vast boil of pomposity, self-delusion and greed has been lanced by Pickles and his planning minister, Nick Boles - the only elected representatives in this tale. I don't for a moment believe Pickles was "influenced by a disingenuous campaign employed by a small minority of objectors", as Henderson's development director, Geoff Harris, has claimed.
I call that thumbing your nose at democracy. Pickles was doing what any sensible person can see was right.
It is obvious that an alternative scheme that retains the existing buildings is viable. Smithfield is surrounded by a growing forest of City blocks whose workers will long to shop, eat and drink somewhere interesting and humane. People had claimed Covent Garden wasn't viable, either. It is obvious to ordinary people that the City's need for more office space is not so desperate that we need to erase the traces of imperial Britain that the Luftwaffe and 1960s planners have left behind.
Now what happens? There will be a tricky hiatus. What should happen is that Henderson Global Investors sells the buildings or embraces the alternative scheme that the inspector said could be making money within weeks. If it doesn't, I predict a campaign to have the names of Henderson's chairman, Richard Gillingwater, and its chief executive, Andrew Formica (no, I am not making this up), dragged through the mud by its pensioner investors.
As for English Heritage: its chief executive, Simon Thurley, should accept the global significance of Sir Horace Jones's work and recommend the whole of Smithfield market for listing forthwith or else tender his resignation.