The Greenwich debate

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Greenwich has faced many challenges in its long and glorious history, and that posed by the closure of the Royal Naval College is as great as any. But it is also an opportunity, and one which, with imagination and vision, can be used to revive this priceless part of London for the 21st century. The views of the Greenwich Society can be listed under the following three points.

1. There should be a full public debate, both locally and nationally (including a debate in Parliament), as to the future of the Naval College buildings before any decision is taken. The brochure from the Government's estate agents asking for bids for the lease requires expressions of interest be submitted in writing by 15 November 1995, and speaks of facilitating legislation being introduced into Parliament that month. We are concerned a decision might be made before the full debate has taken place and would urge the Government to state that no decision will be taken before the summer of 1996. The Naval College is not due to depart for its new site at Camberley until 1997, and the importance of making the right choice outweighs any need to take a decision quickly.

2. Preference should be given to proposals which involve a public use of the college. The Government should give a public assurance that the amount of financial return under the proposed lease will not be the determinating factor in evaluating the bids. Indeed, we would hope that the Government would disclose the respective bids, the proposed uses for the site, and the rent offered, during the debating process. There must be public access, and on a far more generous scale than has been possible while the college remained a Defence establishment.

It is fundamental that the buildings and open spaces be properly maintained. Public institutions cannot be expected to find the resources out of their own funds to maintain the complex to the appropriate high standard. The brochure proposes that the "tenant be responsible for the property on a full repairing and insuring basis". Such a requirement would lead to a need for maximum commercial exploitation of the college, which would be unlikely to be in the public interest.

Various proposals have been put forward which would involve a public element. The extension of the National Maritime Museum, the development of a hospital or home (possibly run by the British Legion) for ex-service personnel, a training establishment for service cadets, or a centre for academic institutions such as London University, LSE or the University of Greenwich. We hope the Government is actively soliciting bids from such institutions.

3. The development of the Naval College has to be seen in the context of the wider issues involving the regeneration of south-east London and the Thames corridor. The centre of Greenwich is currently glutted with traffic, most of which travels along a road that brutally severs the Naval College complex from the Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Park. The creation of this main route was a serious mistake which must be corrected if Greenwich is to realise its full potential. The Greenwich Society has supported a scheme for a sunken riverside bypass which has overwhelming local support (76 per cent of a poll)

Pedestrianisation of the historic centre of the town combined with improved pubic transport links would have a transforming effect, and would immeasurably improve the environment, both for locals and for visitors.

The opportunities are enormous. The right decisions, particularly in relation to the Naval College, could create a magnificent, coherent environment in the historic town centre which would bring pride and prestige to London. The wrong decisions based on maximising financial returns could turn Greenwich into a tacky part of the commercial heritage industry.