The Greenwich debate

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The Independent Culture
The debate on the future of the Greenwich Royal Naval College that we launched last week has provoked an enormous and very heated response. The widespread outrage at the Government's decision to put the college up for auction is reflected on the special letters page we publish in the first section of the paper.

The tone of the letters, almost with exception, was critical of the Government.

One of the most eloquent came from Bert St Durling, who described visiting the college as a six-year-old from Millwall in 1928 : "To get in, our technique was to wait for a horse and cart that was to deliver goods and ask the driver, `Mister can we 'elp to carry yer stuff in?' It worked and when inside we looked in amazement at such a glorious place - to us a wonderland."

There was only one letter in support of the Government. It came from David Coombs in Godalming, Surrey. His argument, in condensed form, is: "To offer something for sale does not mean necessarily that it will be endangered. To the contrary, it can have exciting consequences. I strongly believe that these days the sometimes numbing effect of ownership by the state (or other public body) can be stimulated efficiently and creatively when in partnership with private enterprise. There is no point in looking back to any golden age other than to be encouraged to do at least as well now."

Mr Coombs's argument deserves an answer. The point to the debate over the future of the college is not to keep it as a dead monument to the past. The aim is to find for it a new purpose which befits a building of world stature. The purpose must breathe life into the buildings, maintain their access to the public and preserve their beauty.

The danger of handing over the college to the private sector is that the profit motive will require the owners to make a commercial return. The investors will judge the acceptability of that return in comparison with the money they could make in other property ventures.

The requirement to make such a return will almost certainly lead the owners to attempt to modify, compromise or simply misuse the buildings. In this week's debate the Adam Smith Institute, for instance, talked about the buildings as a "facility", comparing them to other "similar facilities" owned by the state. It's as if Greenwich is no different from a motorway service station.

The danger is that once in private hands and away from all semblance of public scrutiny such a logic would take over, with potentially disastrous consequences. There would be no guarantee that the public could have access. The buildings would be lost to the public.

So we need to keep the buildings in public ownership, not for its own sake, but because public ownership is more likely to give the buildings a purpose and style of management more suited to their world reputation and their position in our national heritage.

We need to debate what the new life of the Greenwich college could be. You had plenty of ideas in your letters. A new home for the Saatchi gallery; a museum to house the Royal collection; a national university for retired people; an international centre for the promotion of peace and education; a seafarer's museum.

To force the Government to change its mind will require outrage and anger, from all those who for different reasons believe it's wrong for the college to be sold. But it will also require ideas for the college's future which are both innovative and yet match its character and standing. That is what we will start addressing on next Monday's architecture page. So keep your ideas coming.

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