College 'must stay in public hands'

Heritage at risk
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The Liberal Democrats yesterday threw their full support behind the campaign to stop the Royal Naval College being commercially sold. Simon Hughes, the party's spokesman on London, yesterday suggested that the Wren-designed complex could be owned by a trust in which the public interest was given a majority stake.

Mr Hughes, MP for Bermondsey, joined Labour's environment spokesman, Chris Smith, in urging the Government not to allow public agencies to lose control of a second London riverside site after the "disaster" of County Hall.

Mr Hughes said: "Of course we accept that the needs of the Royal Navy has changed and with it the way the building is used." He added that the "people who would really like it" were the National Maritime Museum - which is to bid jointly for the College with Greenwich University - and that it would "tie in extremely well with the Observatory in helping to make Greenwich the Versailles of London".

That applied whether or not Greenwich is successful in its front-running bid to be the main London site for the millennium as the South Bank was for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Mr Hughes said that the exact mechanism of ownership was a matter of detail provided that the public interest was maintained.

Although both Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, and Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, have given assurances that the college will not merely be sold to the highest bidder, Mr Hughes said the recent history of County Hall showed it was not enough just to set conditions for the sale. "To lose a second riverside site on the Thames would not just be foolish but extremely irresponsible."

Since the Government put the 150-year-old lease of the complex, which dates from the early 17th century, up for sale, there have been more than 1,000 enquiries in a week.