Labour says Naval College should be taken off market

IAN MacKINNON

Labour yesterday entered the fray over the future of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich by demanding that the Government take it off the market.

In a letter to ministers, Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, urges them to immediately enter negotiations with the National Maritime Museum and the University of Greenwich which have said they will shortly enter a joint bid. "If the college were to suffer the same fate as County Hall . . . it would be a disaster for London," he said.

He says he believes that the safeguard most likely to protect the "status and history of the buildings" was that put forward by the university and the museum. "I hope that you will act now while there is still time to save the college and withdraw the property from the open market," he writes. The call was the latest salvo in the escalating war of words over the Government's sale of a 150-year lease on the complex designed by Christopher Wren and dating from the seventeenth century. Despite the repeated assurances by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, that it would not be sold to the highest bidder as a supermarket or hotel, concern for its future has come from many quarters.

One of the most fervent critics of the sale, which has attracted more than 1,000 inquiries, is Sir Roy Strong, the historian and art critic. "I'm appalled," he said. "There are some things that don't have to be sponsored or revenue engendering. There must be some shred of pride of left. If we can't afford to maintain the acres that saw the birth of Elizabeth then what have we come to?"

Other Labour MPs were equally sceptical about government guarantees over the college's future, citing the fate of County Hall, home of the defunct Greater London Council, which has been empty since the late Eighties, and Battersea power station, a listed building that has been allowed to decay.

Nick Raynsford, Labour MP for Greenwich, welcomed the National Maritime Museum plan. "What would be unthinkable is for Greenwich to suffer the same fate as County Hall."

Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North West, was characteristically more forthright about the sale. "This is cheap, shoddy, back-of-the-lorry stuff."

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