ANOTHER VIEW; Grand designs for Greenwich

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The old order changes and buildings cannot remain immune, however hallowed they may be. All over the country there are churches that have been declared redundant and converted into concert halls and libraries and even homes. But when a public building of national importance can no longer be used for its intended purpose there is a national responsibility, vested in the Government, to ensure that any new use is entirely seemly.

This is a responsibility that has not been effectively discharged in the case of County Hall. As I look across from the House of Commons, I see one of the most notable buildings of the 20th century empty and forlorn. I would have kept it as the headquarters of a directly elected London local government, for all that I was no great enthusiast for many of the activities of the old Greater London Council. But when Margaret Thatcher's view prevailed, how many thought it would lie desolate for so many years awaiting its fate as a Japanese hotel - and aquarium? Further down the Thames there is a much greater building - indeed, a series of buildings forming one of the few World Heritage Sites in this country - that of Greenwich.

I never thought I would see the day, peace dividend or no, when a magisterial building designed by Christopher Wren, and where Nelson lay in state before his burial, would be advertised in the pages of a glossy magazine - albeit that it was Country Life and the description rightly made it sound like an extremely special riverside property. For government ministers to be so bereft of ideas about its future as to resort to such a strategy saddened me considerably. I hope the cries of anguish and protest that have reverberated over the past couple of months will have convinced those with a responsibility for Greenwich that we cannot allow another County Hall situation here.

It is not change, as such, that I oppose. Greenwich was used as a palace and a hospital before it became a college, and there is no reason why it should not engender as much public pride in a new incarnation. Some have talked of another great art gallery, or an expanded maritime museum, and others of a campus for a university. What is crucial is that the Chapel and the Painted Hall and the rest of Wren's grand design should have a truly national purpose and that the building should be a living one.

What about a public service college? That would be a splendid millennium project. Maybe we could even have classes for Members of Parliament!

The writer is Conservative MP for Staffordshire South.

Comments