Greenwich Council’s cabinet agreed to put the historic Borough Hall on the market tonight without discussing the issue in public.
The planned sale of the Grade II-listed building comes after plans to lease it to the theatre company Selladoor collapsed without agreement. Selladoor, which runs regional theatres across the UK, had planned to add a rooftop bar and extend the main hall to 640 seats.
A sale would see the council lose its last interest in the building, which was part of the old Greenwich Town Hall until 1965. Despite its significance to the borough’s history, the cabinet did not question council officers about the sale.
Built as headquarters for the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich in 1939, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called it “the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately”. The administrative side of the building, with its clock tower, was sold off in 1973. Its council chamber was removed and converted into offices. But the Borough Hall remained in council hands and was home to Greenwich Dance until 2018.
The building could now be sold by next summer “on an unconditional basis”, a report to councillors says – meaning that it could be converted into housing, like the former Hornsey Town Hall in north London, or business use.
Former Peninsula ward councillor and local historian Mary Mills addressed the cabinet, telling them that “selling assets is always a bad idea” – and that it needed to respect the legacy of its predecessor borough, which was merged with neighbouring Woolwich in 1965 to form the current council.
“Architecturally, it’s a very important building and it needs strong measures to make sure it’s not mucked about with,” she said.
“I know most of the cabinet won’t know what I’m talking about, but when part of it was sold off it was Greenwich’s thirty-year-old, architecturally important town hall which was built as a symbol of a progressive left-wing borough with a commitment to modernity.
“It was sold off by a [merged] council in which Greenwich councillors were suddenly a minority. I do think the council owes something to municipal Greenwich. There’s now no sign of the [old] council in Greenwich. It was once a leading town in Kent but there’s no sign that there was once a town centre there and that we had our own local government.
“Just something about municipal Greenwich, that it existed once, and was killed off a long time ago.”
Sarah Merrill, the cabinet member for regeneration, said the cabinet had “discussed this at length and I don’t have anything further to add”. However, none of those discussions had been held in public.
Merrill asked if council officers had anything to say. There was no response from the officers: the deputy chief executive Katrina Delaney, who had championed the deal with Selladoor, could be seen sending a message on her phone.
Council leader Danny Thorpe said he had received two emails from residents about the issue. “Just to reassure people that we have been working hard to try and bring this building back into use and that remains our intention,” he said.
“Obviously the whole world has changed in the past six months and one of the reasons for pursuing this exercise is seeing who is interested in helping us bring this building back into use. As Mary says, there are important architectural features as well as civic features and we want to make sure they remain. We want to compare those applications and then make a decision about proceeding.”
The fate of another old municipal building in the borough – the Old Town Hall in Calderwood Street in Woolwich – was also discussed, when the cabinet also approved plans to spend £2 million on topping up a Historic England grant to revamp Woolwich’s shopping streets.
The £3.8m project includes work on the Old Town Hall, which was built in 1842, and the former library next door, which is home to the council’s job agency, Greenwich Local Labour and Business. Resident Deborah O’Boyle had suggested the building be used as a new home for the borough archive. Jeremy Smalley, the council’s assistant director for regeneration and property, said “various ideas were emerging” for a use for the building, but the scheme was more about “mainly about the preservation and enhancement of those buildings”.
Friday update: After a Twitter user criticised Katrina Delaney for using her phone during the Borough Halls segment of the meeting, the council responded: “In line with our commitment on the climate emergency we don’t print meeting papers any more. Officers can read papers on a phone while using a laptop for the meeting.”