An influential member of the London Assembly has warned that Mayor Boris Johnson is trying to flog off a chunk of Crystal Palace Park to Chinese developers for the benefit of a Tory borough council, with little proper consultation or planning. Val Shawcross, the AM for Lambeth and Southwark, has expressed “deep concern” over the “indecent haste” being taken over the £500 million scheme announced a year ago, and she says that the consultation process is proceeding in “a topsy turvy and dangerous way”.
Shawcross, a former leader of Croydon Council, is a Norwood resident and has been following closely the consultation organised by Arup on behalf of China’s ZhongRong Group, who appear to have been given free rein to build on the site of the old Crystal Palace by Mayor Johnson. Earlier this month, Shawcross described one Arup-staged meeting as “a very badly organised consultation event”.
Last week, Shawcross attended another meeting, this time in Dulwich, which she has described as “a lamentably ‘hollow’ presentation”.
“To their credit, the Arup team of two at least expressed their own ‘frustration’ and showed a degree of decent embarrassment with the thin pickings of information they had to offer on what this major Chinese Development company wants to build on the top site at Crystal Palace Park,” Shawcross wrote on her London Assembly blog over the weekend.
“They told the audience that half of the land used will be for a ‘Cultural asset/visitor facility’. There would be ‘public spaces, restaurants, an observation deck, art galleries and a six-star hotel, plus a bus interchange, car parking facilities and services’.”
Yet as Shawcross notes, one year on from Mayor Johnson and Ni Zhaoxing, one of China’s richest businessmen, announcing the ambitious scheme to recreate the Crystal Palace, there is a startling absence of firm detail about exactly what they now intend to build on the publicly owned site.
But it has emerged that Johnson intends to use his connections within the Conservative-led Government to have a Bill to amend 1990 Crystal Palace Park Act, which strictly limits the amount of development on the site, included in the next Queen’s Speech.
“They were unable to get anywhere near guessing how much land would be built on or what the actual size of each of these facilities would be,” Shawcross said. “They do not consequently have any guesstimates on the number of visitors or trips this will generate. They said the approach to dealing with the local pressures placed on transport and roads would be to make use of backflows – that is, use the empty trains coming back out of London after the morning rush hour.
“They confirmed that there would be an attempt made to amend the 1990 Crystal Palace Park Act which currently limits the area of the topsite which can be developed to 50 per cent. They confirmed that the intention is still to get a planning application in to Bromley in late 2014, but when I challenged them on the indecent haste of this and the damage this would do to the possibilities of proper public engagement and consultation, they did confess the it’s not unusual for such schemes to ‘slip’.”
It is looking increasingly as if the Crystal Palace scheme is another off-the-top of Boris’s head “wizard wheezes”, aimed squarely at grabbing headlines, but lacking substance and without much in the way of thorough thought, planning or, indeed, work. Once again, a public asset is being bandied around, for the probable financial benefit of Tory-controlled Bromley Council, but with little consideration given to the interests of local residents or the other four neighbouring boroughs.
Shawcross said, “Essentially they [Arup] confirmed that the reason for the absence of information at this stage is that the work has not been yet done to determine the detail of the uses of the building or most importantly in my view, to establish yet what the transport capacity is in the area. How much can the local roads and public transport services take? ZRG are focusing, they said, on the negotiations with Bromley for the leasing of the land, and this is to me a huge worry in itself.”
Nor are the developers and their consultants planning to discuss their nebulous plans any further until June, by which time their short-list of architects should be down to three firms. Arup have withdrawn from attending a Question Time event organised by the Crystal Palace Chamber of Commerce due to be held this Thursday.
“My view is that the whole project is still proceeding in a topsy turvy and dangerous way,” Shawcross said.
“Here we apparently have a situation where the developer has decided he wants to rebuild the Crystal Palace (or the spirit of it) on this historic public park, and at this stage regardless of the suitability, appropriateness or practicability of the plans, is negotiating for a long lease on this much-loved public park. Work on business planning and assessing the environmental and transport suitability of this proposal seems to be stalling until these negotiations are concluded. Architects will be designing concepts in the absence, it may be, of a detailed brief.
“Added to this is the evident enthusiasm of Bromley Council to offload the enormous financial responsibility for this park on to a foreign-owned development company and to do so quickly. Presumably this haste is to make progress whilst a Mayor and government of their own political colour are in place so that (possibly, in my opinion) they won’t have to deal with unfriendly scrutiny from above.
“The Mayor has signed a Memorandum of Understanding supporting the project (while he doesn’t really know what it is) and it was reported to a briefing of council leaders this week that Boris will be lobbying the Government to include a Bill to amend the 1990 Act in the next Queen’s Speech. This was reported to be likely to cover the issue of how much land can be developed (enlarged) and the length of lease that can be granted.
“So the questions continue to reverberate, but in the meantime Bromley and the Mayor’s office at City Hall continue to seemingly regard ZRG as generous benefactors rather than a sharp and commercially minded global property development company,” Shawcross said.
“This development must not be allowed to be forced through without being strongly challenged and shaped through proper planning processes and without due regard to the public interest. But we cannot take for granted that Bromley and the Mayor’s office will properly scrutinise this proposed scheme because they have already shown unquestioning enthusiasm for it and a willingness to deliberately operate in conditions of secrecy.”
Croydon is one of the five boroughs which border Crystal Palace (the others being Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Bromley) and which has an interest in the management of the park, which since the abolition of the Greater London Council has come under the control of Bromley.
“I urge everyone reading this to help shine a light on this whole fiasco. Ask questions, loudly, publicly and frequently. Ask Bromley, the Mayor, the Government, the media, environmental and heritage organisations and most of all elected politicians about this. The four other boroughs which meet near this park should be consulted and engaged now.”
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Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema: Basically Johnny Moped, Mar 27-28
- Crystal Palace Question Time, Mar 27
- Croydon Half-marathon, Mar 30
- David Lean Cinema: 12 Years a Slave, Apr 3
- Cane Hill and Lion Green Road public meeting, Apr 4
- David Lean Cinema: The Great Beauty, Apr 10
- Norwood Society Talk: Crystal Palace, Apr 17
- David Lean Cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, Apr 17
- Opening of Marlpit Lane bowling and putting greens, Apr 17
- Lives Not Knives Music at the Unit, Apr 19
- Arts and Crafts Market, Exchange Square, Apr 19
- David Lean Cinema: Short Term, Apr 24
- Norwood Society Talk: West Norwood – a place of change, May 15
- Croydon RFC charity memorial day, May 17
- Norwood Society Talk: The Concrete Church, June 19
- Crystal Palace Overground Festival, June 26-29
- Norwood Society Talk: War Memorials, Sep 18
- Norwood Society Talk: From Fire Station to Theatre, Oct 16
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
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