Boris’s plans for Crystal Palace are branded as ‘disastrous’

London Mayor Boris Johnson wants to bulldoze 120 years’ worth of south London’s proud sporting heritage, with proposals to demolish Crystal Palace Stadium which have been dismissed by senior sports figures as “a disgrace” and “disastrous”.

The days of world records being ste in front of packed crowds at Crystal Palace are long gone

The days of world records being set in front of packed crowds at Crystal Palace are long gone

It is surely more than coincidental that Johnson is simultaneously trying to drive through a scheme to sell-off a nearby chunk of Crystal Palace Park to a Chinese billionaire as the proposals to demolish the stands, the indoor training area and, possibly, the track as well have been put forward.

For nearly half a century, until 2011, Crystal Palace stadium was the home of British athletics. It was the first in this country to have a Tartan all-weather track, installed so that Britain’s runners, jumpers and throwers – who until then had been used to the sodden cinders of the old White City – could get experience of the modern surface ahead of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The Palace has since been the stage for dozens of world records and British all-comers’ records – 51 of which still stand today – as well as hosting the athletics World Cup, Modern Pentathlon world championships, being the home for a while of London’s rugby league and American football franchises, and even being used as a venue for a visit from the Pope.

But the neglected and under-funded facilities at what was once proudly “the National Sports Centre” have faced an uncertain future since the Lee Valley Stadium was opened north of the river and London staged the 2012 Olympics.

With the responsibility for the stadium’s upkeep falling to Bromley Council after the demise of the Greater London Council, for decades little was done to maintain the facilities, as was shown when the indoor training hall – vitally important to sprinters, long jumpers and vaulters from south London, Surrey, Kent and Sussex – was allowed to become flooded over the Christmas holiday last year.

The sports centre and 15,500-seater stadium was taken on by the Mayor in 2012, when it was transferred from the London Development Agency. But Boris has done little, if anything, since to arrest its decline, and the sports facilities merited barely a mention in the earlier consultations held by the Mayor as he and Bromley work to slice up the public park in their Chinese takeaway deal.

Until the opening of London's Olympic Stadium, no other venue in Britain has ever managed to attract the crowds as Crystal Palace regularly did

Until the opening of London’s Olympic Stadium, no other venue in Britain has ever managed to attract the crowds as Crystal Palace regularly did

The stadium site has a long and glorious sporting heritage: from 1895 to 1914, Crystal Palace staged 21 FA Cup finals or replays, in 1913 having more than 120,000 spectators watching Aston Villa beat Sunderland; it also staged five England football internationals;  the original Crystal Palace stadium staged the first rugby union international between England and New Zealand; and WG Grace ran the London County Cricket Club on the site for five years at the turn of the 20th century.

The new owners of Crystal Palace football club and those behind Tottenham have both taken a look at moving on to the site in the past couple of years, but they quietly abandoned the notion – possibly as soon as they had talks with Boris’s staff at the GLA.

The Greater London Authority last week revealed its proposals, describing the stadium as “underused and in poor condition”. According to the GLA, “The new plans aim to unlock the future potential of the site and restore it as a first-class community asset.” A decision will be announced early in 2015 – many suspect the decision has already been determined – and work could start from 2016.

Nothing substantial is planned for the sports centre building, where one of Britain’s few Olympic-sized pools is to be found. This is probably because this 1960s temple to concrete and glass is Grade II-listed, so they can’t really touch it. But the stadium area has been ear-marked by Boris and Bromley as the site of a two-form entry primary school and a college.

The Grade II-listed main sports centre and swimming pool at Crystal Palace

The Grade II-listed main sports centre and swimming pool at Crystal Palace

Stephen Carr, the leader of Bromley Council – and someone who is well- acquainted with Croydon Tories’ front bench – let slip what this is really all about when he said, “Although these proposals are separate from the proposal to rebuild the Crystal Palace and restore the park, they complement and naturally sit alongside the ZhongRong Group proposal.” Yeah, of course…

Carr said that negotiations with Chinese buyers ZhongRong “are continuing and need to remain confidential for now”.

A public exhibition has opened in the entrance hall of the sports hall today, and will run until October 27. Consultation sessions will be staged there on October 16 and October 18.

While there remains a chance that the track might be retained as a training facility, the importance of the stadium and indoor area as a regional training centre appears to have been overlooked by the GLA proposals, which have caused fury among some local athletics coaches. “While the Olympic Park has provided a new facility for major competition, the weekly training needs of local athletes also need to be considered,” Bob Smith, the London area manager for England Athletics, said.

South Norwood-based athletes’ agent and former international athlete John Bicourt was less circumspect. “So much for the Olympic legacy promised by Coe and Jowell ‘for our future generations of young athletes’,” Bicourt said.

“It really is a disgrace.”

According to Palace-based coach John Powell, last week, when he spoke to an official of the South of England Athletics Association – which has its offices in the stadium’s Jubilee Stand – “the news came as a complete shock to them”.

Last year, Powell was awarded the MBE to recognise his three decades as a coach. He says he is lobbying Lord Coe, who is now the chairman of the British Olympic Association. “The impact on south London, where there is a wealth of sporting talent, will be disastrous,” Powell said.

“I do sympathise with local management  – I am sure if they had been given the financial backing to invest in and market the athletics side of their business there they probably would have done. Instead, the place has been left to rot.”

Powell describes Boris’s plans for Crystal Palace as “…  one of the greatest threats to the progress of sport in London and the UK in modern times”.

Powell said, “These plans must be stopped.”

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4 Responses to Boris’s plans for Crystal Palace are branded as ‘disastrous’

  1. davidcallam says:

    BBC London’s coverage of this story, largely lifted from a Boris press release, I suspect, paints a pretty drab picture of the athletics facilities.

    Do we need them any longer? And if so, who should pay for them?

    The present sports centre is a blot on the park landscape. The swimming pool is a real carbuncle: I’m not surprised some fool has listed it. I can’t imagine it would be possible to design an uglier or more inappropriate building for any location, let alone in the middle of such an attractive public open space. I understand the pool doesn’t work technically, with serious condensation problems that are steadily destroying the fabric of the building.

    The BBC says there are four proposals for the athletics stadium, but gives no detail of any of them. I would support a proposal to return that part of the park to grassland with the provision of modern sports facilities elsewhere – if we can agree the money to build them and to maintain them properly over their whole working life.

  2. whitgiftavenue says:

    One of the drivers behind these proposals would appear to be protecting the Olympic Park and ensuring its importance as an Olympic legacy.

    Much of what is being proposed appears to clash with the park improvements the GLA is funding.

    The proposal for the free school on the site is the result of some energetic lobbying. But it is causing a lot of angst locally among schools who had no idea the land was available for education purposes. There was talk of a sports academy being put there. This at least would have supported/safeguarded existing facilities.

    But there are huge problems with siting any school there, ‘safeguarding’ issues not being the least of them. Many schools without playing fields or sports facilities use the track and its loss will hit them hard.

  3. Architecture is very much a matter of taste, and as regards the swimming pool, David & I will have to agree to disagree. I personally find the sports centre building rather beautiful, albeit in need of some TLC – especially on the inside, the concrete ribs remind me of the skeleton of some gigantic beast.

    More worrying though is the plan to revamp the front of the centre by demolishing the teaching pool outbuilding. While that one has no redeeming features architecturally, it is popular and heavily used – well in excess of 50 children an hour using it at weekends, when the 50m adult pool, baby pool and diving pool are all being used as well. During the week, it’s used by schools (mostly LB Lambeth), while adults use the Olympic pool.

    With the overall intensifying of development in the area, reducing the overall availability of sports facilities in general & swimming facilities in particular is clearly a wrong move. Even if that specific building goes, we need to keep four pools (babies, kids, adults/50m, and diving).

  4. The Horse says:

    Don’t let Boris sell off our park!

    If the Chinese deal and this school go ahead, that’s a good third of Crystal Palace Park that will have gone from public to private land. The athletics facility is underused but could be a really nice stadium, and getting rid completely undermines the needs of local people to have first-class training facilities.

    I’m also of the persuasion that the NSC is a beautiful building, especially inside. Together, both of these facilities are major reasons why we live in the area. I feel so lucky that my children can sample swimming, diving, climbing, hockey, squash and even beach volleyball on their doorstep. Boris Johnson and Bromley council will never get this because I’m afraid they govern for their wealthy cronies rather than the majority.

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