Jowell criticises Boris plan to ‘rip up iconic athletics track’

Tessa Jowell, the former Olympics Minister, has joined the campaign to keep viable athletics and sports facilities at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, in a submission to the Greater London Authority’s consultation which is highly critical of the way London Mayor Boris Johnson has approached the centre’s future.

Dame Tessa Jowell: deeply underwhelmed by Mayor Boris Johnson's Palace proposals

Dame Tessa Jowell: deeply underwhelmed by Mayor Boris Johnson’s Palace proposals

“Ripping up an iconic athletics track seems a strange way of preserving our Olympic legacy at Crystal Palace,” Dame Tessa, who is the Labour MP for Dulwich, the Southwark constituency which borders the Crystal Palace area, told the BBC.

Jowell’s intervention may be seen as the first shot in a bid for selection as Labour’s candidate for London Mayor in 2016. She is due to stand down from Parliament in May.

Jowell worked with Sebastian Coe and the Olympic bid team to bring the Games to London in 2012.

The controversial Crystal Palace NSC consultation closed at the weekend. It had been run on behalf of the GLA by CSM Strategic, whose executive chairman is Lord Coe. Light on real detail, the CSM consultation offered just four options for the future of the NSC, two of which proposed the complete demolition and clearance of the athletics stadium, and none of which included any provision for an indoor training area.

Lord Coe and Lady Xuelin Bates, one of the named sponsors of the ZhongRong Palace scheme

Lord Coe and Lady Xuelin Bates, one of the named sponsors of the ZhongRong Palace scheme

Other shortcomings with the sporting infrastructure under the consultation’s options – from rendering the current diving pool useless for high board practice and competition, to the loss of the teaching pool and gymnastics training areas – have also come to light, as various groups of residents, businesses and NSC users from a wide range of sports have coalesced in their criticism.

Most groups have seen through the consultation as a means for Boris Johnson to deliver another chunk of the Grade II-listed Crystal Palace Park into the interests of the ZhongRong Group, the Chinese company which has proposed to build a replica of the Crystal Palace at the park’s top site.

The mishandled consultation has seen Lord Coe accused of “world-class hypocrisy” for his company’s involvement in a scheme which utterly undermines previous promises of an Olympic legacy for London. The consultation has created an unusual coalition opposed to the schemes, which includes Tory-run Bromley Council, a group behind a Free School which is included in all four options, and now senior Labour MP Jowell.

It is understood that Jowell intervened to get the consultation period extended. In her submission to the GLA for the consultation, she questioned the factual basis of many of the consultation’s arguments for removing the sports facilities from the NSC site. “There is widespread concern over data used to inform the options,” Jowell wrote. “I have made my views known formally but I think more time is needed for alternative options to be explored.

“It is, in my view, absolutely critical that the integrity of Crystal Palace Sports Centre, which is both iconic and continues to be used by many community groups in the area, is maintained, and that means retaining the running track but most particularly retaining a warm-up track which, were it to be removed, would significantly limit the sort of events and activities that could take place at the centre.”

One small snag with that: Crystal Palace does not have, nor has it ever had, a warm-up track. Nor is it likely ever again to stage international track and field events.

Stadiums hosting international athletics championships, such as world or European championships, are expected to provide a full-size, 400-metre warm-up track outside the main stadium. With the availability of the London Olympic Stadium, there is no chance that Crystal Palace will ever be used as a championship venue (although it might be the perfect, smaller scale venue for a world or European junior championships; that, though, would require imagination among officials at UK Athletics, not a quality the national governing body is known for).

We think Jowell may have meant to highlight the need to maintain an indoor training area.

Read the Tessa Jowell Crystal Palace NSC submission here.

Perhaps most surprising among the various official submissions to the consultation is that from the Crystal Palace Primary School, or CPPS. This Free School is included in all four options for the NSC site – but apparently much to their discomfort.

Despite the Free School's website featuring several pictures of pupils in their uniform around the NSC and park, the chair of governors expressed surprise that their scheme was included in the consultation

Despite the Free School’s website featuring several pictures of pupils in their uniform around the NSC and park, the chair of governors expressed surprise that their scheme was included in the consultation

With local groups already suspicious about the Free School, it seems that CPPS’s “favoured status” in the consultation has undermined their position further.

The Free School is planning to open its gates in September 2015, although it as yet has no buildings, no head teacher nor, it seems from their own website, any governors. Indeed, apart from one or two local teachers, the identity of who is the driving force behind the Crystal Palace Free School remains a mystery.

And then came the NSC consultation, with the school featuring prominently in the middle of the park. So might the driving force be someone of influence, perhaps?

Whoever it might be, the NSC consultation has not done the school any favours. “We feel that the current illustrative proposals relating to the school present an erroneous picture,” Margaret Peacock, the chair of governors, wrote. “They have not been developed with any input from ourselves and include facilities – for example a playing field – which would simply not be required for a primary school.”


Bromley Council prefers a secondary school sports academy to be sited at the margins of the park. Yet even the CPPS reckons that their school ought not be built in the park at the expense of sports facilities, as the consultation proposed: “We fundamentally support the retention of all current sporting uses at the NSC,” Peacock wrote.

“We feel this is vital to the development of local elite athletes, as well as a much valued resource to promote sport within schools and for amateur sportsmen and women across the south London community.”

So back to the drawing board for Lord Coe’s company and ZhongRong’s biggest friend, Boris Johnson?

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