Two years of secret meetings for world’s largest ‘glass-house’

The Mayor of London’s office first discussed “the exciting Crystal Palace glass-house proposal” with representatives of China’s ZhongRong Group more than two years before Boris Johnson announced the £500 million scheme from the steps of Paxton’s terracing in October 2013.

London Mayor Boris Johnson with Chinese industrialist Ni Zhaoxing on the steps of Paxton's original Crystal Palace in October 2013. Talks had already been going on over the scheme in secret for two years

London Mayor Boris Johnson with Chinese industrialist Ni Zhaoxing on the steps of Paxton’s original Crystal Palace in October 2013. Talks had already been going on about the scheme in secret for two years

And those early discussions included meetings with architects and wealthy Tory Party donors, to look at proposals to build a gargantuan edifice with 2million square metres of floor space. That would work out as being  more than 10 times bigger than Westfield Stratford.

The replica Crystal Palace was to include a luxury 6-star hotel and vast amounts of exhibition and retailing space, plus car parking for 1,800 vehicles. And all to be developed in a Grade II-listed public park which has Metropolitan Open Land – that is, the same as Green Belt – status.

The details have been discovered as the result of a Freedom of Information request, in Greater London Authority documents seen by Inside Croydon.

The ZhongRong Group’s exclusivity agreement to conduct the development expired on Sunday, as we reported here. Bromley Council, which is the planning authority responsible for the site, has made suitably emollient noises about keeping discussions open with the Chinese industrialists.

The documents also confirm that the GLA’s controversial consultation on the demolition of the athletics stadium at the National Sports Centre was linked to the proposals for the park’s “top site”.

GLA officials, lawyers working for Lord Coe and politicians at Bromley Council have tried to suggest, without much success, that clearing the park of the athletics stadium and building a service road was nothing to do with the Chinese industrialist’s glass palace at the top of the south London park.

But papers from 2012 show that this was always a consideration. An email from Boris’s deputy, Richard “Dick” Blakeway, to a ZhongRong official as recently as last October, openly talks about the proposals in the consultation being “complementary” to the Chinese company’s plans.

Lord Coe and Lady Xuelin Bates, one of the named sponsors of the ZhongRong Palace scheme, pictured at the 2012 Olympics. Lady Bates had been discussing plans for the Palace with the GLA since 2011

Lord Coe and Lady Xuelin Bates, one of the named sponsors of the ZhongRong Palace scheme, pictured together at the 2012 Olympics. Lady Bates had been in discussions with the GLA since 2011

If ZhongRong does not now progress its scheme in Crystal Palace, this may yet have an impact on any decision on the future for the facilities for the National Sports Centre.

The consultation was conducted last year by a company of which Sebastian Coe, the double Olympic champion runner and former head of the London Olympic organising committee, is the £2 million-per-year chairman.

The consultation offered four options for the athletics stadium: all four suggested complete demolition of the spectator stands around the stadium; two retained a track for club and community use; and all options included a service road that carved through the park, potentially for the use of buildings on the top site.

The Greater London Authority was expected to publish its consultation report on the National Sports Centre “early” this year.

The FoI request was conducted by journalists at Channel 4 News. The request prompted officials working for the London Mayor to admit that information they had previously provided, regarding the role in discussions of Lady Xuelin Bates (also known as Xuelin Black), had been inaccurate.

Lady Bates is a Conservative Party donor, married to Tory peer Lord Bates,who is a junior Home Office minister in the ConDem government. She was named as a London-based “sponsor” for China’s ZhongRong Group in discussion documents with Bromley Council. Since 2010, Xuelin Black/Bates has donated at least £160,000 to the Conservative Party.

Having previously indicated that Lady Bates had not attended any meetings regarding the Crystal Palace scheme, City Hall’s “information guidance officer” has been forced to concede: “We have again reviewed our records and found that Xuelin Black was a guest at a formal dinner in Shanghai on 23 September 2011 at which representatives of the GLA, the London Development Agency, and London and Partners were present.”

The original Crystal Palace: proving very difficult to replace

The original Crystal Palace: proving very difficult to replace

They have also provided a “technical planning advice note”, PDU/1295b, dated November 16, 2012, which minutes a meeting held on October 30 that year, attended on behalf of “The Applicant” by Xuelin Bates, who it describes as “architect and developer representing ZhongRong Group”, together with Lord Bates “(her husband)”.

The advice note was sent to Ni Zhaoxing, one of China’s richest men and the head of the  ZhongRong Group, on November 22, 2012, with a covering letter from Boris Johnson himself. In his email, the Mayor writes about being “keen to see progress” with what he calls “the exciting Crystal Palace glass-house proposal”.

The minutes of the meeting demonstrate that City Hall was effectively on both sides of the negotiating table at the same time, with five officials, including deputy mayor Blakeway, appearing for the London authority, and the Bateses accompanied by Jeff Cao, of London and Partners. London and Partners is City Hall’s own, official business promotion company, funded by the GLA.

The report reveals that Mayor Johnson’s GLA expected ZhongRong to make a “substantial contribution” to the cost of building Tramlink’s oft-promised Crystal Palace extension, which would have provided a link from the railway station at the bottom of Anerley Hill to the “glass-house”. It was in early 2012 – ahead of the Mayoral elections, funnily enough – that Johnson last made his pledge to build the tram extension, the plans for which he’d axed in 2008.

Boris Johnson's very visible promise to deliver the Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace. Three years later, there is no cash for the scheme and no feasibility study

Boris Johnson’s very visible promise to deliver the Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace. Did he expect ZhongRong to pay for it?

The November 2012 report said: “The principle of recreating the Great Exhibition glasshouses on their original site is strongly supported in terms of supporting London’s World City role and achieving the exceptional strategic development of Crystal Palace as a major destination.”

It continued: “… discussion is encouraged early on to ensure that a robust case can be demonstrated on the very special circumstances arguments [sic] for the scale and uses proposed, particularly the retail/shopping elements, hotel and leisure uses as well as the transport impacts of the proposal.”

And the report makes a clear link with the athletics stadium and sports facilities, which it says “…significantly detract from the quality of the park”, and refers to “…the problems they cause”. Which may explain why, under the guise of a “separate” consultation, the GLA was apparently so keen to see the stadium and track bulldozed.

“Of course they are valued features in their own right, but nevertheless do not fit well with the rest of the Park,” the report’s author judges, as further justification.

The GLA’s work on trying to deliver the latest vanity project for Boris Johnson may yet come to nowt. But if ZhongRong revives its interest, perhaps other factors might be properly considered, including the Metropolitan Open Land status of the parkland, the roads and transport issues it might create, the interests of other developers nearby, including Croydon’s Hammersfield, and the demand for top-quality sporting facilities for the existing community.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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