There’s a public consultation underway to try to resolve the future of the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace. And it’s déjà vu all over again.
Poor publicity for the process run by a bunch of consultants, a reluctant attitude from the centre’s (outsourced) management to engage or help to promote involvement in the drop-in sessions and focus groups, and a former track star fronting the process.
And guess what? The Chinese billionaire who wanted Boris Johnson to hand over a chunk of a public park so he could build an out-sized shopping centre has popped up saying that he still wants to get something for nothing, all in the name of “regeneration”.
South London got a lucky escape when Tory Mayor Boris Johnson conducted the last consultation at Crystal Palace. Then he hired a firm run by Tory peer Seb Coe to deliver exactly the result that they wanted, all to justify Ni Zhaoxing being allowed to build a monstrous pastiche of Paxton’s original building.
The site for the grandiose Chinese Palace would have encroached on much of the park and required the demolition of the athletics stadium. Think Garden Bridge, or the Dangleway, or the Boris Bus: this could have been another Boris vanity project which would have ended up as a disaster, ultimately mainly at Londoners’ expense.
Only an intervention by the planning department of Bromley Council saved the day, when they saw through the misconceived scheme for the load of old cobblers that it clearly was.
But the essential problems presented by the National Sports Centre have not gone away. More than 50 years old, suffering from decades of disinvestment when the costs of maintaining the national-class facility had been foisted on to Bromley, and with the capital’s international athletics and swimming facilities now shifted to the Olympic Park, what are we to do with it?
The area around the stadium has a sporting history that stretches back more than a century, in which time it has staged FA Cup finals, multiple world records, the first All Blacks rugby international with England, first-class cricket, major concerts and even a visit from the Pope.
But it is the stadium which continues to vulnerable to redevelopment plans, not least because the current custodians of the NSC, the Greater London Authority, cannot do much at all with the next door building housing the swimming pool and sports hall.
That’s because that building, designed by the then LCC Architects Department under Sir Leslie Martin in the 1950s, is Grade II*-listed, an example of modern concrete design. The GLA has an obligation to maintain that building to a decent standard.
There’s no such obligation with the stadium and athletics track, nor the neighbouring indoor training area and outside courts. And with leaking roofs and crumbling concrete around the original stands, the centre’s users are told that the cost of repair or refurbishment is just too high.
The first of the poorly publicised series of consultation events was staged at the sports centre on Monday, when the world record-breaking former runner, Dave Moorcroft, fronted a focus group of athletics coaches, club officials and athletes to discuss the NSC’s long-term future.
Moorcroft was there for Neil Allen Associates, or NAA, the consultants appointed by the GLA to run the process. As well as being a Commonwealth and European medal-winning middle distance runner, Moorcroft had been a respected chief executive of UK Athletics for a decade.
During that time Moorcroft had worked closely with Coe, not only on helping with the success of the 2012 London Olympic bid, but on supporting his former track team-mate to rise through the sports hierarchy. Coe is now the president of the world athletics governing body.
Even into the 1990s, Crystal Palace remained Britain’s premier venue for track and field, staging national championships, the IAAF’s World Cup and Olympic trials. Moorcroft’s period in charge at UKA coincides with what Crystal Palace users regard as the stadium’s “managed decline”, as key events were moved away from south London, to the Midlands and Manchester.
According to those among the 50-or-so who did manage to find out about Monday’s event and attend, Moorcroft did a decent job of chairing the session. “It was as good a focus group is ever going to be,” one veteran coach told Inside Croydon. “But you do always wonder how much of what is said ends up being reflected and used in the consultants’ report.”
The core of the evening was to distil “realistic and affordable options” for the NSC’s future, and to create a “vision” (please try not to gag) for the centre. Topics covered included current usage, assessing what athletics facilities are needed now and in the future, and ideas to build and sustain usage.
Moorcroft laid out that the GLA had no intention of staging major international events at Crystal Palace in future – effectively consigning the venue to a training centre, something which would permit the demolition of the stands, if that is what the planners in City Hall want to do.
Presenting City Hall’s case, Moorcroft said, “The GLA now owns the site and have a commitment that doing nothing isn’t an option, so clearly the whole site GLA have to have a plan for, and that includes the sports facilities on site, and the non-sporting ones. I think we’re quite lucky as an athletics community in getting in quite early to talk about what we’d like to do.
“Part of the solution is to look in five to 10 years’ time to what we collectively leave behind for the likes of your children to inherit in the future.”
That the GLA wants to scale down the status of Crystal Palace was also evident when Moorcroft suggested that the venue could be operated by a traditional (volunteer-run) athletics club. The track and training hall is currently used by athletes from a range of clubs and training groups from across south-east England, and only last summer – after years of being almost forgotten by athletics officials – it staged the South of England Championships.
“The key to the future is a good integrated multi-sport solution, based on an athletics facility that would appeal to many sports and not just track and field,” said John Powell, the athletics coach who has worked with thousands of youngsters at the Palace over the past 40 years. Powell chairs the Crystal Palace Sports Partnership, the group which campaigned hard to stop Boris Johnson’s attempt to have the place bulldozed three years ago.
“We can’t have a stand-alone facility; it’s not a viable business solution. This also has to work alongside an improved management model and a robust marketing strategy for the whole centre, which has been completely absent for many years now.”
Powell and CPSP are wary of what may lie behind the current consultation.
Their petition calling for the maintenance of Crystal Palace as a venue capable of staging regional, national and even some international events, while providing year-round training facilities as a centre of excellence, has so fare attracted 12,000 signatures.
Still many questions remain, not least funding for whatever scheme is eventually proposed. “Many of us have heard this all before, with the last GLA review undertaken as recently as 2015 by CSM costing £75,000,” Powell said.
“Since then there have been repeated examples of seeing facilities rot and be neglected, part of years and years of steady managed decline.”
The latest example of that was flooding, again, in the indoor training area last week because of a leaking roof. Powell fears that if the scheme which emerges from the consultation determines that it is cheaper to bulldoze the indoor area, rather than repair or upgrade it, the death knell will sound for the Palace as a centre of excellence. “If the indoor track is lost it will eliminate track and field in Palace as a training place,” he said. “Who wants to train in a cold stadium in the thick of winter?”
At Monday’s meeting, there was no mention of the revival of interest from billionaire property developer Ni in China. That emerged the following day, while Prime Minister Theresa May was in Beijing, trying to drum up trade deals for a post-Brexit Britain.
In what was said to be his first interview since the Chinese Palace scheme collapsed, Ni was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “As soon as I saw the site I knew I wanted to build there . . . It is still my dream.”
Through his multi-national company Zhongrong, Ni’s previous scheme claimed it would spend £500million to build on the south London site and terracing of the original Crystal Palace. That vast building had housed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition in 1851, was moved, piece-by-piece, to south London, but in 1936 was destroyed by fire.
Of his plans, Ni told the FT: “I wanted to build the most magnificent building in the world there and the government welcomed its positive economic impacts. But some residents worried that I would put up fences and they wouldn’t be able to jog.”
But to “accommodate” Ni’s dream, Boris Johnson’s GLA was prepared to demolish the stadium and track to provide clearer lines of sight, and a service road, straight through what remains a public park.
So is Ni’s apparent renewed interest just coincidence, or is this really Groundhog Day for Crystal Palace NSC? When you start to hear consultants talking about “the vision thing”, it is hard not to suspect the latter.
“This is the start of the process,” smooched Patrick Dubeck, the GLA’s project lead, at Monday night’s meeting.
“It is the beginning of having conversations with people about what a vision looks like, what the future looks like… The problem is, we don’t know what funders, the Mayor even, are willing to invest, until we have a compelling vision to put forward for a future multi-sport centre might be.”
There are further “engagement” sessions (for which registration is required: click here)
Mon Feb 12 (7pm – 9pm) Aquatics and Outdoor Sports; and
Tue Feb 13 (7pm – 9pm) Indoor Sports
and a drop-in session at the NSC on Feb 23 from 10am to 8pm.
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