Freedom! Are Crystal Palace residents ready for breakaway?

The week-long Crystal Palace Festival gets underway tomorrow with a weekend of music and dance in the park. But because of the local borough geography, the organisers and other groups have to deal with five, even six, local authorities, which is regarded as a burden, not a benefit, as our Upper Norwood correspondent, JOE PAXTON, reports

The sphinxes and TV tower are symbols of modern Crystal Palace. But who is responsible for them?

“We are at the edge of everything and the heart of nowhere.”

That’s the view of one leading community organiser in Crystal Palace, who has struggled to work their way through the maze of Town Hall bureaucracy to access help and funding for one of the biggest, and most admired, cultural events which goes on in Croydon.

Crystal Palace is at the confluence of five different local authorities, and that is beginning to take its toll on community groups who increasingly find themselves having to cope with the differing and often conflicting demands of the handful of councils.

That area of Crystal Palace, roughly the SE19 postcode zone, sees five boroughs’ boundaries converge at the top of the hill, with Croydon and Bromley to the south, Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham from the north. Add in the influence of the GLA for good measure, and you have what has become an increasing headache for anyone with community activities to organise.

Upper Norwood Library was run and funded jointly by Lambeth and Croydon for more than a century, but because of its unique model, it managed to get short-changed by both councils as austerity bit. It has, though, never received a penny in grants from Southwark, Bromley or Lewisham, even though some of their residents have made use of its facilities as their “local” public library.

As one Crystal Palace community activist put it this week: “It can feel that we’re not really Croydon – that’s Croydon Central. We’re not really Lambeth, that’s more towards Brixton. We’re not really Lewisham, Bromley or Southwark.

“And all of these big boroughs have much bigger fish to fry and bigger issues to deal with.”

Ahead of this year’s Crystal Palace Festival, which gets underway in Crystal Palace Park (Bromley) tomorrow, the complications of seeking funding and satisfying Town Hall bureaucrats from the five boroughs has prompted some to ponder something of a breakaway, a sort of Passport To Pimlico for SE19.

Five boroughs, five wards, one postcode. It can be a headache for anyone wishing to organise something in Crystal Palace

“I can’t think of any practical advantages for being the place where five boroughs meet,” Noreen Meehan said.

“As director of the Crystal Palace Festival which spans three of the boroughs with our events programme and all five in terms of visitors and has attracted up to 30,000 in one year, we are not considered to be at the heart of any local authority’s plans or strategies because they cannot claim the whole event in their borough.

“So, for example, despite one-third of our visitors or beneficiaries coming from Croydon to our park event, which is in Bromley, Croydon cannot fund it as they would not be able to report on the funding with regards to residents of Croydon.

Noreen Meehan: Croydon Council provides ‘small pots of money’ which must be spent within the borough

“We do get small pots of funding from Croydon and Bromley, but those pots must be spent within those boroughs.

“We are at the edge of everything and the heart of nowhere.”

A large chunk of the area is served by a Croydon Council ward – the recently renamed Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood ward, which has three Labour councillors – and the Croydon North parliamentary constituency of Steve Reed OBE.

Yet while Croydon Town Hall is always plenty keen to associate itself with all things “Crystal Palace” when it involves the football club down the hill at Selhurst Park, they are often less forthcoming when considering the needs of those living closer to the former site of what was once regarded as the eighth wonder of the world, and which gave the area its name.

According to another community activist, “In general terms it seems it would make sense if Crystal Palace was treated as an area with one identity by the boroughs – some of the strange things are when you get funding for CP activities you’re often supposed to prove that it’s only a particular borough’s residents, which is completely impractical.

“All of these big boroughs have much bigger fish to fry and bigger issues to deal with. Some of that is fair enough, but it can leave to a feeling of being out on your own.

“We are perceived as being a more affluent part of each borough – that’s not 100 per cent true but when weighed against more deprived areas, we’ll often be down the pecking order. That, of course, is absolutely fair enough, but can make you wonder are we even on the radar – there is deprivation and other issues here too.

“There are some good examples of cross-border linkups, but it would make sense for Crystal Palace to have more autonomy.”

The free Crystal Palace Festival starts in the park this weekend

It isn’t just managing to work out which side of the borough boundary you are standing when engaging with councils that gets complicated when you get to the roundabout at the top of Anerley Hill, either.

“Policing is a real concern, I had some weird experiences in trying to talk to police and it depended which side of Central Hill I was referring to. There didn’t seem to be enough communication.”

Some feel that this lack of sense of belonging to any particular borough has encouraged groups in Crystal Palace to just “get on with things”. The Crystal Palace Food Market, the Library of Things at Upper Norwood Library and the vibrant Crystal Palace Transition Town group (which is involved in both the former projects) are just some examples of that approach.

But there is a sense of a need for the local authorities to have a better grasp and ability to deal with the residents living around the top of one of south London’s tallest hills.

As the activist said, “A good way forward would be to have some sort of mechanism that means if you apply for something or talk to some body as ‘Crystal Palace’, it is accepted that it will be a five-borough project and that’s actually a good thing rather than something to be nervous about.”

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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
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1 Response to Freedom! Are Crystal Palace residents ready for breakaway?

  1. Lewis White says:

    Most borough councils have “Boundary Road highway maintenance agreements” which allow for one borough to look after the highway (the road and footways on both sides) where one side of a road is in one borough, and the other side in the adjacent borough. Under such arrangements, which date back decades, there is probably a “swings and roundabouts” balance whereby each borough has roughly the same area of “boundary road” to look after as the ones it is paired up with. They work pretty well.

    It sounds like the boroughs need to get together to agree to make life easier for the residents of Crystal palace to organise things like parades which might go from one borough’s area to the next and the next and the next, or street parties which would shut streets . Such things tend to need some form of licence- each borough has a team that deals with skip licences, licences for tables and chairs on the footway , filming, etc etc.

    The residents would then have one council’s licencing team to deal with, who would collect the fees for each council, and would deal with road closures etc. and TfL if applicable.. One team could collect the fees, and divvy it out between the boroughs. They could take a bigger fee for their trouble.

    A simple line round a map would be easy to plot on each Council’s GIS (geographical information system), and the map could be placed on their websites.

    Co-operation between each borough … should not the London Mayor take the initiative to knock heads together?

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