It has been a momentous week for the upkeep and improvement of one of the capital’s under-appreciated gems, writes MARTIN TEMPIA
When a former head of planning at the London Borough of Bromley described Crystal Palace Park as the “unloved stepdaughter of London parks, who never gets her fair share of the sweeties”, he had a point.
People may argue with “unloved”, but no one can deny that compared to many of London’s Parks, Crystal Palace has been starved of funds for decades.
The park was “gifted” to Bromley following the demise of the GLC in 1986. It was a “gift” Bromley didn’t particularly want and could well have done without.
The demands of a listed 200-acre public park, with a diverse range of landscapes, a host of listed heritage assets (including the Grade I-listed dinosaur statues) and a 1960s sports arena, slap bang in the centre of it, was beyond the means of any one London borough to manage, let alone maintain or improve.
It’s no surprise that the park came to be seen as a “problem” for Bromley. In the absence of public funds, commercial redevelopment was seen as a way of providing the means necessary for the park’s restoration. The downside was that such plans usually entailed covering one-third of the park in concrete.
In the 1970s, Tesco had come forward with plans to build a superstore on the upper terrace, the remains of the original Crystal Palace, around which the park had been set, but which burned down in 1936.
In the late 1980s, the Kuwait National Investment Company proposed building a hotel and leisure centre, complete with cinema and bowling alley, on the site. Come the ’90s, and there was the “Multiplex” proposal, a three-storey concrete slab, housing bars, a cinema, parking for a thousand cars on the roof and yes, a bowling alley.
More recently there was the £500million proposal from China’s ZhongRong Corporation to rebuild the Crystal Palace. No bowling alley this time, instead a six-star (yes, six) hotel and an international gemstone trading centre.
Anyone unfamiliar with this proposal and how it came about should look through Inside Croydon’s archive. Thanks to some remarkable investigative journalism by iC, the whole ludicrous pantomime was laid bare. One GLA officer, in an unguarded moment, described it as the then London Mayor Boris Johnson’s “Pharaonic” legacy for London.
Apart from wasting two and a half years and costing the park £5million in a lost Heritage Lottery grant, nothing came of it. Equally unsurprising, the Mayor’s “Plan B” never materialised.
It was at this point that the community stepped in and convinced Bromley that the park should be handed over to a community-based Trust. This they did, as well as agreeing to fund a regeneration plan which would become a template for the Trust to take over management of the park and fund its restoration. One of the factors which convinced Bromley to take this step was the impressive work being undertaken by community organisations in the park, including running projects and raising funds.
The Crystal Palace Park Trust was established in 2016. Since then, progress towards it taking control of the park has been something of a roller coaster ride.
But last week saw a tsunami of good news.
First, the Trust agreed a three-year contract with the promoters Festival Republic to stage music events on the Italian Terraces. Negotiations with a second promoter to stage a series of summer proms in the Concert Bowl are close to agreement. With a mantra “what is earned in the park, stays in the park”, the revenue from these events will enable the Trust to start a programme of improvements, including the restoration of the concert platform.
Secondly, Bromley have agreed to start the long and complex legal process of handing over the park to the Trust. Last Tuesday, the Charity Commission granted the Trust charitable status. And finally, on Tuesday evening, the trustees unanimously agreed to appoint Val Shawcross as the new chair of the Trust.
As a former leader of Croydon Council, a GLA member for 16 years and a deputy mayor to Sadiq Khan, Shawcross brings a huge amount of credibility and expertise to the Trust. During Ken Livingstone’s Mayoral administration, she had special responsibility for the park. She lives in the area, uses the park regularly and cares passionately about its future.
Her contribution to date as a trustee has been significant.
Apart form unlocking doors previously closed to the Trust, she has laid the administrative foundations for the sound governance of both the Trust and ultimately the park.
Over the coming months she will lead the Trust in appointing a park management team, prioritise improvement projects and preparing for the incremental take over of responsibilities, such as park maintenance, by the Trust. Of particular importance will be overseeing the progress of the Outline Planning Application for the park’s regeneration which, when approved, will also provide the capital funds needed to start the restoration of the park’s heritage assets.
After years of neglect and many false starts, Crystal Palace Park is inching towards the secure and sustainable future it deserves. Issues of funding, management and governance are slowly drifting into alignment and there is now a real belief that we have an achievable plan that guarantees the Park’s future.
There are bound to be setbacks as things move forward, but it looks as though the “unloved stepdaughter” may soon get the sweeties she has been so patiently waiting for and so richly deserves. And about time too.
- Martin Tempia is a trustee of the Crystal Palace Park Trust, and the immediate part co-chair. For more information about the Trust, visit its website here.
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