EXCLUSIVE: Val Shawcross, the former leader of Croydon Council and Deputy Mayor of London, spoke to CLARA MURRAY about her new role as chair of the Crystal Palace Park Trust and the excitement over their latest projects
Crystal Palace Park has featured prominently throughout Val Shawcross’s throughout her 30-year political career.
As a Croydon councillor in the late 1990s, she opposed a regeneration project which would have brought an enormous multiplex cinema to the top of the park.
Shawcross was elected to the London Assembly in 2000. Ken Livingstone – who would later select her as his running mate for the 2012 Mayoral election – tasked her with a big-budget master plan for the park’s restoration.
That project was put on ice when Boris Johnson once took over City Hall.
Johnson tried to sell part of the park to ZhongRong Group, a Chinese developer that wanted to build a huge luxury hotel on the site of the former Crystal Palace. Shawcross did “a lot of lobbying” as part of a vehement community campaign against the development, which would have been 10 times bigger than Westfield Stratford.
So by the time she was asked to join the park’s trustees last year, nearly three years after retiring from her post as Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport, Shawcross laughs that she was “reasonably well known in the area”.
Two weeks ago, she was appointed chair of the Crystal Palace Park Trust, to bring her political expertise and credibility to its governance. At the same time, the Trust was granted charitable status. Over the coming years, the Trust will take over the running of the park from Bromley Council, managing maintenance and events.
Why would a local authority hand over such a valuable community asset to a volunteer-led group?
The answer lies in the historic creation and development of the park, with its many fascinating facets. The park was, of course, laid out at the foot of the terraces that led to the Crystal Palace, once the home of the 1851 Great Exhibition, after it was transplanted to the Sydenham heights. The pleasure garden-type park became a firm favourite of Victorian Londoners, including the Queen herself.
There were the lakes, and the dinosaurs, a maze, while parts of the park were given over to major sporting events, including huge crowds attending FA Cup finals, rugby union internationals, and providing a home for WG Grace’s London cricket club.
But after the fire that destroyed the palace itself, and in the years after the Second World War, the responsibility for the park passed through different bodies, from the LCC, to the Greater London Council, reflecting the park’s London-wide status and importance.
The park, after all, sits close to the boundaries of five south London boroughs, including, of course, Croydon. But with the abolition of the GLC in 1986, control of the park was given to a single borough, Bromley.
While Bromley Council has taken on over various projects around the park, Shawcross says there was a feeling the park is “too big and complex” and needed more focused attention to fix the “huge conservation deficit”. Bromley’s masterplan for the park, published in 2010, was never implemented.
The Trust now aims to oversee a multi-million-pound regeneration which is going through the planning process from Bromley and up to the GLA.
But as Shawcross says, the Trust “can’t go from 0-100” – first, they need to recruit staff, prioritise projects and manage the handover process from the council.
The first project under Shawcross’ leadership will be to refurbish the Concert Bowl – described by one rock star who has played there, Rick Wakeman, as “magical”, but like so much else, neglected and underused.
The Concert Bowl area had staged music events since the late 1960s and early 1970s and has hosted the likes of Bob Marley, Lou Reed and the London Symphony Orchestra. . The stage area, sometimes known as the “rusty laptop”, was built in 1996 but soon fell into disrepair and has been mostly unused for the past decade.
The repair project has been underway for the past couple of years, kicked off by a group of volunteers who carried out initial surveys and spoke to architects.
“People put loads of time in, they made themselves experts in all sorts of topics,” Shawcross said. “People who’ve just really learned to love the technology of the stage, who don’t do that in their day job, but have really put themselves into it.”
The surveys found the stage surface was unsafe and would need to be replaced, at a cost of around £50,000. The Trust has pledged £10,000 of its own money and last weekend it launched a crowdfunder. Make London, the Mayor of London’s crowdfunding support scheme, will match money raised. Donations of any size will help. “What the Mayor wants to see is how much support there is in the community,” Shawcross said.
Of that, there seems little doubt. By this morning, donations had already reached nearly £20,000 – one-third of the target in just a couple of days.
Repair works should be completed this summer, meaning music and community events could begin at the Concert Bowl in September 2021.
“We hope to be able to bring events of different types back into the Concert Bowl, community events as well,” Shawcross said.
“I know a lot of people have happy memories of going to concerts and events in the park in the summer. I certainly can remember going to listen to summer proms in the park.”
Outside the Bowl, promoters Festival Republic have signed up to run a festival across two consecutive weekends in the park this July – covid-permitting. Shawcross says the Trust will ensure a “good balance” is struck between the park as a quiet green space, and the scope to have “big, profitable events” to raise much-needed funds. It’s a tension being navigated all across London, most recently in Secret Cinema’s controversial proposals for a Waltham Forest park.
Meanwhile, private development is still on the horizon.
Bromley Council initiated the project, but a share of the profits will be given to the Trust and “ploughed into” serious restoration work.
It’s clear future development will not be in the Boris Johnson model. The Trust wants all future park regeneration projects to be community-led.
One priority is to improve the facilities for children in the park. “The trustees felt very strongly that children have really suffered badly in the pandemic,” Shawcross said.
“It hit home that all of us have got to do something to try and help this generation of schoolchildren catch up, enjoy life and get exposed to good cultural experiences and ecology in the park.
“We’re just starting work on what we could do, by talking to schools and people from around the area.”
Longer-term, Shawcross is excited by the potential to build on the work of various “really fantastic” community groups through a more centralised structure.
“The park Trust is really part of an alliance of voluntary groups of people who’ve been working on different bits of the park over the years, with the support of Bromley, to try and keep this complex park afloat… There’s a huge volunteer community effort that’s been going into the park for years.”
Those groups include Friends of Crystal Palace Subway, who are working to preserve the cavernous Victorian access hall which used to link the palace to its very own railway station.
Another group successfully lobbied for better facilities for the up to 400 people of all ages who use the skatepark every day. Meanwhile, the Friends of Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs are working to conserve the “at risk” 19th-century statues.
For Shawcross, the dinosaurs are one of the many things which make the park so important.
“It was quite an interesting moment in science history for those dinosaurs to have been put up. They weren’t just there for entertainment. They were there for education – so they’re worth preserving not just in their own right as artistic creations, but because they are hugely important in the history of this country.”
Shawcross lives close to the park and often visits with her young nephews. Her voice lights up when she talks about birdwatching in the north side of the park, or seeing toddlers gleefully jump in every puddle along the path.
“I’m really glad I’ve taken on the role,” she said.
“When I retired two years ago, I didn’t take on too much to begin with… There are lots of trusts and charities around, but some of them don’t really need much input. But this is a really interesting role where I can make a big difference. And I would love to see the park turn the corner and increasingly become a more peaceful and better place to be.”
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