by Anna Minton, Estates Gazette 20 February 1999
Forget Swampy, hero of the roads protests. Make way for Storm, the mobile-phone wielding co-ordinator of the largest environmental protest to target commercial property.
The ecowarriors at Big Willow Eco Village - otherwise known as the Crystal Palace site of a proposed 2-screen multiplex and leisure box-are pulling no punches: "Screen 1 - Pollution and Murder, Screen 2 - Corruption and Greed" scream their banners.
The tree houses are built, the tunnels dug and the small community is already on eviction alert. At the first sign of action from landlord Bromley Council, a "Phone chain" will alert hundreds of supporters around the country who will converge on the site for battle with the local authorities. "We hope to get hundreds, but it could be a thousand" says Storm.
A world away, in the rarefied atmosphere of QC Anthony Scrivener's Gray's Inn Chambers, barrister and Bromley resident, Philip Kolvin, of "professional resistance" against the council.
Although the ecowarriors will attract the lion's share of publicity in the coming months, Kolvin's campaign, which has already delayed the scheme by 18 months and cost Bromley's preferred developer, London&Regional, more than £1m is sending a warning light to an industry hoping to follow governments direction and develop on city sites.
Possible House of Lords Support
Jim O'Donnell, project manager for L&R, who expects to build even as litigation continues, believes that the scheme, which has now received detailed permission will go ahead, but he accepts there is a risk that the Campaign will succeed.
And he adds that had he known at the outset what he knows now, he would have had second thoughts.
Worryingly for the industry, he believes that the "professional resistance" seen at Crystal Palace is not unique and will be replicated around the country. "We are going to see this again and again. It will be used to the detriment of progress, and the implication for property companies will be cost penalties and loss off interest," he says.
Crystal palace is used to controversy. It shouldered derision when Joseph Paxton's original glass house was relocated following the Great Exhibition of 1851. After it burnt down in 1936, the site fell to waste. By 1990, various schemes had foundered and an Act of Parliament was passed stating that any new building on the site must reflect the architectural style of the original.
Kolvin, Chairman of the Crystal Palace Campaign, has focused litigation that is going all the way to the House of Lords on just this point. In common with man other observers, including LPAC, the strategic planning body for London, the campaign is arguing that the proposed cinema and leisure complex, with its 950-space rooftop car park, does nor reflect the original.
In search of legal loopholes
As a planning barrister, Kolvin is well-placed to ferret out every loophole that could block the development. But with 1500 volunteers, working databases and a grid of area co-ordinators and street representatives spanning five London boroughs, it is clear that he is not the only force behind the campaign, which has already taken Bromley to the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
"We think that this is the biggest ever environmental campaign to marshal this level of professional resistance. We've got editors, IT people, professional fund-raisers, planners and traffic consultants. We've put together a body of professional people and found ourselves with the expertise of a local authority." Kolvin says.
On top of massive local support - one elderly resident pledged £20,000 at a public meeting - the legal campaign is fronted by barrister Michael Ford ham, currently acting against Pinochet, and solicitors Leigh Day & Co, better known for their campaigns to win compensation for Japanese prisoners of war.
Next week, Leigh Day will be in the Court of Appeal again, this time representing the Alliance Against the Birmingham Northern Relief Road. "My job is to shake up complacent public bodies which make decisions people don't like," says partner Richard Stein, referring to Bromley as well as Birmingham.
But local donations, however generous, would hardly be enough to finance such a high-profile legal team and here Kolvin reveals his trump card: the campaign has been underwritten by an insurance company.
"A number of insurance companies are operating in the field of judicial review and one of them was prepared to underwrite a sum relating to our costs, therefore we can afford to take a lot of legal action.," he says.
And just in case the legal thrust isn't enough, the campaign is also targeting potential occupiers of the site. Last week, letters landed on the desks of cinema operators from Virgin to UCI, making it clear that, should the scheme go ahead, the protest, ranging from a local boycott to demonstrations outside operator headquarters, will continue.
Not surprisingly, the strength of feeling has affected L&R, set to pay Bromley £6m for the site. Though still committed to the £58m scheme, O'Donnell says: "It's been a very painful process for all sides. The campaigners are professional, they are thoughtful and they do have legal counsel."
Judicial Review costs L&R £1 m
So far, L&R has lost more than £1m as a result of the judicial review, which held up the granting of detailed permission. Initially the scheme was supposed to be completed by March 2000. Now O'Donnell hopes to be on site by September, presuming the council evictions go according to plan.
The environmentalists are not the only ones resorting to professionals to fight their cause. Developers and local authorities are increasingly employing planning lobbyists to ensure that controversial applications have the best chance of success,.
For a sector that hardly existed a few years ago, planning lobbying - presuming it escapes the taint of its Westminster cousin - is clearly a growth area. "We're getting more work every year as sites get harder and harder to develop and the opposition becomes more sophisticated," says Janny Marshall, planning lobbyist with Camargue.
Stuart Robinson, planning partner with consultants Hillier Parker, has also found his clients increasingly concerned about local reactions. "This comes through when end-users are comparing sites. The companies we deal with are concerned as much with public image as with the value of a site."
"It's frightening, but these protests will continue. We've all got to look at brown field sites now, and they've got problems. Protest has had an impact on road building. It's going to have an impact on city centre sites as well as residential development, " he says.
This means that the unlikely alliance between the ecowarriors and middle England, forged over the roads protests, looks set to continue, this time with property in the firing line.
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2/2/01 Last updated 2/2/01