(P.65) The case of the People and the Park

Financial Times 9/10 December 2000

Local protests and a clash of legal titans threaten development plans
for the Crystal Palace Site

- writes Fred Emery

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Bromley magistrates' court in south London is not the likeliest setting for a clash of legal titans. But invoked (and belittled) there for three days recently were the European Commission, the Human Rights Act, and an intervention by the capital's mayor, Ken Livingstone, in support of impassioned pleas from local residents.

The cause? Outrage over a huge 20-screen multiplex. leisure development proposed for the top of the park ridge of the long-gone Crystal Palace.

Offshore developer London & Regional Properties (L&RP), given planning consent by Bromley council, added fuel to the flames by applying for 14 liquor licences needed for the £75m project's viability - they would be sold on to non cinema tenants, mostly for "mvvd" - mass volume vertical drinking - as the specialists call it.

Months earlier, Geoffrey Springer, a director of L&RP, had squared the police by promising CCTV throughout the multiplex, and 12 security guards.

Dealing with the popular protest was a different matter. Bromley police deployed hundreds of barriers and vans full of officers outside the court - Springer had two security guards for personal protection. But the battle took place inside, as the magistrates leaned over backwards to ensure that every last objector had a say.

For the first time in the 3 1/2 years of their frustrating campaign, the people fighting to save their park and residential amenity [groups] were granted a thorough hearing. The application was treated to the sort of scrutiny, under oath, reserved for full public inquiries.

Advised by their Justices' Clerk, the three women and two men on the bench decided to hear everything and everyone. Altogether 33 witnesses appeared in opposition to the proposal, only one in support.
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There were bitter, recurring clashes. Mayor Livingstone makes no secret of his wish to halt the multiplex, although he has no retrospective power over planning permission granted before he assumed office. His decision to be represented by top barrister Gerald Gouriet was countered by Bromley council taking on the services of Gregory Stone QC.

In legal argument, which delayed the start, each challenged the other's standing, and failed. It was a rematch of the bitter 1980s' conflict when Bromley council went to court to scupper Ken Livingstone's cheap fares policy when he was leader of the Greater London Council - which Margaret Thatcher abolished during her time as prime minister, gifting Crystal Palace to Bromley in the process.

By the time the public crammed in there were three more barristers, including the UK's leading licensing specialist Richard Beckett, appearing for the Crystal Palace Campaign, and, for L&RP, Andy Woods of Gosschalks, Hull, the top licence solicitors. It was as if Gray's Inn had come to Toytown.

Springer made an unexpectedly nervous first witness. He testified that his company, while selling on the licences to takers yet unknown, would retain long-term control of the building management. Asked how many visitors might come by car, Springer uttered his first "no idea".

This professed ignorance was a gift on cross-examination. Beckett contrasted it with the cinemas' capacity (4,800), the rooftop car-park spaces (950), the projected 17,000 extra vehicle journeys each Saturday, and, not least, the doubling of this urban village's licensed floor space (up by nearly 87,000 sq ft, gross) to conjure up a picture of misery from likely drunkenness and disorder.
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The battle took place inside, as magistrates leaned over backwards to ensure that every last objector had a say

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L&RP's lone supporting witness fared little better. William Bowen, a Ralphs & Janes chartered surveyor engaged four weeks earlier, had visited 30 other leisure sites, although none was comparable in scale to this.

He admitted to Beckett that he had not conducted any survey of surrounding streets. He said such "stand alone developments" attracted their own "customer base" and so had little significance for the surrounding area.

The first objector - more than 600, including one government minister, had written in - reignited the Bromley v. mayor feud. It was Valerie Shawcross, a Labour member of the Greater London Authority and head of London's Fire & Emergency Planning Authority.

She was asked whether she was appearing for the GLA but responded that the GLA had no collective view. As an elected member she was entitled to represent her constituents of Southwark and Lambeth, she said.

She doubted whether the police could cope with the disorder feared, when they were 20 per cent below strength across London.

And so the testimony ran, much of it articulate, some unpolished, all of it heartfelt: housewives, a headmistress, shopkeepers, a restaurant owner, a Home Office adviser, a retired ambassador, a social worker, several unemployed, two Conservative councillors, doctors, three amenity society chairmen.

With one voice, they could not stomach the desecration of the park being compounded by the nightmare of out-of-control mass drinking. "Our lives are in your hands," one man told the magistrates.
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The magistrates even heard from Gouriet that the European Union was considering proceedings against Bromley for flouting the European directive requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment.

As the bench retired, the chairman said: "We shall be some time." And indeed they were: it was more than three hours before they came back with a written judgement, which was read to the court. They had found no breach of the Human Rights Act; and they had considered the "serious concerns" over "antisocial behaviour and environmental issues".

Then came the magistrates' conditions - and an embarrassment for L&RP and the police. Where the licensing sergeant had raised no objection to the original application, L&RP was now to be allowed just one pub and 10 restaurant licences (where drinks can be bought only with full waited-service meals), plus a small bar each for a health club and bowling alley.

Further, no live music, no public entertainment licences and no "occasional licences" were to be granted. Finally, there would be no supply of alcohol for consumption off the premises.

The magistrates observed that restaurant restrictions "will attract clientele with whom public nuisances are less likely. . . thus addressing some of the fears".

Decision day was the 64th anniversary of the burning down of the Crystal Palace. It is just possible that the magistrates have sent the developer's plans up in smoke.

Fred Emery, formerly of The Times and BBC's Panorama programme, declares an interest as a supporter of the Crystal Palace Campaign.


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