Philip Kolvin,
Crystal Palace Campaign
looks at the battle their group has been engaged in
and demonstrates the power of community action when residents pull together and stand up to authority.

(P137) from Spaces and Places - Issue 007, February 2004, published by Green Space

Crystal Palace Park is the highest tree-lined ridge in London and the site of the former Crystal Palace. It is a Grade II* Listed Park and Metropolitan Open Land. So when in 1997 the London Borough of Bromley unveiled its plans to build on it the largest multiplex cinema in the South of England, and the largest rooftop car park in the UK, the Crystal Palace Campaign was formed in response.

But by the time the community had learned of the proposals, the development agreements had already been signed because there had been a lack of public consultation, something which infuriated local people. Bromley had actually failed to undertake an environmental assessment of the scheme, something which has led to the UK Government being sued by the European Commission.

The Campaign subsequently called a public meeting and raised £25,000 in a single evening to judicially review the grant of planning permission. Despite taking the fight to the House of Lords, the Campaign lost and Bromley thought that would be that -roll in the JCBs. But the Campaigners had other ideas - we had just begun.

Throughout, the Campaign was helped by high level support, including that of Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as being continually supported by enormous public meetings.

It was felt that it was vitally important to target the commercial tenants of the scheme, UCI Cinemas, and the Campaign marched on its flagship the Empire Leicester Square, in film costumes: STRIKE BACK AGAINST THE EMPIRE. This was followed by a hugely successful national day of action against UCI - picketing every single UCI cinema from Strathclyde to Poole, something which caused reverberations in UCl's boardroom.

To add fuel to the fire of the economic attack on the scheme, the Campaign sent an "Alternative Prospectus" to the Managing Directors of the UK's leading hundred pub and leisure companies explaining how economically damaging it would be for them to be associated with the building. After it successfully opposed an application for 14 pub licenses for the building, the scheme collapsed.

However, it would have been socially irresponsible for us to stop there, and we relaunched the Campaign as a body fighting for positive change. So we continued and went on to carry out a consultation study of around 40,000 households to find out how local people really would like to see their Park regenerated. The report, "Consultation Starts Here", carries a foreword from Ken Livingstone, and clearly demonstrates how local people wanted Crystal Palace Park to be, well, a Park.

........We always made sure that our arguments were directed at the scheme and not to individuals

After a year of diplomacy the Campaign brought all local stakeholders together in an independently facilitated workshop, which it financed, and successfully persuaded Bromley to attend. After 18 months, the workshop is still active and is funded by the London Development Agency.

But it has not been all consensus: Bromley has continued in its attempts to remove the Metropolitan Open Land designation of the cinema site in its Unitary Development Plan (the only designation which was protecting the site from development).

But after three years of litigation, on 1 0th December 2003, a month before a public inquiry into the Plan, Bromley has finally agreed that the designation should remain, and that the Plan should specifically require the protection of historic parks and recreational open space of value to local people.

I feel that the success of the Campaign is largely attributable to a number of factors. First was that the proposal by Bromley in no sense reflected the value of the green space or the great history of the site: it was to rob us of a precious environmental and historic resource.

........Harness local people's energy, and you have a fighting chance of producing an imaginative solution, and a much better prospect of getting funding for it

The Park contains great sweeps of Victorian terracing, sphinxes, statuary and huge model dinosaurs. It would be harder to think of something more incongruous at its summit, and more destructive of its sense of openness, than a concrete structure the size of two football stadia laid end to end.

Second was the Campaign's structure - we were a deliberately loose grouping without membership or constitution. This approach allowed people to pop in with time, ideas, effort or money as they wished. As far as we were concerned, if you waved a banner you were a member. So no time was wasted with membership schemes, talking shops, constitutional amendments and so on. Time spent in the Campaign was 100% directed to the end in view.

Thirdly, though very militant we were always lawful. No one could denigrate us as fringe fanatics.

Fourthly, we never attacked or vilified anyone - we always made sure that our arguments were directed at the scheme and not to individuals, whether Bromley officers or members or other opponents.

Fifth and finally, we were massively helped by Bromley's hostility towards us. Through this whole period, Bromley refused to meet with us, so we had always met exclusively in court. Had they ever tried to meet us half way, the Campaign would have found it much harder to retain support. As it was, we kept the great majority of the community behind us.

I have always been a keen believer in local democracy concerning green space. If there is one thing our case demonstrates, it is that however well-intentioned the desire to regenerate, if it comes top-down rather than bottom-up, it fails. It prevents communities from helping to determine the future of their own environmental assets. Do that, and you unleash inexhaustible supplies of protective zeal amongst local people. Harness their energy, and you have a fighting chance of producing an imaginative solution, and a much better prospect of getting funding for it.

Most importantly, you produce partnerships between local people and local government, which bring happiness to local people, promotions for officers and successful re-elections of the responsible councillors. Now what could be better than that?

For more information on the Crystal Palace Campaign visit Philip Kolvin has been Chairman of the Crystal Palace Campaign since 1998 and is a practising planning barrister.

Green Space are currently working with Philip Kolvin to produce a guidance document to help community groups and friends groups who are engaged in conflicts, whether with developers, local authorities or other organisations.

Pictures in the article omitted here - see
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9/2/04 Last Updated 9/2/04