(P.86) Rage among the ruins
by Sara Wheeler Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2001
Bromley council can't bear Philip Kolvin. He is the leader of a campaign by furious local people to fight plans for a vast leisure complex where the Crystal Palace once stood, in one of London's greatest green spaces. From the council chamber to the law courts, he knows how to beat the planners at their own game.
ON a bleak Tuesday evening three years ago, a 39-year-old barrister stood in a hotel basement in the London suburb of Upper Norwood preparing to address 600 restless locals. He regularly faces High Court judges and argues with top QCs, but that night Philip Kolvin was sweating with fear. Down to the wire: plans to build an immense leisure complex has led to an acrimonious David and Goliath battle
Some months previously, Kolvin had learnt of Bromley council's plans for the 200-acre Crystal Palace Park. A developer was to raze the tree-lined ridge at the top - the highest point in the capital - to make way for an 18-screen cinema complex with amusement arcades, pubs, restaurants and the country's largest rooftop car-park. Kolvin was aghast. 'So we just bunged some posters up, saying we were angry at what was happening to our park and calling a public meeting. We weren't even sure if anyone would turn up.'
Environmental campaigning was a foreign land to Kolvin, whose previous eco-principles didn't extend far beyond visits to the bottle bank. But he barged right in. If a park needs to be planned, he suggested to the packed room, let people plan it, not accountants. A lingering cheer swelled through the crowd. In 10 minutes the atmosphere in the characterless function room resembled that of a revival meeting. Kolvin told the gathering that he needed £25,000 in cash and pledges in five days, in order to fight for their park in court. When he had finished his barnstorming address, an elderly woman approached him. 'I really believe, in what you are doing here,' she said quietly. Then she handed him a cheque for £1,500.
Others followed. He had his money in 50 minutes.
At that time Kolvin was living in Gipsy Hill, on the west side of the park, and from his bedroom window he could see the ridge. As a planning barrister who acts for local authorities, he was well placed to understand the issues and to unravel the procedures that allow a council to build on green space while paying lip-service to consultation. Shortly before that meeting, he had become chairman of a campaign to save Crystal Palace from the multiplex. Since then he has accumulated 65 lever-arch files on the subject, sacrificed his blues guitar hobby and acquired a battalion of enemies.
Kolvin was brought up in Newcastle, proceeding south from the grammar school to read law at Oxford. He lives in a large Victorian terrace house with his wife, a Canadian academic, and their young daughter. Last year they moved three miles from the park, so Kolvin can hardly be accused of nimbyism. So where does the passion come from?
'The root of what's upsetting people,' he says as we stroll round the park, 'is that something so homogenous should be built on land that resonates with such historic individuality. Secondly, what about democracy? The issue here is, who decides?'
Above his head the Crystal Palace television transmitter vanishes into the clammy gloom, and to the right, as the grass slopes away, the North Downs glimmer faintly above the urban disorder. He looks like a typical Establishment figure, but he isn't quite: the Geordie accent, the uncompromising attitudes volubly expressed, a mild capacity to irritate. Friends didn't anticipate the transformation to environmental white knight. Nor did he. 'I remember roaring, "We're on a roll!" into a mike in that Norwood basement, and thinking, "Christ, I sound like Neil Kinnock in Sheffield." It was tremendously exciting to be involved in the genesis of a popular movement. I watched a community decide to stand together.'
Sir Joseph Paxton's original building, containing nearly a million square feet of glass and dubbed 'The Crystal Palace' by the editor of Punch, was conceived to house the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. It was inaugurated by an immensely moved Queen Victoria, who later likened it to fairyland. At the opening ceremony the breathless Times correspondent spoke of wonder and mystery,
'a glittering arch far more lofty and spacious than the vaults of even our noblest cathedrals'.
Three years later, the palace was dismantled and relocated to a hill between the genteel suburbs of Sydenham and Norwood. Unlike the flat-roofed original, the modified structure was barrel vaulted and boasted a triple rather than a single transept. But it remained glass-clad, like its progenitor. Set among landscaped gardens, Italianate terraces and life-size models of dinosaurs, it was used as a national centre for the 'enlightenment and education' of the people. Sixty-two thousand Londoners watched the country's first hot-air balloon float up from the park, the first moving picture show was screened in the palace and an astonishing 81,000 people crowded into the glasshouse over three days to listen to a vast orchestra and choir performing Handel's Messiah. It was one of the greatest buildings in British history, and in 1936 it burnt to the ground. Churchill happened to see it go up, and as he stood watching the flames he wept, mourning 'the end of an age'.
Since the fire, the site has been empty, the granite eyes of Paxton's huge carved head gazing sightlessly over his gently decaying neoclassical alcoves and crumbling sphinxes. In 1986, with the abolition of the GLC, ownership passed to the Kent borough of Bromley, and the council immediately looked for ways to profit from its new acquisition. Planning was obviously a sensitive issue, considering both the status of the park as Metropolitan Open Land (the urban equivalent of green belt), and its Grade II* listed protection. A succession of schemes were put forward which prompted new legislation, allowing Bromley wider latitude. But although the 1990 Crystal Palace Act permitted development of the 12-acre ridge on which the palace once stood (now called the top site), it stipulated that any new building should 'reflect the architectural style' of Paxton's original structure.
Original: the initial designs for the Dinosaur Park at Crystal Palace Park
In 1996, the prize-winning architect Ian Ritchie designed a scheme proposed to Bromley by London & Regional Properties Ltd, a low-profile company based in the West End. Ritchie's £58 million, 600,000sq ft multiplex included two flyover-style concrete ramps capable of carrying 950 cars to the roof. The cinemas, restaurants, takeaway outlets, themed bars and pubs were to be accompanied by three 'leisure boxes', each big enough to accommodate a music venue or a 'family entertainment centre'. (In the arcane language of developers, an amusement arcade is classified as a family entertainment centre.) In addition, roads, roundabouts and a car tunnel were to be built in the park.
In March 1997, London & Regional submitted a planning application for Ritchie's scheme. When locals called for a public inquiry, the planning decision was frozen until the scheme was considered by John Prescott and his officials at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. To widespread astonishment, Prescott refused an inquiry on the grounds that the plans complied with all legal requirements: the council, Prescott said 'may determine this application as it thinks fit'. Bromley immediately granted outline planning permission; the multiplex was to open in 2000.
In April 1998 the campaign sought a judicial review of Bromley's decision on the grounds that Ritchie's multiplex failed to 'reflect the architectural style' of Paxton's original. Tory MP Ian Bruce, chairman of the Commons committee which drafted the 1990 Act, said the design could not remind anybody of anything other than a poor example of a football stand. Campaigners also argued that the proposal ignored government policy for Metropolitan Open Land, which states,
'Land of this importance should not be used for developments which compromise its open character and value to London's green setting.'
Bromley is often seen as a leafy, well-off part of south London,' says council chief executive Dave Bartlett, 'but around Crystal Palace we have some of the most deprived areas in the country. Unemployment is high, and so is crime.' The multiplex is part of an ambitious £152 million regeneration package conceived by the council to transform both the park and the surrounding areas. Funding from the Government's Single Regeneration Budget forms the hub of the package, and Bromley promised to deliver private funding for the top site in return for SRB money. In other words, the multiplex enabled the council to attract government funding for the surrounding area. Therefore, as Bartlett categorically asserts, 'If the top site failed, it would throw the future of the regeneration package into question.'
Is it wise to squander green space in order to regenerate? Don't people need parks more than the cultural detritus towed in the wake of multiplexes, neon emporiums of tat aimed at children and teenagers and open until 2am every day of the week? Campaigners ask why 'regeneration' should be contingent on cinema screens and car-parks.
The Crystal Palace protest draws support from a broad band of residents, not just toffs in big houses. Dulwich grandees and neo-hippies with pink hair and names like Ferret have marched side-by-side to save their park. Besides the campaign headed by Kolvin, other protest groups have sprung up to oppose Bromley's plans. Eco-warriors built tree houses on the top site and re-christened it 'Big Willow Eco Village'. Bromley got very cross about that.
When 78-year-old Joan Yaxley took a bread pudding to the eco-warriors, the council served her with a High Court writ, claiming she was a squatter. Eventually police and security guards arrived in a quasi-military operation to secure the ridge at a cost of £2.7 million - almost half the proposed sale price.
The media loves tree-dwelling eco-warriors like Swampy. Their disregard for convention appeals to the rebel in us all. But environmental protests in which people chain themselves to trees before being carted off by tight-lipped policemen in front of the cameras have a poor record.
Few have achieved anything like as much as Kolvin, who has steered the Crystal Palace Campaign (CPC) to the House of Lords and on into Europe. He's done it all by the book, patiently, relentlessly and, above all, legally. 'Many, many times,' he says, 'I've sat up all night dreaming up the points over cups of tea, despite the fact that I had to be in court the next day. It's been constant graft and research, trying to make sure we cover every angle.'
The High Court refused permission for a judicial review, but the CPC won leave to appeal - a process underwritten by an insurance company. But when the Court of Appeal rejected the protesters' plea that the multiplex was in breach of the Crystal Palace Act, Kolvin had to think hard. The failed High Court action was a turning point. 'I realised the law is a blunt instrument,' he says. 'We needed to go down the economic route.' Lawful direct action soon became a vital part of campaign strategy, and protesters turned their attention to potential occupiers of the multiplex.
Protest: eco-warriors have joined locals in the Crystal Palace Campaign and splinter groups such as Boycott UCI Cinemas
The American-owned cinema company, UCI, signed up as anchor tenant at the outset, and so every Monday night for the past two years, members of the small Boycott UCI splinter group have peacefully protested outside the firm's flagship cinema, the Empire Leicester Square. Battling the weather, the local drunks and the pulsing beat of the Equinox nightclub next door, protesters hand out leaflets, direct punters to rival screens and hold placards reading 'Parks are for Children, not Cinemas'. One day last year campaigners simultaneously picketed 35 UCI cinemas from Clydebank to Poole. Is UCI listening?
'We don't like the negative publicity,' says vice-president and acting managing director Steve Knibbs, 'but we can't rescind our lease at Crystal Palace. The scheme has become very controversial, but it wasn't when we signed up for an early version of it 10 years ago; we weren't aware of the campaigners' issues until after we had committed ourselves legally.'
Despite opposition from all quarters, last October Bromley gave plans the final go-ahead. Then came the greatest triumph of the protest so far. The CPC challenged the developer's application for 14 liquor licences at the multiplex. The court received 600 letters of objection, a raft of heavyweight witnesses spoke against the scheme, and the campaign hired top licensing QC Richard Beckett. Although Bromley was not a party to the action, it too hired a QC, and even tried to stop London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone - an outspoken critic of the council's handling of the multiplex issue - attending on the grounds that he had no place to be there. ('Madam,' Livingstone's counsel told the magistrate, 'if the mayor of Skegness wished to attend this licensing application to object, he would be entitled to do so.') It was a tense week in Bromley Court House.
Hundreds of police were deployed. Developer Geoffrey Springer had security guards for his personal protection. After hours of impassioned speeches ('our lives are in your hands', one man told the court), magistrates allowed a single pub licence and a further 12 alcohol licences with stringent conditions attached.
It was a heavy blow for London & Regional, who will have difficulty letting space without pub licences. 'We've emasculated them,' Kolvin told the South London Press after the hearing. 'No, correction: we've cut their balls off.'
Determined to deploy every weapon in his arsenal, Kolvin had also been mugging up on European procedures. Last November, following an 18-month investigation instigated by Kolvin, the European Commission sent a formal notice to the Government concerning Bromley's failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment. The decision effectively accused John Prescott of being in breach of European law by not insisting that Bromley should have carried out such an assessment. The case might now proceed to the European Court of Justice.
Bromley had now spent more defending the multiplex than the £6.1 million it stood to gain from the sale of a 125-year lease of the top site. As Kolvin was plainly the most powerful figure in the battle for the park, the council turned on him. Besides threatening legal action over statements he had made, it sent a letter to his head of chambers, Anthony Scrivener QC, saying he ought to 'be concerned about a member of the Bar in your Chambers making such unsubstantiated allegations in a public manner'.
Keeping watch: several of Sir Joseph Paxton's original sphinxes still look out over the park where Crystal Palace once stood. A man who has defended Shirley Porter and Asil Nadir was not likely to be frightened by a bunch of Bromley councillors. Anyway, Kolvin says he's used to battling: he gets paid to do it every day. 'I keep focused on the goal,' he adds with a rueful smile. Exposure to the legal profession from the other side has opened his eyes. 'I feel so much more vulnerable as a litigant than I do as a barrister. I realise now that we in the law can never really understand how a litigant is feeling until we've been in their shoes.'
Kolvin feels there are many more legal battles to be fought - and there is as yet no sign of the project starting. Bromley council might still pay a very high price for underestimating the strength of local opposition. The eco-warriors advocate that nothing should ever be built on the site. Bromley claims the multiplex is the only way forward. Philip Kolvin and the Crystal Palace Campaign take the middle ground, suggesting that the area be regenerated as a leisure space for the community. Above all, they plead that it remain what it has always been: a park. They ask if councillors and civil servants can really look into their hearts and assert that a giant rooftop car-park and a string of bowling alleys, cinemas and takeaway outlets reflect the spirit of Paxton's magisterial Crystal Palace.
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9/9/01 Last updated 9/9/01