(P.90) People's Palace: a Peoples' Victory - Streetwise45 (September 2001)

complied by Selma Montford drawings Selma NanKivell

Compiled by Selma Montford from material supplied by Fred Emery, who left the Times as Acting Editor, and went on to present BBC Panorama into the 1990s, and is currently press officer of the Crystal Palace Campaign, honorary like all its tens of thousands of supporters.

The Crystal Palace Campaign won a famous victory very soon after the 150th anniversary of the opening of the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. On 11 May Bromley Council unexpectedly announced that the monstrous £75 million cinema-multiplex, proposed for the highest ridge in South London, at the top of the Crystal Palace Park, was scrapped. The developer had failed to meet the contract terms, and both sides were consulting their solicitors.

For the Crystal Palace Campaign there was jubilation. Over four years of campaigning had paid off see Streetwise 36 p11, and PfP Newsletters nos. 18 (Dec. '00) and 19 (March '01). It included mobilising the community; costly lawsuits (liability insurance helped!); street campaigning; boycott demonstrations against the sole would-be tenant, UCI cinemas; lobbying international politicians, including a successful complaint against the UK government brought before the European Commission (still ongoing).

If they can get away with concreting over an historic park, they can do it anywhere

There were public meetings attended by up to 1800 people; and hyperactive pursuit of the media, which produced important articles in the national and trade press, and an item on the Radio Four 'Today Programme'. There was much more: attendance at local fetes and fairs; fund-raising, notably at a top class classical concert, not to mention, outside the campaign an Eco-warrior occupation of the site whose eviction cost Bromley some £3million. After a four year battle, [which was probably] the greatest single issue grassroots political victory of the past decade over a government, a council and a developer, produced real national lessons.

We want the park to remain a park, and we believe this story - which has concentrated on the architectural imbroglio - is just the tip of an iceberg of secretive dealings.

The 'trophy architect' [was] switch[ed] by multiplex developer London & Regional Properties from celebrated Ian Ritchie to workaday RHWL (Renton Howard Wood Levin). Despite Bromley's [Council] insistence that no cheapskate dumbing down was underway, Ritchie allowed himself to be interviewed, telling the Today Programme on 10 March that L&RP asked him to cut costs by 25%.

The full story broke in the 27 August issue of 'The Architects Journal'. RHWL had been chosen by multiplex developer London & Regional Properties Ltd to replace Ritchie as 'delivery architects'. In the perilous phrase of Bromley [Council's] chief planner "Ritchie is a very good architect on the design but he didn't have resources to get the details done" The but stung Ritchie and in the next issue of AJ on 7 September he let the cat out of the bag. He wrote a letter to the editor saying he was "deeply disturbed" by Macmillan's remarks. He maintained that all his design and tender work on the glass and steel external envelope had been done but that he had walked away because L&RP imposed "new budget, programme and procurement conditions... which we could not accept considering the status, sensitivity and high quality that the project demands". The same issue of AJ contained a column which accused L&RP of 'dumbing down', and turning it into a 'design-and-build'. The Evening Standard of 19 September piled on the public misery.

What was the evidence of cheapening and cost cutting by the new architects? It was not long in coming. Bromley [Council] had asked their advisory panel on conservation areas (APCA), a body of local worthies, including architects, to comment on changes prior to approval at their final planning meeting on 3 October. The agenda contained seven points submitted by APCA chairman D J Wood but unaccountably council officers did not advise the councillors they had omitted damaging parts of the D J Wood letter. They were highly instructive. They noted first that RHWL "seemed somewhat unprepared" for APCA s questioning. Then, "my colleagues expressed and continue to express considerable disquiet that certain of these [multiplex] details are being eroded, possibly to save money. We strongly advise that this should not happen otherwise the Council will be risking severe criticism or even possible court action". Lastly "we emphasise the need to ensure this new building and its surroundings is completed to the very highest design such that it will be admired rather than criticised after all the bad feeling directed at Bromley [Council]."

English Heritage had powerfully supported Ritchie, as had the then Royal Fine Art Commission, of which Ritchie was himself a commissioner. (The RFAC has now been reborn as the Commission Architecture and the Built Environment).

By 10 October English Heritage's disappointment had deepened. "We are therefore greatly dismayed" wrote English Heritage's chairman Sir Neil Cossons, that Ritchie had been "replaced by another firm working to a different commercial brief and we fear that the quality may suffer as a result. We are indeed looking carefully at the design".

Of course, Bromley [Council] deny all the accusations of dumbing-down and cheap-skating. But we think it matters because the devil is indeed in the detail. The Campaign, having opposed the multiplex in any form from the outset three years ago, of course holds no brief for the Ritchie design. We want the park to remain a park, and we believe this story - which has concentrated on the architectural imbroglio - is just the tip of an iceberg of secretive dealings.

The Crystal palace campaign would be waiting, lawfully but doggedly, at the next corner.

It cannot be coincidence that Bromley [Council] has a history of losing architects at Crystal Palace. After a failed Kuwaiti project (which was done for by Saddam) they held a design competition won by Chapman Taylor; but Bromley [Council] and English Heritage didn't much like it so Ritchie was appointed to work with him. Ritchie, however, turned the design upside down putting Chapman Taylor's basement car park up on the roof! (Only in Britain would we put a 950-slot car park on top of the best views of London and environs from the south!). Now Ritchie has gone, his design apparently compromised. How long will RHWL last? Will they have helped sign the multiplex's death warrant?

Whether the RSPB was the air cavalry, we'll never know.

The Crystal Palace Campaign, regardless of Bromley [Council's] obfuscations, had kept up the fight on all fronts, again going to court to thwart the developer. Most telling, was its challenge to [the developer] L&RP's application for 14 pub-type drinks licences which it needed to sell on to [potential] tenants of the spacious non-cinema areas. This was a red rag to a community already incensed at the despoilation of their park and the prospect of massive traffic congestion. Over 600 [people] wrote objections to Bromley Licensing Magistrates, and when the Campaign hired the country's leading specialist QC, over 30 witnesses gave evidence. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, opposed to the multiplex since his election campaign, was also represented by counsel; so were Bromley [Council], though not even party to the case. The magistrates sat for three days, ensuring that every last witness was heard, and then - unprecedentedly, according to assembled lawyers retired for three hours. Usually magistrates follow police advice, but here they were much tougher. They granted only one pub-type licence, imposing such curbs as seated, restaurant-service on the other 12, [so] that - as the trade predicted - the spaces would be now unsalable. So it proved.

on 11th May came the announcement:

contract terminated

The Crystal Palace Campaign drove the point home. It wrote to 99 drinks, eatery and leisure chief executives explaining that it would be waiting, lawfully but doggedly, at the next comer, and listed the support it had already garnered - from its 35,000-plus petition, to national, regional and local politicians, amenity societies and associated protest groups. The subliminal message: guerrilla struggle.

It's easier said than done to make a dream happen.

. . . . instead of backing off, [the developer] L&RP and Bromley [Council] foolishly hatched a secret plan to cut down some 150 trees on the site, to be ready for construction once outstanding litigation was settled. Once again the plan [was] leaked to the Campaign, and it rang . . . alarm bells. Bromley [Council] at first professed ignorance. [The developers] L&RP were saying nothing. But they were showered with letters from Ministers, (acting as constituency Members of Parliament), Members of the European Parliament, and London Assembly members. No one could be in any doubt of the opprobrium they faced when the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also wrote to Bromley [Council] politely informing them that a second new criminal offence now existed of 'recklessly' endangering wild birds' nesting. Whether the RSPB was the air cavalry, we'll never know. But, following an undisclosed meeting with Mayor Livingstone, Bromley [Council's] co-leaders, Councillor C Maines (Liberal Democrat) and Councillor J Holbrook (Labour) announced they had no plans to initiate clearance of the trees. It was a first capitulation, and among London politicians the first note of hopefulness was detected. On the way, tree felling had also been halted by a court injunction in a separate case brought by a local resident (with legal aid) for judicial review of the multiplex planning permission.

In February to Bromley [Council's] consternation, the Appeal Court reversed the High Court's decision to deny judicial review and set a full 3-judge hearing for next October. Still at issue is [the] crucial determination whether Bromley [Council], and the UK government, had breached a Euro Directive (as the European Commission maintains) by failing to require the developer to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to planning consent. For the developer the prospect of yet further delay, with a potential appeal to the Lords, was daunting. Meanwhile Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Croydon Central, surprised everyone by promoting a Bill to transfer Crystal Palace Park to the Greater London Authority (Bromley only acquired it with the demise of the Greater London Council). The Bill will be renewed in the new Parliament, with a similar Bill in the Lords by Lord Warner of Brockley.

Yet, amid all this, there was no wind of Bromley [Council's] impending run up of the white flag - except that [the developer] L&RP was suddenly peddling a 'dramatically scaled-down development' as Mayor Livingstone put it on 27 March. Theoretically, the same planning permission might have been used for a smaller development, but it, too, would have been hugely controversial.

Bromley [Council], we now learn, looked into the abyss and saw it probably having to give new planning permission and order the missing EIA, and at the end of it see Mayor Livingstone turn it down, using his strategic overview for new projects. Bromley [Council] told the developer L&RP to press ahead with the original. What the public could not know, because they were secret, were the lurking deadlines for L&RP's contract. Bromley [Council] had already extended [it] twice, and wanted a commitment to begin, having received only a 10 per cent down payment due as premium for the site. [Developers] L&RP, so Bromley [Council] claimed, "failed to complete the lease within the prescribed period, and on 11 May came the announcement: contract terminated, and the subsequent comment from Councillor Maines that Bromley [Council] would "undoubtedly" sue [the developer]L&RP for damages. Will L&RP countersue?

For the Campaign, after doggedly continuing through court reverses, all the way up to Europe, and fighting a public relations battle against UCI cinemas (the sole signed-up tenant), amid intensive fund-raising, its task is now to be catalyst for the positive. Where Bromley [Council] failed to consult, the Crystal Palace Campaign is now planning to survey residents' wishes in the five boroughs adjoining the park. Slowly (working] towards consensus .... to make the dream happen, in the words of CPC chairman, Philip Kolvin, "easier said than done". But that's what was said at the outset.

Crystal palace Bowl, known locally as 'the skip', steel platform cantilever over lake, designed by Ian Ritchie.

Now . . . to the . . . difficult task, building support for the positive. The Crystal Palace Campaign on 21 July announced it was proposing the establishment of a Community Trust to regenerate the Park in association with Bromley [Council]. "We are intending to set up a trust which is so credible, so consultative and which has such good professional advice that Bromley [Council] is going to look foolish if it doesn't join us, but at sore point it says: "We've got a crumbling asset, here is a group which wants to take over its management, and will help generate some funds for regeneration work. We must engage." explains CPC chairman Philip Kolvin. It remains to be seen whether Bromley [Council] can be convinced to sit down with the Crystal palace Campaign to strike a deal" (Regeneration & Renewal 15.6.01). [Also] supporting this venture is the new Cabinet member Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, (one of our local MPs) and Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, among others.

One high rise block of flats interrupts the view of the horizon.

Drawings and captions by Selma NanKivell and an other.

[The Crystal Palace Campaign is] under no illusion that it will be a difficult task, but imbued with our success, and the support of the community we are determined to succeed. To that end we have distributed 50,000 copies of a questionnaire asking what people who live round the park in the five bordering boroughs want by way of regeneration of the site. Believe it or not it is the first time they have been consulted. But ongoing consultation is now our promise, and we hope to have something to celebrate ... here by the time of the 150th anniversary of the Palace's move from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 2004.

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1/11/01 Last updated 1/11/01