R123 - Crystal Palace Park - End of Day Adjournement Debate 29 October 2013

The full text is below, however there are a few points to note:

Snippets from Jim Dowd

Snippets from Nick Boles

Now - the whole session verbatim (from Hansard) - placed here rather than linked for a better completeness of the documentation on Crystal Palace Park:

Crystal Palace Park

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Gyimah.)

8.5 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): I am most grateful for this opportunity, particularly today. Lewisham is only part of my constituency these days, but I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) that the Secretary of State for Health has been found by the Court of Appeal to have acted entirely improperly and illegally in seeking to close Lewisham hospital. I add that in passing; it is obviously not the main substance of my remarks this evening, and I do not expect the Minister to respond, but I doubt whether we have heard the last of that.

This debate is about “the Crystal Palace”. One of the business papers mentioned “Crystal Palace”, and I was stopped by a constituent in Sainsbury in Sydenham who told me, “I see you have a debate on Crystal Palace next week; they are in terrible trouble, and I reckon they are going to get relegated.” This debate is not about Crystal Palace football club, although I am a long-time supporter and one-time season ticket holder. Neither is this debate about the original Crystal Palace club, which was one of the founder members of the Football Association, which celebrated its 150th anniversary just last Saturday. It is the oldest and original football association in the world. It was then an amateur club, which went out of business in 1861; it was based in what we now know as Crystal Palace.

This debate is about “the Crystal Palace”, and perhaps I should have started the “the” with a capital letter in my request for this debate. As everybody knows from a long way back, this is one of the prime sites and locations for sporting excellence—not just in London, but in this country. The first FA cup finals were held at Crystal Palace and the national sports stadium was built there. It got its name from the relocation of the original building at Hyde park in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The building that was placed on the Sydenham hill side of what was then called Penge common was larger than the original that Joseph Paxton—later Sir Joseph Paxton—designed for Hyde park. The pictures make that clear. The construction in Hyde park was rather mundane; it looked almost like an out-of-town shopping centre compared with the magnificent structure built on the Sydenham hill side of Penge common.

Sydenham hill is the highest point in Greater London, although when it was built and opened in 1854 by Queen Victoria, there was no such thing as Greater London. The fact that it is the highest point in the whole area explains why, when it burned down on 30 November 1936, the fire was alleged to have been seen—depending on which account one reads and from where one was looking—from either five, six, seven or eight counties.

It is undeniable that the relocation of the Crystal Palace to that part of south-east London was instrumental in the development of the whole area, including Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge and Norwood South, Upper and West, most of which are in my constituency. However, not only did the Crystal Palace arrive, but two separate railway stations arrived with it to accommodate the number of visitors who were expected. I shall return to that point later if I have time, in order to illustrate the concerns of today’s population.

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I suppose that the ultimate success of the presence of the Crystal Palace in that part of south-east London is represented by the fact that the area is now known as Crystal Palace. One of my constituents once remarked to me on how convenient it was that they had managed to move the Crystal Palace to a place called Crystal Palace. I had to explain that it was actually the other way round.

The Crystal Palace moved to the area in 1854, and since the fire in 1936 it has undergone a number of changes of identity. The motor-racing circuit was very well used and highly thought of until the High Court ruled that, even back then, it was too much for local people. The motor racing died out in the early 1960s, although, as one who grew up in the area, I remember it clearly. Most famously, there was the Concert Bowl. During my dissolute youth, I attempted to go there to see Pink Floyd, but I could not get a ticket. I had to stay outside in Crystal Palace Park road and listen to the concert there. On the strength of that experience, I went out and bought a copy of “Atom Heart Mother”—but that is rather by the by.

We then fast-forward to the days when the Greater London council had the stewardship of the park and the site. Not much happened then. I suppose that the most instrumental event of recent years took place in 1986, when the GLC was abolished and the site was handed to Bromley council. At the time, I was a member of the council of the London borough of Lewisham. Crystal Palace is often exemplified as an area of Greater London that has few parallels, in that five boroughs have boundaries there within a space of 200 yards: Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth, Croydon and Bromley, which is where the Crystal Palace park is now.

As everyone will know, the abolition of the GLC was seen as a highly political issue by those on both sides of the argument. We suggested, along with our colleagues in Southwark, Lambeth and Croydon, that the park should be transferred to a trust encompassing all five boroughs. It is not just a local park; it has a much greater resonance and a much greater significance than that. However, our proposal was resisted, and the park was handed lock, stock and barrel to Bromley council.

In 1989, Bromley came up with a scheme for the building of a hotel, a restaurant, shops and a pub. That culminated in the passing by the House of Commons of the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Act 1990, which limits development on the site. It consists extensively of metropolitan open land, so development on it without specific legal approval would be extremely difficult, and that it why the current proposals present problems for a number of people.

In 1995, Bromley council established a working group to revitalise the sports centre. In the late 1990s there was a bid for funds from the single regeneration budget, principally involving a leisure facility, a multiplex cinema. The bid collapsed. The Government called the plan in, and then let it go. As some Members may recall, in 1999 Swampy and his pals climbed trees and went underground in an attempt to prevent the clearing of the site for the development, which was eventually dropped in 2000. The multiplex proposal was scrapped.

The London Development Agency then launched a formal consultation, and appointed master planners for the park and its environs. The master plan was submitted and went through various processes until 2008, when it

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was approved by Bromley council. It was called in by the then Secretary of State, and there was an inquiry which was eventually resolved in favour of the plan. Although it was challenged in the High Court in 2011, the challenge was dismissed in 2012 and all appeals were dismissed in April this year. In July this year, leaks or releases—we can call them what we like, but these things never happen accidentally—were made about a scheme involving the Mayor of London, the London borough of Bromley and the ZhongRong Group. I am sure not many people in Lewisham West and Penge or this House have heard of the group. It has come forward with proposals to rebuild—or replicate, perhaps—the original Crystal Palace and to restore the gardens to the original standard that Sir Joseph Paxton had in mind when he finished the relocation back in 1854. That is an exciting proposal but it runs up against the Bromley London Borough Council (Crystal Palace) Act 1990, which as things stand forbids any such development.

Mr Ni Zhaoxing—I have never met him, but he seems a perfectly reasonable chap; I will refer to him as Mr Ni—has an extravagant and vaulting ambition probably worthy of Sir Joseph Paxton himself and all the others who were involved, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the water towers at the original Crystal Palace at Sydenham hill. Mr Ni’s ambition may well reflect the ambitious, extravagant and visionary image of people at the height of British Victorian industrial power.

I went to the launch of the scheme earlier this month, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was there, playing his normal shy and retiring role, and saying he would be happy to help if he possibly could, but he must not be dragged too much into it. That is strange, because other boroughs in our part of south-east London actually wanted Crystal Palace park to remain the responsibility of what became the Greater London authority. That was resisted by the Government before 1997, but now we have the Mayor of London involving himself along with the London borough of Bromley.

I should add a brief word about the leader of the London borough of Bromley, Councillor Stephen Carr. He kindly invited me to the recent briefings—not the ones back in the summer—including the press launch on Thursday 3 October. An advisory board has been set up to steer the project forward, although these are very early days. The board will include Councillor Stephen Carr, Hank Dittmar, who is a special adviser to the Prince of Wales—I presume on environmental matters—Sir Tim Smit, deputy director of Eden Regeneration and co-founder of the Eden Project, which has a huge national reputation, and Sir John Sorrell CBE, chairman of the London design festival and UK Trade & Investment business ambassador. All are clearly worthy people, but what is missing from the group and the consultation is anybody local to Crystal Palace and the surrounding area. The $64,000 question—perhaps now the $1 million question—is this: is this good or is this bad? People need to know what is in the best interests of the area and the park, because this may be the one and only opportunity to take a major decision for the future.

Let me quote from the Bromley borough council executive meeting of 16 October. It is safe to do so as this quote is from the public part of the proceedings; I have the confidential part as well, but I will not be quoting from that. It states:

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“Ever since the 1936 fire, the future of this park has been unclear, however the need for significant investment in this regionally important park has always been recognised.”

It continued:

“It has always been unclear, even with the proposed ‘housing’ funds”—

from the master plan, which, as I say, was approved—

“where this investment would come from. In the absence of a commercial scheme and significant private sector funding it is widely thought that the approved Master Plan is unlikely ever to be implemented in full.”

The report continues:

“The park would remain in the freehold ownership of the London Borough of Bromley, and would remain an open and free public space for all.”

So far, so good. It goes on to say:

“At the heart of this proposal is the aspiration for the local community to have a strong role in running, managing and maintaining Crystal Palace.”

We would all say amen to that. However, we then get to the fact that Arup Associates, which has been hired by ZhongRong to oversee this project—I have no doubt that Arup Associates’ credentials are impeccable and that the firm is well used to large-scale civil engineering projects—estimates that it will be possible to draw an additional 2 million visitors to the palace and park per annum. That is 6,000 visitors a day, if they are spread out evenly. As we all know, that is not likely to happen; on some days there may be only 2,000, whereas on others there may be 10,000 or 12,000.

Crystal Palace and that part of south-east London are already congested and overcrowded, and the public transport links are full to the gunnels. The roads have no more space to accommodate anybody. Even though the plan includes a 3,000-space underground car park to get people out of the park, which is fine, how on earth are we going to move that number of people in and out of the area at any given time?

The restored park would be a public space for all to enjoy, and approximately 100 new jobs would be created there—that must be a good thing. It would increase the number of visitors, the footfall in the town centres and the expenditure there—that is another good thing. Some 1,000 jobs would be associated with the construction, and a further 1,000 associated with the operation of the palace and the other activities to which ZhongRong is keen to ensure local people have access.

The picture is very mixed. I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it is entirely reasonable to check whether it has four legs and some teeth. Given all the impact that this huge change is likely to bring to our area, how do we assess whether it is in people’s best interests? When the original Crystal Palace turned up on Sydenham hill, it brought two new railway stations and railway connections with it. The high-level station has now gone, following the demise of the original Crystal Palace, and we are left with just Crystal Palace station. It has strong links to London Bridge, Victoria, East Croydon and all points south, and in recent years the East London line has been put in, adding capacity. But things have changed; one of the first things Mayor Johnson did on being elected in 2008, or whenever it was, was to cancel the Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace from Beckenham. We are now being told that

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everything possible will be done to improve transport links. This scheme cannot work without considerable transport improvements and considerable investment in transport in the area.

I am just sketching out the ground, as these are early days. People who are for the scheme have contacted me, as have those who are against. Some people are against things that they do not even know will come into existence. The timetable for the development is as follows: by spring next year the design competition should have concluded; by autumn next year, those involved should be in a position to submit a planning application to the London borough of Bromley; if that is on track, they should have approval by autumn 2015; work should start on site in spring 2016; and we should have completion in 2018—I am available for the opening if they get that far.

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place. I want to ask three key questions of the Government and I hope he can answer them. In view of the likely scale of this development—I know that the design competition is still to be decided—how can the London borough of Bromley decide on a planning application which will clearly be in breach of the 1990 Act? Surely the Act would need to be amended, abolished or repealed before the council would be able to consider such an application. It could not possibly give planning approval to something that clearly breaks the law. Will the Government underwrite a full consultation with all local groups, citizens and neighbouring local authorities to ensure that all voices are heard so that we can make the most informed decision about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? This is a major departure from any previous planning guidelines or outlines and from the master plan for the park, so can the Minister assure me that if it were to move through all its stages and be approved by the London borough of Bromley, the Government would call it in for further inquiry and deliberation?

8.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) for securing this debate on an issue of such dramatic importance for his constituents. In the short time left for my speech I want to make sure that I answer his questions, but I must first say that he is right that the Crystal Palace was one of those few iconic buildings. Even those of us who were not alive while it stood know what it looked like and think that it would be rather marvellous if this city had such a thing again.

It is, of course, tremendously exciting that somebody in the world thinks it is possible, sensible and affordable to rebuild some version of the building, although obviously in modern form. Nevertheless, as the hon. Gentleman points out, the proposal is at a very early stage and raises a huge number of complex issues for the developer and, critically, for the community in which Crystal Palace sits.

The first point to make is the one on which the hon. Gentleman concluded, about the need for consultation. All planning applications are better off if there is intense consultation at the earliest stage possible. A planning application on the scale that this is likely to be can succeed only if there has been consultation at every stage from the start, binding in not only local elected

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officials but as many local people as possible in public meetings, through exhibitions and through every form of consultation. I know that that is well understood by the Mayor’s office and by the London borough of Bromley, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to emphasise the need. The Government will be very clear that such a proposal will have little chance of getting anywhere without consultation from the start.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made a point about the effect on transport infrastructure. Government policy is very clear that developments of any kind must be sustainable and one of the ways in which this scheme must be sustainable is by ensuring that the transport infrastructure is able to support the level of activity and movement generated. A development on this scale will have a dramatic effect on the transport infrastructure and although of course the transport infrastructure in that part of London is enviably good compared with that in some other urban areas in the country, it nevertheless cannot cope with an unlimited amount of additional demand. That will be an incredibly important part of any planning application and of the consultation to which we have just referred.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked how a planning application and the process of granting permission could be reconciled with the legislative obstacles he has identified. We have made it very clear to the Mayor of London and the London borough of Bromley that we are happy to work with them to try to resolve those legislative issues through whatever means necessary, although we hope that what they require of this House will be minimal. We remain ready to do that. It is sometimes possible to give planning permission subject

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to conditions, but I agree that it is unusual and perhaps unprecedented to give planning permission when one of the conditions is a change in the law. I would imagine that he is probably right that any necessary changes to legislation would need to be made in parallel with consideration of the planning application. As he points out, however, these are early days. We have not even seen an outline planning application, so we do not necessarily need to know right now how we will jump that hurdle if we get that far.

The hon. Gentleman is right that this is a tremendously exciting project for his constituents, for London and for the country. It is right that the London borough of Bromley and the Mayor have decided to embrace it and to bring in very high-quality firms and individuals as advisers. It is incredibly important that this is not an elite project and that it is carried out by, for and with the support of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and all those who live close to that dramatic landmark. We can all see the potential, but we can also see some risks if there is any sense in which the project is visited upon a community by others who think it is a grand idea but will not have to live or work next to it.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to stand up for his constituents and to continue to do so. I know that my Department will be happy to work with him in ensuring that that consultation takes place, that the transport infrastructure is adequate and that the planning process fully takes into account the opinions of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

8.30 pm

House adjourned.

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30 October 2013 Last Updated 30/10/13