A curious press release appeared on Bromley Council’s website on Friday, announcing a £2.4million improvement programme for Crystal Palace Park. Nine projects would be examined and a feasibility study drawn up. The projects included conserving the dinosaurs, conserving the sphinxes and south terrace steps and the Paxton basin. The amount of money is not huge and will not vaguely cover the nine projects listed. But the bigger question is why is Bromley Council spending any money on the park at all when the Chinese ZhongRong group are still in negotiations over a £500million reimagining of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace?
On a sunny, unusually warm day in February this year hundreds of people crammed in to a sweltering, sweaty, room to hear what might become of the park if the ZhongRong group get the go ahead to their ambitious scheme. As I wrote here, it wasn’t particularly informative. Bad-tempered from the beginning, the local community, evidently distrustful of planners and the council after decades of promises and inaction, broadly displayed suspicion towards the scheme, drowning out the few voices of support. Consultants Arup, who led the event, struggled to provide much information at all, as did representatives from Bromley Council and the Mayor of London’s office, who were also in attendance. No one from the ZhongRong was there, or at least made themselves known.
What was clear was a shortlist of six architectural practices had been drawn up with a winner due to be selected by the summer. And while summer has some time to go (hopefully), no winner has yet emerged and the whole grand scheme has been notable for its silence. The notion that an application might be submitted in Autumn this year - and building commencing in Winter 2015 - seems unlikely to say the least.
The delay appears to be within the negotiations between Bromley Council and ZhongRong. They were always going to be somewhat fraught, being, as they are, about selling off a large swathe of a public park to a private venture on a 125-year lease. Some observers have suggested - plausibly enough - that 'ZhongRong are making demands that cannot lawfully be met' but a council spokesman would not be drawn on this. Instead, he insisted that 'negotiations are on going'.
'We are going one stage at a time. The first step was the exclusivity contract. ZhongRong would then develop their plans and negotiations would continue about a land deal. These negotiations are on going.'
And, asked about Bromley Council spending money on restoring land which could be part of the redevelopment according to a map released a few months ago, he said:
'The map of exclusivity doesn't necessarily mean ZhongRong want, or indeed, are going to get, all that area. The idea around that is to get an area of land about which Bromley wouldn't enter into negotiations with other people. It was a way of giving ZhongRong some security.'
And he refused to say whether the timetable was slipping or not.
'We couldn't comment on the timetable. We want to be as open as possible with people about it and will give updates when we can.'
As for the money now being spent, we need to go back to when ZhongRong just made their presence noticed. Bromley Council had submitted an application for Heritage Lottery Funding for the park and it is likely they would have been successful had ZhongRong never appeared. In which case, the HLF would have given a £5million grant towards the park, on top of about £2.4million from the local authority and the Mayor of London's office. This £2.4million is that money.
And they know it is just a drop in the ocean of the funding the park really needs. The £60million masterplan which was halted a few years ago would need be about £100million in today's money, I am told. The council spokesman added:
'£2.4million won't solve everything. We know that. Is it a step forward? Yes. Will it make a difference? Yes.'
One wonders whether the ZhongRong plan will be the latest Crystal Palace to fail to materialise; a colourful, flamboyant intervention, backed by an overly-enthusiastic Mayor of London who is searching for vanity projects to create something of a legacy, and a council keen to rid themselves of a troublesome park. We will have to wait and see.