A whiff of the secret state in a suburb

  • @johnhenrywalsh
LOOKING ACROSS the wide and windswept park, your eye picks out some handsome features: two plaster sphinxes flanking a long concrete staircase, a procession of neoclassical alcoves, a noble balustrade. The architecture suggests that we are approaching something unimaginably grand, like the pyramids, or a temple to the Nine Muses ...

But there's nothing at the end of this road. The magnificent glass structure - the Crystal Palace - that was built in Hyde Park by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and relocated south of the Thames three years later, was destroyed in a fire in 1936. No one had the heart to disturb its charred foundations - but soon there will be something new for these steps and sphinxes to lead towards. And the inhabitants of this London suburb are dreading its arrival.

It's a "multiplex" - a palace of varieties conceived on epic lines. At its centre will be eighteen cinema screens, nine "restaurants", a bowling alley and three "leisure boxes", each big enough to accommodate a music venue or a "family entertainment centre". It will be as long as two football stadiums laid side by side. The plans show a long, low tray-shaped structure, both futuristic and deadly dull, with parking space for 950 cars on the roof.

This is the pounds 56m levia- than that has united mild, middle-class protesters and dreadlocked, earth-burrowing eco-warriors in joint (if not parallel) endeavour for the past 12 months. Ever since 1995, when Bromley Council began inviting development suggestions, the locals have been suspicious, then hostile, then at war. The Crystal Palace Campaign got under way two years ago, and is chaired by Philip Kolvin, a Gray's Inn barrister. It boasts 1,500 volunteers in five boroughs.

"Bromley wanted to attract developers at any price," said Ken Lewington, the campaign's deputy chair, "so they said, `We will let the market determine the leisure mix'. Whatever makes the most money seemed to be the main criterion".

The free market would never do for SE19. It's not a conspicuously genteel suburb. It has fast-food outlets and urban blight. But there's a lot of civic pride around, along with the second-hand bookshops and Thai restaurants. Palace dwellers affect to dread the traffic that will gum up the streets every night, the fumes, the chaos, the dubious 2am strollers, the drug dealers that will prey on the 15 to 25-year-olds who are the multiplex's ideal customers; and you can hear in their voices the words "Bang goes the neighbourhood".

"It is not a class matter," said Celia Randell, a garden designer and the campaign's most articulate lobbyist. "The objection isn't about taste but about the scale of the thing. It's inappropriate because it's a giant enterprise and will need huge numbers of people to make it work. It's on the same scale as Alton Towers. The streets around here just can't cope with the invasion of cars and people".

Though Crystal Palace sits at the edge of five London boroughs - Southwark, Lewisham, Croydon, Lambeth and Bromley - the Park is owned by Bromley. The centre of Bromley, its high street and shopping centre, is four miles away from the heart of Crystal Palace, which will have to cope with the fallout from its greedy neighbour's interest in park "regeneration". It is cold comfort that the inhabitants of Bromley will soon be faced with a colossal bill for policing the battleground that the former "Fresh Air Suburb" has become.

The campaign had lobbied the Environment Ministry the previous July, in 1997, and succeeded in getting Bromley's planning application put on hold. But in March 1998, John Prescott gave his decision: the plans complied with all legal stipulations. Bromley, he said, "may determine this application as they think fit".

As the middle-class professionals running the campaign tried new legal avenues to block planning permission, the eco-warriors arrived in April, built towers from wood and metal grilles, tunnelled into the earth, swarmed into the trees and re-christened the palace site "Big Willow Eco Village".

Bromley Council got tough. Anyone helping the crusties found themselves summonsed to the High Court. Mrs Joan Yaxley, a local pensioner, found herself arraigned for having brought the demonstrators a dish of bread- and-butter pudding. Ken Lewison received a writ because he spoke to an Evening Standard journalist on the site for 10 minutes. Suzanne Elkin, a campaign secretary hooted her car horn when passing the demonstrators last week, and was stopped by a police bike half a mile further. A whiff of the secret state came from Bromley Councillor David Bartlett who declared on television: "If anyone has indicated their support for the occupation of this site, we shall name them. They will have an opportunity to explain themselves in court".

On 4 March, the police and security guards arrived in force, 2,000 of them chasing 50eco-warriors, plucking them out of the trees with a cherry-picker crane, dismantling the towers, digging up the tunnels. The Parade was closed to cars, buses and walkers all day. Schoolchildren were abandoned by their buses. The cost of the weeks of surveillance and the ultimate eviction has been estimated at pounds 2m.

An atmosphere of tense containment hangs over the park now. A handful of crusties are still down in the tunnels. Knots of security men in their fluorescent yellow coats line the wire perimeter of the multiplex site. A girl called Tara, about 14, in dreadlocks, baggy trousers and dirty trainers, stops by to wind up the men before returning to her placard protest by the roadside. From the rise, where the Crystal Palace once dominated the London skyline, you can see an example of the multiplex architect Ian Ritchie's work - the "Concert Platform" that stands in the English Landscape Garden, a rusted-orange monstrosity, a great rectangular lid pitched at 45 degrees above a concrete stage, like a huge trap about to slam shut.

The Crystal Palace Campaigners sent a petition to the House of Lords on 21 January and are still waiting for a reply.

"Bromley think if they keep on ignoring public opinion, the locals will cave in eventually. But we won't," said Ken Lewison. "Even if the Lords petition fails, we've got other legal angles up our sleeves".

"It's so frustrating," says John Payne, the press officer. "We've got so much professional muscle - 1,500 volunteers, traffic consultants, barristers, town planners, PR and marketing skills, video makers - and we're still not winning."

On 20 March, they're demonstrating in Leicester Square, then heading for Downing Street. On the 30th, Bromley's Development Control Committee meets to consider the full planning application. The campaign will be out in force.

At the edge of the park, Joseph Paxton's monumental carved head is turned away from the sphinxes and alcoves, the balustrades and security men. His sightless eyes look over distant Bromley. His face wears an expression of fathomless contempt.

Crystal Palace Campaign: 0181-244 8399