#83: Playing field controversy – hard realities and a possible way forwards.

Turney Road field

Turney Road field as seen from Belair Park – where SCST have begun building a nursery.

Last year, the Friends, as a green space campaign, were drawn into the controversy over the future of the playing field (it is not public green space) between the Park and Turney Road, SE21. A local resident alerted us to the fact that concrete foundations for a new building were being laid on Metropolitan Open Land without planning permission. Needless to say, we came in with all guns blazing.

The building, one of whose functions will be to house a nursery, was intended by the Southwark Community Sports Trust to help raise funds to meet financial obligations. Shortly, we heard from supporters of the scheme that there was a possibility of developers taking over the sports field if the project were not successful.

I’m afraid – old habits die hard – that I responded to this at the Jan. 7 meeting called by the SCTS as if it were a case of the usual bullying developer’s rhetoric: “resistance is futile; economic realities can’t be denied; if we don’t get what we want then something really unpleasant will happen and it’ll all be your fault, etc.” Some people, clearly, thought that I was calling for people to scorn hard realities for a world of fine-sounding, but meaningless ideals. In fact, I was addressing one of life’s unpleasant truths: the world is full of greedy and selfish developers who want to grab open space, and who are capable of being extremely manipulative.

A common trick is for a pro-development lobby to urge “compromise.” “Compromise” sounds reasonable and responsible, which makes it easy to paint its opponents as petulant fanatics detached from reality. The problem is that we are often not talking about once-and-for-all-time minor compromises (the designation of MOL within the urban landscape is already such a compromise), but about acquiescing to a principle of compromise as an ongoing default setting – which means that open space will continue to leak away. “Compromise” is a routine way in which developers insert the thin end of the wedge. After that, the developer knows, one compromise can soon lead to another down a slippery slope.

At Crystal Palace Park, a group agreed to compromise and accept that two housing developments would be built on the Park to provide maybe 5% of the funding for an otherwise unfunded (possibly unfundable) masterplan whose costs were astronomical and soared way beyond the needs of restoration and management. Shortly, Bromley began to mutter that it wanted yet another housing estate, then, breaking its promises that no large commercial building would ever be built on the hill top, dumped this compromise arbitrarily and is now pushing for a giant commercial development housed in a structure resembling the old Crystal Palace.

Closer to home, by refusing to be herded into line by emotional blackmail, the Friends of Belair Park actually prevented Belair Park from being sold off, have prevented two attempts to smother it by an unsuitable commercial sports centre and have saved the ecology area. When active elsewhere, our supporters, by being sufficiently tough-minded to resist being manipulated, have won surprising victories.

However, I realised as the Jan. 7 meeting wore on, that far from dealing with people who were being morally blackmailed, that I was, on the contrary, dealing with people who cared passionately about providing a community service, and who had reached conclusions about how best to finance the Southwark Community Sports Trust in the face of rising costs by themselves. Nobody was stampeding them into it by applying external pressure. They were pushing for the scheme because they genuinely believed that that was the best way to keep developers at bay, developers who might be attracted if the playing fields were abandoned. We were talking at cross purposes.

I am putting it to Southwark that we need a more nuanced approach here, rather than the usual simplistic adversarial supporters-versus-objectors arrangement.

This dilemma cannot be resolved by the Friends. Responsibility for investigating this issue in depth and finding a resolution must be shouldered by the councillors and council officers.

I propose a two point response:

1) The Friends deplore, in principle, needless encroachment of buildings into green open space (recognising that some buildings are necessary to facilitate use of MOL). We urge opponents of the scheme to propose viable alternatives at the earliest possible opportunity. We invite the London Borough of Southwark to work with us and other amenity bodies to see if a) they can find a viable alternative to this scheme that would save the SCST and b) whether they can find a way of protecting all the open spaces in the Borough from a process of creeping infill and, eventually, potential loss to developers.

2) At the same time, it is essential that the SCST continues to exist and to provide a service to the community. If no useful alternative plans are forthcoming, then we would urge the SCST to consider ways to minimise the visual impact of new building. Screening by vegetation and green roofing (plants growing on the roof) are possibilities. Southwark should be working closely with all parties to ensure the long-term financial viability of the SCST and also that there is no threat of the present scheme becoming the thin end of the wedge in response to future financial pressures.

I hope that this suggested decision tree covers concerns from both sides of the fence and I repeat that the onus is upon Southwark councillors and officers to explore ways to resolve an awkward situation.

Martin Heath (Chair, Friends of Belair Park).

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