#85: Crystal Palace Hill Top – Stand up and be counted.

The Friends of Belair Park have a commitment to campaign for green space on a broad front. Our members have had a long-standing involvement in the effort to secure the Hill Top section of Crystal Palace Park and a current attempt by the Mayor of London to impose a huge development – requires a tough response.



Re-building the Crystal Palace?

A done deal with a greedy developer to snatch a chunk of a public park.

The Hill Top section of Crystal Palace Park has trees, an incipient area of woodland and scrubby slopes that encourage wildlife, including migrating birds. It has open skies and great views. All of these things belong here and the public have a right to enjoy them here because the Hill Top is public open space.

Hill Top and mast

UNDER THREAT! trees and bushes cluster on the Hill Top beside the iconic Crystal Palace TV mast – this provides a great habitat for birds

From Belair Park, deep within the Dulwich Basin, swathes of green space, hedgerow and woodland sweep upwards as wildlife highways to the tree-crowned Hill Top.

Since 1997, the Friends and allied groups have battled to save the Hill Top from being handed over to developers who see here only a chance to line their pockets. This has been a frustrating and effort-intensive task, not least because of the complex politics between groups and individuals vying for kudos. Until last year, it appeared that the powers-that-be had settled on a vastly expensive masterplan that went way beyond the needs of responsible park management. Costs exceeding £140 million were mooted and were, laughably, supposed to arise from “matched funding” of £12 to 7 million, to be provided by selling off parts of the Park for two housing estates. We had a number of meetings to discuss the possibility of modifying the masterplan at least slightly. We suggested that volunteer groups tidy up the Hill Top and lay paths so that the public could enjoy a managed wildlife area next to the TV mast. After showing initial interest, which appeared genuine, Bromley went quiet and finally threw out the idea in terse language. The reason given was that, following the masterplan to the letter, there was no provision for biodiversity on the Hill Top. By that stage, some Bromley Council officers may have known what was really coming, so they may have needed an excuse to get themselves off the hook.

Broken promises paving the way to the legalised theft of a park.

London Mayor Boris Johnson broke his pre-election promise that he would not allow housing on the Park and once in, backed the housing estates. Then, acting like a whimsical dictator and abusing his powers to “call in” planning applications and decide them arbitrarily, he summarily threw out the housing estates plan and imposed a deal with development giant ZhongRong International. This would see them create a massive building reminiscent of the famous 1854 Crystal Palace and also seize a huge swathe of the rest of the Park. Of course, after the battle in the late 1990s to halt the unpopular multiplex development, Bromley Council gave a firm and unequivocal promise that no large commercial building would ever rise on the Hill Top. The ease with which Bromley betrayed its promise – we saw no fusilade of protests aimed at Boris Johnson – tells us exactly how little say we the public will really have in this new project.

For those of us who are campaigners for green space, the brutal realities of international commerce have now broken into our cosy world of memorial park benches, children’s swings, manicured flower beds, managed wildlife strips and leisurely cricket matches under summer skies. They demand a stern response from green space watchdog groups if we are to defend our invaluable and irreplaceable urban green and ecological areas against being targeted again and again as prime development land.

In reply to the wheedling calls for compromise from those backing development, we respond that we already have a perfect compromise – we have the built environment outside the Park and a haven for open space and ecology inside Crystal Palace Park.

Our campaign may be a gnat against a battleship, but we can, at the very least throw a spotlight onto deceit, corruption and brutality.

We are hosting a non-violent campaign of protest. Its purpose is to bring to the same focus and to highlight simultaneously the fight to protect democracy and green space in London and the appalling environmental record of the Chinese government. We shall be saluting the extraordinary bravery of Chinese men and women who, in the face of terrifying oppression, are sacrificing their liberty, or even their lives, in a push for freedom and democracy that is as important to the future of the human race as was the defeat of apartheid. We must not forget the lesson of Nelson Mandela: it could well be that the future president of a free and democratic China is, as you read this, suffering in a labour camp, languishing in a cell, or on the run. As China grows in economic, technological and military might – and in its ability to dictate its wishes beyond its borders, it is in the interests not only of the Chinese people, but of the rest of the international community, that China should make a transition to meaningful democracy.

This is not about squabbles between nations. The causes of freedom and ecology require us to take a moral highground that transcends nationalism. Our campaign is about ordinary people asserting themselves when those with wealth and power would otherwise ride roughshod over them. As the old joke goes, “In capitalism man exploits man, in communism, it’s the other way round.” The rapprochment between a section of the UK’s Conservative establishment and China’s Communist regime over Crystal Palace illustrates the point. Our campaign, of course, is non-political and we recognise that many Conservatives will feel deeply embarrassed by Boris Johnson’s disturbing misuse of his powers.

In China, publishing this newsletter could have resulted in the authors being sent to a brutal labour camp (China has pledged to abolish them, but hasn’t done so yet) – or simply disappearing (less paperwork). Merely reading it would have been dangerous.

Of course, for all we know ZhongRong’s executives might detest living under a repressive regime steeped in corruption, but we must still wonder how ZhongRong’s background in China might have conditioned its expectations about the ability of the UK Government to ride rough-shod over objections and to deliver a chunk of a public park into its hands.

According to an Amnesty International news release: “Since 2003, more than 5,000 households have been evicted from the village Ba Gou amid intimidation and threats of violence. Han Ying, a prominent campaigner against the evictions and demolitions, has been repeatedly targeted by the authorities. . . . Ba Gou village had received frequent visits by unidentified men in police uniforms and hired thugs who threatened to demolish houses.

That’s how things get done in China.

We emphasise that our campaign is about public open space and wildlife and that we will not be side-tracked into discussions about alternative buildings or their location on park-land. We have no agenda, be it for cash or kudos, to see any other building raised on the tree-lined Hill Top. We have no potential financial interest arising from the management of the Hill Top for ecology.

To get involved with our campaign contact:  friendsofbelairpark@hotmail.co.uk


As we launched our campaign, we were alerted that Karl H. Richter had already taken the initiative and created an open letter challenging several aspects of the process. It is addressed to Rt Hon Dame Tessa Jowell MP, Hon Jim Dowd MP, Hon Steve Reed MP, Hon Chuka Umunna MP (cc Mayor Boris Johnson, Darren Johnson AM). Readers may access the letter through Richter’s website.



Filed under Crystal Palace, Friends of Belair Park

4 responses to “#85: Crystal Palace Hill Top – Stand up and be counted.

  1. Alex Hamilton

    Non political? you could have fooled me – “the brutal realities of international commerce… throw a spotlight onto deceit, corruption and brutality…”Tory plots with wicked Chinese operators of ..” brutal labour camps ,…… terrifying oppression, …….unidentified men in police uniforms and hired thugs who threaten to demolish houses…” What’s the difference? (Apparently you have succeeded in demolishing the proposed houses here, so on goes the London housing shortage. )
    Can you please address the actual issues, rather than indulging in a feel-good rant against a foreign developer and a class-enemy London Mayor. Would you have objected to straight reconstruction of the original Crystal Palace? why? Or only if it makes some money for someone? or maybe only if that someone is a rich foreigner? Are all businessmen trying to make money to be labelled as “greedy”?


      Dear Mr Hamilton, your comments make several mistakes and are misleading. As campaigners for preserving green space, we have locked horns with Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative politicians. We have also collaborated with them as and when we can. We have, in fact, objected very strongly to a multiplex scheme, an attempt to re-build a Crystal Palace, and an art gallery on stilts on the Hill Top – all from British businessmen, so I resent the implication that our concern is the nationality of the firm in question here. My colleagues and I are not against development in appropriate places (not public parks), progress or technology. Nor are we against businessmen/women, nor money-making ventures, as you would like your readers to believe. We have respectfully referred to “conservatives,” not “tories.” I hope that we remain on the best of terms with our local conservative cllrs who have been so very supportive over local green space issues. Since Chinese government officials are attempting to shift assets abroad whilst persecuting people who ask for transparency, and since the Chinese government has invested in ZhongRong, which seeks to build on Metropolitan Open Land at Crystal Palace, the disgraceful treatment of Chinese dissidents (who ask only to enjoy the same right to free speech that you take for granted in expressing your views here) is an issue that has arrived unbidden on our doorsteps. I feel, with respect, that your comments relate to stereotypes of protestors (although it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be Little England xenophobes or anti-capitalist radicals) rather than to my colleagues and I. But, thanks, anyhow for the debate, which has allowed me to clarify our stance.

      Dr. Martin Heath (Chair, Friends of Belair Park).

  2. My point is that you should address the issue of the development itself. Its rightness or wrongness does not depend on the state of free speech in China. Are you suggesting that this proposal has been born in “deceit, corruption and brutality.”?, colluded in by the Mayor, the Council, Ove Arup etc etc? That is how yr remarks read. Such remarks are highly counter-productive.
    I read that Crystal Palace Park was specifically created to house the original Crystal Palace, and a whole array of other cultural and educational artefacts including the dinosaurs. What is the problem in reinstating that Crystal Palace? Was not its loss in the fire of 1936, the destruction of a piece of priceless heritage? Are you against the restoration of the dinosaurs too?
    And by the way, I think you should read Karl Richter’s letter more carefully – no blanket condemnation of the project – for sure, much suspicion,; ,but nothing about the outrages in the village Ba Gou, let alone calling on the name of the blessed Nelson Mandela.
    Instead I give you some quotes:
    “If conceived with the right vision, I think a new Crystal Palace may actually be able to match the aspirations of the original Royal Commission……Messrs Ni, Johnson and Cameron might secure a legacy of being involved in a creation that would have the potential to be a jewel in the crown of the local community, London, the UK and the world.”
    Now that would be something worth fighting for.

    • The maltreatment of Chinese dissidents is of direct and immediate relevance to this business venture because there is a possibility that some of those who benefit form it financially (the Chinese Government) invests in ZhongRong and have a vested interest in imprisoning those who have asked them to fully disclose their overseas interests.

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