THE BLOG

The Chinese Are Coming - to London SE19?

05/08/2013 18:23 BST | Updated 02/10/2013 10:12 BST

The latest twin posters in The Economist's 'Where do you stand?' advertising campaign argue why Chinese investment in Africa is and/or is not a good thing. The Chinese are doing more than Western donors to bring down poverty in Africa - or they are bolstering oppressive regimes and ignoring working conditions. Where do you stand?

The adverts are designed, of course, to make you realise that The Economist is the magazine for people (like you) who are smart enough to understand that there are always (at least) two sides to an issue.

But the benefits, or otherwise, of the economic super-power's intervention have suddenly become an issue in, of all places, London SE19, which happens to be the suburb where I live. This is intervention not actually by the Chinese government but by one of its richest citizens. The Shanghai-based development company, ZhongRong Holdings, owned by billionaire Ni Zhaoxing, is promising/threatening to build an exact replica of the Victorian Crystal Palace which stood in Crystal Palace Park until it was burnt down in 1936.

The story appeared first in Property Week and was followed up by the national and London media. Discussions are apparently at an early stage (with local super-power, the Greater London Authority, and park owners, Bromley Council) but the company aims to submit a planning application this year.

Naturally the twittersphere took off - with mixed but not necessarily balanced or informed views (perhaps we don't have enough Economist readers round here). Some thought it was a great opportunity to recreate lost glory, others that it was a crass intervention by developers who knew nothing of the area. I contributed. My first reaction was that it was rather shoddy relationship management to leak the story to the press (as I suspected the GLA or Bromley had done) before telling the community stakeholder group set up to advise the authorities on local views. The group wasn't best pleased.

A few days on, I've given it further thought. Crystal Palace in its day was very much a statement building: it said a great deal about Victorian wealth and power and showmanship. ZhongRong Holdings are, we're told, responsible for quite a few of the buildings in the Pudong district of Shanghai. Fabulous or brash? I've seen them and actually they're both. They also say quite a lot about modern Chinese wealth and power and showmanship....

So if a planning application comes in, what should be the response? Well for what it's worth, I don't think a 21st century pastiche of the 19th century Crystal Palace is a good idea - for architecture, for the local community, or for London.

First, it's not at all clear what would go inside such a massive building. Apparently not housing - but bars, restaurants, casinos? Or is someone planning an 1851-style Great Exhibition? There's perhaps a lesson from the Millennium Dome: don't put up showy big buildings unless you know what they're going to be used for.

Second, there is a perfectly good 'master plan' for the regeneration of Crystal Palace Park, whose approval has been tested in the courts and which envisages a new museum and much general sprucing up of the neglected park with its lakes, stone dinosaurs and wide open spaces at the top of London. It also allows for other small-scale building (lots of ideas already) and a very small amount of housing round the park fringe - no bad thing for all sorts of reasons, although some people are shirty about the idea.

Thirdly, if ZhongRong Holdings want to re-build Crystal Palace, they're going to need a new act of parliament. The current 1990 law limits the size of building permitted in the park. And given the recent history of Crystal Palace Park and previous plans to regenerate it (locals are very keen on exercising their democratic rights and are in and out of the high court like a yo-yo), the Chinese might think twice about promoting something which may not be wholly popular.

But if Mr Zhaoxing would really like to invest in our area, then many of us are flattered by his interest. And there are alternatives to a new 'Crystal Palace' . Perhaps he - or his agent - should come along and talk.