Tonight the Community Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee will approve plans to agree, in principle, to running a Formula E race in Battersea Park starting the process of formal approval at full council and planning consent next year.
It’s a process I’ve been watching for a while. Indeed, when I first heard of it over a year ago I was a supporter of exploring the idea. Wiser colleagues were not, sensing the disruption and risk to the park was too much; but I felt the initial offer seemed suspiciously ’round’ (if I recall the Formula E proposal was £250,000 with four weeks of setting up and dismantling). Perhaps, I conjectured, if pushed they may offer more or be able to get in and out more quickly and if that was the case, we might get a stage at which both we and the Friends of Battersea Park think the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.
I’ve obviously not been a witness to the developments since May but it would seem there has been movement, I don’t know if it’s more cash, less set-up time or a combination of both, but we’re now on the brink of giving the go-ahead to Formula E.
But in that time my opinions have changed too.
I don’t know whether I’m a heavy user of the park. I am in and out of there a lot. Almost all my running incorporates Battersea Park in some way, I take the kids to the playground, they go to a sports club there, we are semi-regular attenders of the Pump House’s Sunday Socials, but while I may average more than a visit a day, I am sure there are those for whom the park is an integral part of their life, just as there are some for whom it is an irregular oasis of calm in an inner city.
But more and more I’ve become concerned that an event like this is a dangerous erosion of what makes the park special.
I know there is a need to raise revenue. And I know the park already does that. But it does it well, the park can almost hide events. You might have visited the park the other week and spent a day there without knowing a cinema screen was going up. You need never visit or use any of the concessions or pay to enter the zoo or use the Millennium Arena and sports facilities. There can be exhibitions or big parties taking place at the British Genius site, but other park users may never know.
Formula E strikes me as different. It’s hard to see how it can take place without total closure of the park to the ordinary public during a key period of (hopefully) good weather in June. It’s hard to see how you can set-up and take down all the facilities of a race track without a lengthy period of disruption. And while the council is proud that a 5am test run didn’t create any complaints I suspect the real disruption would be the 40,000 visitors, then the comings and going of crew, TV, support, and everything else associated with a race. That is before you consider the risk to the park’s environment and heritage.
So having been one of those who said we should look at it I now find myself thinking we shouldn’t look at it. But seem to be in a minority. The news has been out for a while, Battersea Park being touted as the preferred track for at least a year in various places (indeed, Googling it recently I discovered that they’d even said the council were keeping it secret until the elections, which shows how much it wasn’t being kept secret) but watching reaction it seems lots of people are keen. Even the Friends of Battersea Park seem to be, at least, neutral to the prospect.
I have, perhaps, lost sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps if Formula E offered me loads of cash to invest in Lavender Hill so they could race on it I’d be much keener (and, practically speaking, can see how roads would be much more suited than a park). But I can’t help coming back to the feeling that Battersea Park is something special. It’s part of what make Battersea such a wonderful part of London.
Perhaps everything does have a price. But if it does, you need to be absolutely sure you know what that price is, because once it’s been sold once, it simply becomes a bit of rental land. When that happens a lot of what makes it so very special will be lost forever; I can’t imagine a price tag worth that.