Chinese billionaire dreams of rebuilding London's historic Crystal Palace

Updated 2018-02-02 09:10:01 China Daily

A contemporary picture of London's Crystal Palace. (Zhongrong / for China Daily)

A Chinese property billionaire says it is still his dream to recreate the Crystal Palace in London, despite the collapse of a deal three years ago to build a replica.

In 2013, billionaire Ni Zhaoxing, owner of Shanghai-based Zhongrong Group, held talks with Bromley borough council, the local authority responsible for a park in Southeast London, to construct a 500-million-pound (1 million) replica of the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 and which was destroyed by fire in 1936.

Zhongrong started discussions with then London mayor Boris Johnson in 2012 and attracted some fanfare when the idea was announced a year later.

However, in 2015, a 16-month exclusivity agreement between the Chinese developer and the council expired, and talks collapsed.The disagreement included a failure to agree on how much of the park Zhongrong would be allowed to develop.

"It was fate," Ni told the Financial Times. "As soon as I saw the site, I knew I wanted to build there…It is still my dream."

The original Crystal Palace was built in 1851 in Hyde Park and was moved to an area in South London in 1854. It was seen as a symbol of the British Empire's industrial achievements.

Zhongrong planned to create more than 2,000 permanent and temporary jobs as well as attract wider investment into local high streets.

"I wanted to build the most magnificent building in the world there and the government welcomed its positive economic impacts," Ni said. "But some residents worried that I would put up fences and they wouldn't be able to jog."

A report in the Financial Times at time said "the failure to secure the deal underscores the challenges in completing business deals between China and the UK".

It is thought that Zhongrong had expected to take possession of the land before it had secured planning permission and before it had produced a detailed plan that had been accepted by Bromley borough council.

In China, developers secure land upfront before delivering the terms of the contract.

At the time, Richard Ford, head of international planning at Pinsent Masons, the company that advised Zhongrong on the deal, told the newspaper that the desire to secure the land beforehand is "not unique to the Chinese, but it's not normal practice in the UK, particularly in the public sector, where mayoral and local authorities have to be more cautious".

Ni added: "When you plan a large project in the UK or US, you need to deal with one technical department after another. You don't know how long it will take."

The 62-year-old businessman pointed out that in China most building approvals can be secured in a year or less. But, he has not given up hope of resurrecting the Victorian structure.

"You need to realize your dream before you can have a new one," he said. "I still want to rebuild the Crystal Palace."

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