South Norwood residents have called for Croydon Council’s help to reopen South Norwood Country Park’s visitor centre nearly four years since a fire caused it to close.

Despite previously making commitments to reopen the centre, volunteers now say the council is ‘ignoring’ them.

The friends of South Norwood Country Park (SNCP) have been working to reopen the centre for the past few years, as they see it as a vital community resource.

In a petition attracting nearly 3000 signatories, the group said: “The longer the centre remains closed, the more damage will be done and the more it will cost to repair.”

Friend of SNCP  member and South Norwood resident Lucy Hopkins told the local democracy reporting service (LDRS) of the group’s struggles to get the centre reopened.

She said: “We’ve got a really engaged community around the country park and we’ve been pressuring Croydon Council for a long, long time to give us our facility back.”

Before its closure during the first lockdown of 2020, the centre hosted educational classes for nearby schools and acted as a base for conservation volunteers who worked to protect the park’s biodiversity.

The centre was also home to the park’s only public toilets. 

Lucy added: “From a personal point of view it’s really important. My kids' schools are a couple of streets away and they aren’t able to do any forest schooling or any sort of meaningful outdoor learning because the facility is not there anymore.

“It was used by volunteers, like the friends of South Norwood Country Park and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), as a base and storage space. It also acts as a shed for the parkrun volunteers who organise the weekly 5k run.

“Before this all happened, there was an environmental garden that wasn’t being properly maintained by Croydon and we were looking to get some money together to fix it. That has now had to be put on hold.”

While lockdown meant the centre was unlikely to reopen immediately, the centre’s revival received the groundswell of support last year thanks, in part, to support from local Labour councillor Amy Foster and Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones’ backing. 

In a tweet made last year, Jones said: “We are really lucky to have such a well-loved green space here in Croydon. It would be wonderful to encourage people to use South Norwood Country Park from Croydon and beyond.”

Their campaign eventually caught the attention of Croydon’s Mayor, Jason Perry, who visited the site in December last year.

However, according to Lucy, support from the council has waned since this promising start. She told the LDRS: “We had the meeting in December and it’s now April, we’re just not getting anywhere.”

“However, we still haven’t seen them and we’re now being ignored. We’re all volunteers and it’s just a really frustrating situation to be in.

“Now I’m just sending weekly emails, and there’s not any form of response. If I was to get some response saying there was a delay and that it is on their list that would be fine, but I’m literally just being ignored and I’ve never had a situation like this.”

A South Norwood local, who was involved in the campaign, told the LDRS how the council’s position on reopening the centre has changed over the past few years.

They said the council’s initial hesitance to get involved came from a lack of time, costs and concerns over insurance matters. 

After fearing the campaign had lost steam last year, Croydon Council drastically changed its tact and re-engaged with the volunteers who had conducted their own local consultation on plans for the centre’s future. 

He told the LDRS: “The Mayor and the officers were positive that a funding and practical solution could be put in place to proceed with repairs to the building. They said they would go away and develop an options paper but since then nothing has happened.”

This sentiment was shared by Amy Foster, councillor for the nearby Woodside ward and the Council’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Children & Young People.

She told the LDRS: “It’s disappointing that the commitment to moving this project forward we received from the Mayor has not been fulfilled and I share the team’s frustration that once again lines of communication with the Council have gone silent. 

“We’ve seen across the borough how community groups can help revitalise spaces and protect vital assets and I’ve loved seeing how the pop-up Visitor Centre project has already started people together in the Park to share their views on what makes the Country Park such a special place.

"However, there’s no getting away from the fact that a vandalised, burned-out building makes people feel South Norwood isn’t a welcoming or cared-for community, which absolutely isn’t the case. 

“Rebuilding South Norwood Country Park’s Visitor Centre gives us a positive vision for the future of this unique and well-loved nature reserve and I want Croydon Council to be a partner, and not a blocker, to the volunteers working to make that vision reality.”

Green Party London Assembly candidate and former warden of South Norwood Country Park, Peter Underwood.

He told the LDRS how the TCV came to rely on the centre during the many hours it spent on conservation projects in the park.

He told the LDRS:  “It would be great if we can get the visitor centre back open because it provides the potential for so much more volunteering, community engagement in the park and local schools. We used to do this sort of work, and it would be great if we could do it again.”

While visiting the site of the now boarded up visitors centre, one resident who lives local to the park told the LDRS they believe the council should be working with businesses to take on the running of the visitor centre.

This is what has previously happened across the borough with the case of the Wandle Park Cafe.

A spokesperson for Croydon Council said: “We are committed to protecting our green spaces and investing in our parks for our residents to enjoy and lead healthier lives.

"We have restored a Park Ranger to South Norwood Country Park and will continue to work with the Friends of South Norwood Country Park and other residents to protect the park for the future.

“The council has been exploring options to renovate the visitor and education centre since it closed following fire damage in 2020. Works to renovate the centre were halted during 2021 due to resourcing and the council’s documented financial challenges since 2020.

"The Mayor and council officers met with residents at the park in February and we will continue to work with the community to get this facility restored for the benefit of locals and visitors.”