What happened to our money?

Following the takeover of Leyton Marsh by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) for the construction of the absurd and rarely used temporary basketball arena, which was vigorously opposed by members of the local community and resulted in the creation of the Save Leyton Marsh campaign, now called Save Lea Marshes (SLM), the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA) was given two pots of money to make up for the damage the ODA had done. First, according to an LVRPA feedback report to a meeting of the Walthamstow Marshes site management workshop held on 14th December 2013, £73,000 was provided for ‘Leyton Marsh enhancement works’. This came from the licence fee the ODA paid for using the marshes for the temporary basketball arena and the fine they paid when they handed the land back to the LVRPA later than agreed, and was to be spent on ‘community engagement and events’. Secondly, a further £75,000 was paid by the ODA for the botched reinstatement and this money was to be used to fund ‘the final reinstatement works on Sandy Lane and ongoing management works on Leyton Marsh’.

The point of these payments was to make good both the damage to the land and the loss to the community, which had had to put up with the invasion by the ODA and the loss of its amenity. However, we found the lack of responsiveness of the authorities – the LVRPA, the ODA and Waltham Forest Council – during the Olympics was repeated in the way the LVRPA handled the decision-making process around the spending of the money.

Members of the community had been attending meetings organised by the LVRPA concerning the management of the Marshes, as shown by the feedback report. These were, therefore, the appropriate occasions to discuss this spending. The whole point was to involve the community in this process, not just to restore relationships that had been badly damaged by the Olympics, but also to deepen the participation of the community in the management of the Marshes. However, members of the public were not consulted in any way on the money provided for the ‘final reinstatement works on Sandy Lane and ongoing management works on Leyton Marsh’. Indeed no budget has been produced to show how this money was spent. We are now asking for this information in a Freedom of Information request. It is a measure of how the LVRPA does things that there has been no feedback on this critical aspect of restoring Leyton Marsh.

In fact, the community was not even made aware of the existence of the £75,000 pot of money until after it had already had discussions about spending the £73,000. This meant it included items, such as habitat management, in its proposals for the community spend, which should have been included in that ‘ongoing management works’ budget.

A feature of its engagement with the public is how the LVRPA has steadily cut back on public consultation. At the start of this process there were regular ‘forums’, at which, as the name implies, there was something approaching an open discussion with officers. These forums were then replaced by ‘workshops’. These had an emphasis on the LVRPA providing information rather than on open and inclusive discussions in which members of the public could contribute to policy-making. However, at least these continued to be opportunities for discussion. These more limited discussions were then replaced by the present walkabouts, in which a couple of rangers take members of the public on a ramble around Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes, an entirely informal event with no attempt at an agenda or any kind of record-keeping. At all times there has been a problem with advertising these meetings as the LVRPA has long had an aversion to putting up notices telling people about them.

Initially the LVRPA and local people discussed the various projects that could be funded from the £73,000 provided for ‘Leyton Marsh enhancement projects’. Very little went on projects which had originally gained support in the meetings with the community. We regard it as entirely inappropriate that money was spent on projects which the LVRPA would normally have funded itself. The whole point was to give the community a say and to include it in deciding what should be done, both because the money was provided as compensation for the damage done to Leyton Marsh and the community and because, supposedly, this was in line with LVRPA policy to engage the public.

To give an idea of the kind of projects the community supported, the list below is taken from the minutes of the forum meeting in January 2013:

  1. Community engagement projects
    Location: Walthamstow Marshes
    Aim: Provide learning opportunities and raise awareness of the marshes amongst the local community and visitors. This will be achieved by providing a range of ways for people of all interests, ages and abilities to get involved in the site and work undertaken by LVRPA.
    • Option 1: Young rangers, aged 8–12
    Estimated cost: £3,500
    APPROVED
    • Option 2: Outreach for teenagers, perhaps through Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme
    Estimated cost: £3,000
    APPROVED
    • Option 3: Special-interest events such as walks and talks
    Estimated cost: £2,500
    APPROVED
    • Option 4: Open events, such as Lammas Harvest Day, Dog Agility Day and a Community Picnic
    Estimated cost £20,000
    REJECTED
  2. Leyton Marsh habitat management
    Location: Leyton Marsh
    Aim: Diversify and enhance habitats on Leyton Marsh.
    • Option 1: Scarify and over-seed areas of grassland
    Estimated cost £1,000
    APPROVED
    • Option 2: Planting hedges and trees
    Estimated cost of £7,000
    APPROVED
    • Option 3: Planting wildflowers
    Estimated cost £750
    REJECTED
    • Option 4: Digging a wet area
    Estimated cost £500
    APPROVED
    • Option 5: Improving the entrance to the marshes
    Estimated cost £7,000
    REJECTED
    • Option 6: Cleaning up the area around the oxbow lake
    Estimated cost £20,000
    REJECTED
  3. Natural screening of Ice Centre
    Location: Strip of land between the rear of the Ice Centre and the southern footpath on Leyton Marsh
    Aim: Create a continuous woodland belt between the Ice Centre and Leyton Marsh for both aesthetics and nature conservation value.
    • Estimated cost £4,000
    APPROVED, with money put into escrow until a decision about the ice rink’s future is made.
  4. Art project on underpass
    Location: At the cattle creep and the Sustrans Lea Bridge Road underpass
    Aim: Through an art project engage with local children to raise awareness and educate them about Walthamstow Marshes.
    • Estimated cost £6,000
    APPROVED
  5. Other
    • Option 1: Improving the footpath between the Sustrans route and the boardwalk
    Estimated cost £3,000
    APPROVED
    • Option 2: New signage
    Estimated cost £10,000.
    REJECTED

The next meeting, on 18th March 2013, expected to review fully costs proposals for the options approved in January. This did not happen. Instead general budget figures were presented, as below:
• £49,000 for Community engagement projects, to be rolled out over two to three years;
• £10,000 for Leyton Marsh habitat management ;
• £6,000 for natural screening of the ice centre, with plans to be confirmed only after the future of the ice centre is known;
• £6,000 for the art project on the underpass.

That marked the end of the LVRPA’s ‘consultation’ on specific items to be spent from the £73,000 pot. No discussion ever occurred about the other £75,000 pot. After 18th March 2013 local people were excluded from any further discussion about how any of the money was to be spent.

Save Lea Marshes has made two Freedom of Information requests, in
2015 and 2017, about how this money was spent and how closely it matched what the community had agreed to. As we have never received any information about the £75,000 budget for reinstatement we are making a further request to see what exactly was done with that money.

Both the responses we have received only concern the £73,000. In fact, both accounts are imprecise and at times inaccurate. For example, the closing balance for 2013/2014 (£68,851.97), provided in the response in 2015, does not equal the opening balance for 2014/2015 (£67,000). In the latest statement in 2017 there seems to be an overspend of £4293, so this is not an accurate account of how the £73,000 was spent.

The latest Freedom of Information response shows that, among other things, the LVRPA spent £11,182 on habitat enhancement, which included £1,788 on scarifying, £3,695 on bramble removal, £340 on meadow-rolling and £1,829 on ‘meadow mix seed’. As stated above, if the community members had been aware of the £75,000 pot of money they would have said some of these items, like the scarifying, should have been met from that budget as they were directly related to the damage done by the construction of the temporary basketball arena. Likewise, we would always have objected to spending money on what would otherwise be routine maintenance, such as bramble removal and meadow-rolling, from either pot of money.

£584 was spent on hedge and tree planting which should probably have been spent from the £75,000 pot for ongoing management. Of all these expenditures it is likely only the £839 spent on bat boxes would have qualified as a project the community would have endorsed.

Another item was a ‘community’ film project which cost £5,000. Save Lea Marshes did get to meet the filmmaker at one point and then heard nothing more about it and have never seen the film. We know that there was some community involvement because we have heard that another group was involved. However, the idea of a film was never approved by the community in discussion with the LVRPA. We are trying to get more information about this film, when it was shown and to see a copy!

The LVRPA spent £4,846 on an event called Community Haystacks over three years. This is an annual event which is part of the LVRPA’s programme. Members of the community specifically rejected spending money on another ‘Lammas Harvest Day’.

Similarly, the LVRPA spent £4,615 on ‘Top Dog’. Once again the community members who attended the meeting in January 2013 rejected any spending on an event called ‘Dog Agility Day’. ‘Top Dog’ never gained approval.

Two other events, ‘Walthamstow Mysteries’ and ‘Love the Lea Festival’, received £2,000 and £1,667 respectively.

The LVRPA also spent £9,922 on ‘Casual Staff’. This appears under a budget heading entitled ‘Misc’. We don’t know who these casual staff were and what they were doing. The forum in January did include spending on ‘Junior Rangers’. There is no indication these casual staff fell into this category.

‘Misc’ also included £1,823 for ‘publicity’ and £1,485 for ‘tools for litter pickers’. Another related litter event, ‘Litter Bug, cost £3,000. Once again litter-picking would seem to be an ongoing activity for LVRPA staff, while it is not clear what the publicity was promoting. The purpose of the money was to engage the community and, while this could include some publicity costs, if it was spent on publicising events like Community Haystacks and Top Dog, this would not have been what forum members had in mind.

Other events which may or may not have gained approval if people had known what they involved include ‘Wild Family Days’ at a cost of £4,000, ‘Ranger Drop-in Days’ with £1,967 spent on ‘shelters’, ‘PA and Microphone’ and ‘Folding Tables and Chairs’, and £868 spent on ‘Bush Craft’.

An event, ‘Bat walk’, which cost £300, would probably have received community support along with bat detectors costing £1,724. However, ‘Ranger Rambles’ with spending of £245 on moth traps and £800 on binoculars sounds like it should have been LVRPA spending from a different budget. The point is, however, that none of these ideas were discussed by members of the community at the forums where spending was meant to be approved.

Of the items which the community did approve it seems the only one to survive was the ‘Lea Bridge Underpass’ arts project on which £15,528 was spent. Unfortunately, the underpass project was so badly done that it will have to done again. The mural-on-the-marsh project, which was originally the underpass project and which cost £6,252, was hijacked from its original proposer and artist, and turned into a completely different event which failed to provide children with the opportunity to create the mural as originally intended. We are as yet in the dark about whether or not the money set aside to screen the ice centre is still available.

The LVRPA promised it would allow the community to spend the money given to them by the Olympic Delivery Authority to compensate us for the damage done to Leyton Marsh by the temporary basketball arena. It has failed abjectly to keep this promise.

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