This objection was written by Abi on 1st March, before the licence application for the Waterworks Festival was refused by Waltham Forest Council. It covers the issues of land contamination, biodiversity, Metropolitan Open Land and community involvement:
London Borough of Waltham Forest
1 Farnan Avenue
London, E17 4NX
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To whom it may concern,
Lea Valley Ice Centre, Lea Bridge Road, Leyton, London, E10 7QL. Application ID: 194162
I wish to object to the planning application 194162 to build an ice centre on Lea Bridge Road. My objection centres on the fact that the proposal constitutes inappropriate development on Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) and the applicant has not made out the case for ‘very special circumstances’ to outweigh the harm to MOL. I have also made comments about biodiversity, contaminated land and community involvement.
Metropolitan Open Land
The site of the proposed ice centre is MOL and it is settled law that MOL has the same protections in law as Green Belt. Section 143 of The National Planning Policy Framework (2019) states that, ‘Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.’
Local authorities are directed, at Section 145 of the NPPF, to regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in Green Belt except in a number of exceptional circumstances. The proposed development does not meet the requirements of any one of the exceptions and is, therefore, inappropriate development on Green Belt. In order to persuade the planning authority to grant planning permission, the applicant must, therefore, prove that ‘very special circumstances’ exist. It does not and the proposed development is consequently contrary to the NPPF, as well as Policy 7.17 of the London Plan, Policies G2, G3 and G4 of the Draft London Plan, Policy CS5 of the Waltham Forest Local Plan and Policy 84 of the Draft Waltham Forest Local Plan. The application must, as a result, be denied.
The applicant, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVPRA), advances numerous reasons why ‘very special circumstances’ exist. It argues that a number of ordinary factors can combine to create ‘very special circumstances’ and suggests that the circumstances it has cobbled together can indeed to be considered ‘very special’. While it is true that Sullivan J did say, in R (Basildon District Council) v First Secretary of State and Temple  EWHC (Admin) 2759 at paragraph 17, that ‘… in planning, as in ordinary life, a number of ordinary factors may when combined together result in something very special’, he went on to say that whether ‘any particular combination amounts to a very special circumstances […] will be a matter for the planning judgement of the decision-taker.’ A number of circumstances cannot automatically combine to create ‘very special circumstances’. It is therefore relevant to look at each circumstance in turn to evaluate its significance and in order to see if, collectively, the circumstances can be considered special enough to outweigh the harm to MOL.
The LVRPA argues that Waltham Forest Council should use the Harrow School decision (PINS ref: APP/M5450/W/18/3208434) as a blueprint for deciding this planning application. It suggests that the relevance of the circumstances put forward in the Harrow School case are on all fours with the circumstances it puts forward, and it suggests that the same weight given to a circumstance by the Planning Inspector in the Harrow School decision should be given to a corresponding circumstance in this decision. This approach is, however, at odds with the unique nature of a decision as to whether there are very special circumstances to outweigh the harm to Metropolitan Open Land: ‘very special circumstance’ is not, by its very nature, something that can be replicated in other places. It also completely ignores the fundamental difference between the MOL at Harrow School and the MOL around the Lee Valley Ice Centre: the former is part of a private institution from which the public are largely barred and the latter is situated within publicly accessible open green space. The relevance of a circumstance and whether it can be joined with other circumstances to create ‘very special circumstances’ is a matter for the planning judgement of the decision-taker in the local context. Furthermore, if the Harrow School decision is used as a blueprint for this decision, as the applicant desires, this application would be creating criteria against which all future applications to build on MOL would be judged, something legislators and have been circumspect about avoiding in order to allow decisions to be made on their own merit in order to protect MOL from development.
The circumstances are as follows:
- The LVRPA argues that that the Lee Valley Regional Park Act (1966) gives it powers to build within the Park and, given that 95% of the Park is Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land, it has automatically been given the power to build on Metropolitan Open Land. This is deeply problematic. It suggests that the LVRPA believes it is immune from subsequent legislation designed to curtail precisely what it wants to do, namely disappear valuable open green space. It also flies in the face of Abercrombie’s vision of the green and blue open spaces of the Lea Valley joined together to form a ‘great regional reservation’, which the LVRPA often uses to justify its existence.
- The LVRPA adopts a similar approach when it argues that the fact that Waltham Forest Council is obligated to treat the Park Development Framework as if it were included within its development plan in any planning determinations effectively means it can make planning decisions about its own land. The Park Development Framework makes scant reference to the ice centre, saying just, ‘options for an additional ice pad and the expansion of sporting and leisure use of the Ice Centre to be explored’. There is absolutely no analysis about the ‘very special circumstances’ that must be satisfied before a new ice centre could be built and no discussion of how big a new ice centre would be. The plans now put forward to Waltham Forest Council must be addressed on their own merit and the only body with the powers to decide whether or not the ‘very special circumstances’ exist is Waltham Forest Council.
- The LVRPA argues that the need to replace the existing ice centre which was built on MOL is justification for building on more MOL. Yet, the ice centre and surrounding land was only designated as MOL in 1989, seven years after the ice centre was built. Both Waltham Forest Council’s ‘Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land Review’ and the ‘Waltham Forest Focussed Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land Assessment’ acknowledge that the current ice centre is inappropriate development and it is unlikely that the current ice centre would have been built if a planning application was being brought forward now. The applicant might be able to argue for a new building of the same size, but a building twice the size is wholly inappropriate and would erode the openness of MOL. Although the applicant argues vociferously that this is the only site where a new ice centre can be built, local people do not agree. In fact, Waltham Forest Council’s ‘Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land Review’ goes so far as to say, at paragraph 5.16, that ‘it supports such relocation as this would provide an opportunity to rationalise the land uses in MOL3 and enhance the sense of openness, particularly views north-south along the Lea Valley’.
- The LVRPA argues that the need to develop MOL to provide ice skating for paying customers outweighs the need to protect MOL to provide green open space for people to enjoy informally and for free. I can see why it would, as an organisation, place a higher value on revenue-generating activities, but the need to make money is in no way special and cannot be, or contribute towards, a ‘very special circumstance’.
- The LVRPA argues that the community benefits provided by the current ice centre will be lost if it cannot be replaced. Notwithstanding the point that there are more appropriate sites for the ice centre in the vicinity, the LVRPA is essentially arguing that the need to develop MOL to provide ice skating for a proportionally small number of paying customers outweighs the need to protect MOL to provide green open space for many more people to enjoy informally and for free. It argues that a new ice centre will promote community cohesion, ignoring the impact of the development on those living nearby and disenfranchising the increasing number of people who value nature above all things. While there is community value in sporting facilities, community benefits are a reason for building a new ice centre and not a justification for building a new ice centre at this location.
If the LVRPA really believed in the social mission they are describing for the ice centre, there would already be programmes in place to, for example, bring underachieving young people at risk of involvement in anti-social behaviour into the centre or enable young people with disabilities to skate. Yet all the programmes the LVRPA describes are happening elsewhere. A case for ‘very special circumstances’ cannot be made by failing for a long time to do something and then arguing that a new building will miraculously enable you to fulfil your social obligations.
Furthermore, the LVRPA argues that ‘the report finds that due to the provision of greater links to the surrounding open spaces, the community are more likely to use these and enjoy the wellbeing benefits of using open space’. This suggests that the LVRPA will actually improve people’s ability to access open green space when the ice centre is built, which is patently untrue. For example, the LVRPA claims that ‘public access through the site from Lea Bridge Road to Walthamstow Marshes is relatively restricted’ (‘Landscaping details’, documents 6DF). Yet it is extremely easy to walk from Lea Bridge Road to Walthamstow Marshes along a path to the west of the current ice centre, a route that will not be significantly changed if the development proceeds. It is also extremely easy to walk from Lea Bridge Road to Walthamstow Marshes across open grassland to the east of the current ice centre, a route that will disappear under the curtilage of the new building if the development goes ahead. Building on MOL to double the size of the ice centre will not improve access to open green space.
- The LVRPA talks a lot about the health benefits of ice skating, but it fails to mention the mental health and physical health benefits of being out in nature, exploring open green space on foot and by bicycle. According to Sport England’s Active Lives Adult Survey May 18/19, walking for leisure is the most popular physical activity amongst adults, with 19.7 million adults walking at least twice a month. It is also growing in popularity, with 514,000 more people walking at least twice a month in May 18/19 than in May 17/18. If the new ice centre – which at 7029 square metres is almost double the size of the existing building – was built, open green space will be lost and the people who do not want to ice skate will be disenfranchised. A bigger ice centre might improve the physical and mental health of the few that use it, but it will bring immeasurable harm to everyone else.
- It is difficult to know how to describe the LVRPA’s argument that building on MOL will improve MOL. It is both bizarre and ludicrous and must be rejected out of hand.
The new building will probably look nicer than the current building, but it will be much, much bigger. It will eat into Porter’s Field, Leyton Marsh (something, incidentally, the LVRPA formally promised local people it would never do when it first started talking about the development) and it will continue the urbanisation of this stretch of Lea Bridge Road. The LVRPA even goes so far as to say that ‘the scheme will increase the townscape of this part of Lea Bridge Road’ (‘Planning statement’ (documents 6DN)). It is simply impossible to argue that increasing the townscape justifies the development when it runs entirely contrary to the concept of appropriate development on MOL (paragraph 7.56 of the London Plan states that, ‘Appropriate development should be limited to small scale structures to support outdoor open space uses and minimise any adverse impact on the openness of MOL.’).
The LVRPA has, as it tells us many times, been running the ice centre for 38 years. In all that time, it has resisted the considerable efforts of many local people who have lobbied for landscape and biodiversity improvements. It has neglected the area and is now using that neglect to justify developing MOL. I would go so far as to argue that this is not just not ‘a very special circumstance’, it is also a reason why the LVRPA’s promises to improve the landscape and biodiversity after they have their new ice centre cannot be trusted.
I will use just one example to illustrate how wary local people are of the LVRPA’s promises. The applicant provides a table in its ‘Planning statement’ (documents 6DN) that contains a breakdown of the ecological interventions it will be carrying out outside the red line boundary of the current application. This has been provided in response to Waltham Forest Council’s request for information on landscape enhancements that could be delivered to ‘mitigate’ the impact of the development. In that table, the LVRPA says that it will provide an outdoor education area, an additional grazing program, additional tree planting and a new Kingfisher nest bank in the Waterworks Nature Reserve. Kingfishers are a Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1982 and any efforts to encourage them should be welcomed. Yet, the LVRPA has rented the land that abuts the Waterworks Nature Reserve to the Waterworks Festival, a company that wants to hold a festival on the site each year; a festival that promises ticketholders that it will ‘deliver the volume and sound pressure proper dance music deserves’ and tells them that ‘we are confident of levels that are unparalleled in east London’. On the one hand the LVRPA is using efforts to encourage Kingfishers to bolster its environmental credentials, and on the other it is intending to commit an offence under Section 1 (5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1982 by intentionally disturbing a wild bird included in Schedule 1 of the Act.
- The LVRPA argues that the proposed site is the only site the ice centre can be built. However, the Eton Manor site is far more suitable and this is echoed by Waltham Forest Council’s ‘Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land Review’ which says, at paragraph 5.16, that ‘it supports such relocation as this would provide an opportunity to rationalise the land uses in MOL3 and enhance the sense of openness, particularly views north-south along the Lea Valley’.
The LVRPA compared a number of sites in 2015 and used the resulting scoring matrix to justify choosing the proposed site for the new ice centre (the scoring matrix has since been updated, in 2019, but since the decision to select the current site was made in 2016 this additional effort seems moot). Save Lea Marshes analysed the methodology behind the scoring matrix and found it seriously wanting (see https://saveleytonmarsh.wordpress.com/2016/05/25/leyton-marsh-is-their-no-1-choice-but-do-the-numbers-add-up/), which calls into question the validity of the decision made using it. Additionally, it fails to evaluate the relative impact of a development on the openness of Green Belt/MOL at each site when this is the fundamental question on which any application rests.
Furthermore, we know that the LVRPA has been in discussions with the London Legacy Development Corporation for some considerable time about building a hotel on the Eton Manor site (precisely how long is difficult to determine, as the discussions seem unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy). With this in mind, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that the primary reason the LVRPA does not want to build a new ice centre at Eton Manor is because it wants to build both a hotel and an ice centre on MOL within Waltham Forest.
I will use just one example to illustrate how the evidence collected during the exercise to compare the sites appears to have been used to deliver an unfavourable outcome for the Eton Manor site and a favourable outcome for the current site. In the ‘Planning statement’ (documents 6DN), one of the reasons for downplaying the suitability of the Eton Manor site is that the ice centre would be within the blast zone of the hydrogen fuel cell at the nearby TFL bus depot. Consequently, the current site – which is not affected by a blast zone – is judged more favourably. Yet, its questionable how seriously the LVRPA ever took the risks presented by this blast zone given it is now proposing people spend the night at a hotel within the self-same blast zone.
The LVRPA states that, ‘the VSC case and the benefits that will accrue as a result of the development of the replacement ice centre will clearly outweigh the harm to MOL’ (my emphasis). Yet there is nothing ‘clear’ about their case. Most of the circumstances the LVRPA has advanced are not reasons why the ice centre should be built on MOL that can contribute towards ‘very special circumstances’. Many of them, in the LVRPA’s own words, are benefits that will accrue if the development goes ahead. The only circumstance that should be considered is the fact that the current ice centre will need to close if the development does not go ahead. The LVRPA argues that this means that the community will lose a sporting venue and all the benefits that go alongside it, but this is only the case if the LVRPA decides not to pursue another site for a larger ice centre. At this point, the LVRPA is claiming that there is no other site but this is not true; the Eton Manor site is a viable alternative. Consequently, the fact that the current ice centre will close is not sufficient to outweigh the harm to MOL. The LVRPA has not made a case for ‘very special circumstances’ and the application should be denied.
The ‘Biodiversity survey and report’ (document 6D3) states that the development will provide more than the required 10% net gain in biodiversity. If the development goes ahead this should, of course, be welcomed. However, the ecological enhancements the applicant is proposing in the ‘Design and access statement’ (documents 6D7) are not dependent on the development. They could – indeed should – have been done anyway and the LVRPA should be challenged on its fitness to manage the site in the future given its poor record to date. That the site currently supports ‘largely common habitats of generally low ecological value’ (‘Design and access statement’ (documents 6D7)) is the fault of the LVRPA, no one else. Furthermore, the development will displace one of our country’s most iconic species.
Hedgehogs are a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and a series of species of principal importance under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Data gathered during a survey carried out with the LVRPA in October 2016 proves that hedgehogs have made the strip of land behind the ice centre, where the mown grass meets dense scrub and trees, their home. Subsequent anecdotal evidence from dog walkers supports this evidence. This is land that will disappear inside the curtilage of the proposed development. The hedgehog population in the UK is under increasing pressure, with surveys by citizen scientists in 2018 showing that hedgehog numbers have fallen by about 50% since the turn of the century (www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/pdf/sobh-2018.pdf). Attempts to relocate hedgehogs away from the proposed site of a car park for HS2 and further into Regent’s Park have failed, demonstrating how territorial hedgehogs are (www.royalparks.org.uk/managing-the-parks/conservation-and-improvement-projects/hedgehogs/hedgehog-research-reports). These two facts combine to demonstrate that the proposed development will result in the eradication of hedgehogs from this part of Leyton Marsh.
The applicant states that 20 trees and 184 square metres of scrub vegetation will be destroyed to make way for the development. While the applicant undertakes, in their plans, to plant 140 additional trees it is important to recognise that mature trees cannot be replaced by smaller trees that will struggle to establish and reach maturity because of the engineered surfaces around them.
Significantly, the architect and landscape architect employed by the applicant admit that it is nigh on impossible to find a way to ensure the plans they develop – whether they be biodiversity plans, low carbon plans, plans to use responsibly-sourced recycled materials during the build or plans to limit noise and light – are implemented in full. Any benefits described by the applicants are possible future benefits, possible future benefits that might not materialise, and they come at a cost to existing wildlife and to the local community. If the development were to be granted permission, it would be critical that robust long-term planning conditions were put in place to ensure the LVRPA keeps to its biodiversity promises given the way they have let the site deteriorate up till now. Similarly, it would be important that strong planning conditions were put in place to ensure the low-carbon, environmentally-sensitive design and build criteria that minimise light and noise pollution are not watered down by the contractor during the build.
Many people enjoy spending time in open green space throughout the year and Porter’s Field, Leyton Marsh, adjacent to the site, is particularly well used by people of all ages. Given this, it is concerning that the ‘Land contamination assessment’ (documents 6DD) does not contain a category that encompasses these people. It states that there is a high risk of illness caused by ingestion, dermal contact and inhalation of asbestos fibres and dust during construction, and a high risk of onsite sources of contamination leaching through surface permeable soils and harming construction workers. Surely people walking close to the site during construction will be exposed to as much risk as construction workers? But, while risk to construction works can be mitigated from high to moderate with the appropriate use of PPE and implementation of CDM regulations, what happens to those using the area informally to walk their dogs and play football? How are they going to be protected?
This issue is of particularly concern to local people given the cavalier way the Olympic Delivery Authority, working on the applicant’s land and with the applicant’s oversight, managed the very same situation when the temporary basketball training centre was built on Porter’s Field in 2012. Huge piles of contaminated soil were left uncovered for weeks, and the risks to health were constantly underplayed. This must not happen again. If the development were to be granted permission, it would be critical that robust planning conditions were put in place to protect everyone in the vicinity of the building site from harm.
If the development were to be granted permission, planning conditions should also be put in place that ensure the applicant not only monitors groundwater and gas throughout the build phase, but has a plan in place to fully mitigate any adverse effects of contamination quickly. The LVRPA, in part, justifies this development with reference to the increase in biodiversity they claim will result. This will mean little if the development has caused significant damage to the environment as it is being built.
It is not clear how far the wishes of local people factor into planning decisions. However, the applicant has gone to great lengths to explain how it has consulted with the community about its plans and it claims that the feedback it has received has been positive. Yet, this is questionable for several reasons:
- The engagement was skewed towards ice centre users: It is much easier for the applicant to reach individuals who use its facilities and they are more likely to be positive about new facilities. In contrast, those who oppose the plans are more diffuse, harder to reach and are usually represented by local organisations. Detailed criticisms produced by one local organisation representing hundreds of people is counted as one voice opposing the plan, while a tick box questionnaire completed in minutes by hundreds of ice centre users as they pass through the door is counted as hundreds of voices.
- The questionnaires were designed to collect data that would result in a positive response to the plans: Despite the impression given by the few questions included in the report, the questionnaires focused on asking people if they would like particular aspects of the development. It did not ask them their opinion on negative aspects of the development, such as loss of open green space, and it did not give people space to articulate their concerns.
It should also be noted that the ‘Statement of community involvement’ (documents 6DQ) misrepresents the view of Save Lea Marshes. It states:
Local community group, Save Lea Marshes (SLM) […] raised concerns about several areas, including: […] the impact of increasing car parking on site and how this would affect congestion, traffic and pollution. They added that it made more sense to spread sporting venues across an area to encourage users to travel to different places and avoid the concentration of traffic in one location.
In fact, what we said was almost the opposite. When examining the LVRPA’s objections to building the ice centre at the Eton Manor site we referred to the following argument made by the LVRPA:
the Eton Manor site currently has 140 parking spaces which are all needed at evenings and weekends; they will become a premium as the centre develops its programme. A new twin pad ice centre will need circa 220 parking spaces but there is insufficient space to accommodate this amount of ‘onsite parking’. Even if additional space could be found it is unlikely that the London Legacy Development Corporation would agree to this land being used because of their policy of traffic restraint.
And responded as follows:
Waltham Forest Council also have a policy of traffic restraint and the current proposal for the new ice centre appears to suggest that the existing 140 car parking places at the LVIC will be retained or reduced, so the LVRPA’s previous requirements for car parking spaces have been downgraded and there is parity between the number of spaces available at Eton Manor and the number of spaces available at Lea Bridge Road. The LVRPA should not be undertaking activities that increase car usage anywhere and, consequently, it makes sense to cluster sporting venues at a sporting campus rather than spread them out and encourage more people to travel down the already crowded and polluted Lea Bridge Road. Major events at more than one of the venues at the same time are also likely to be very rare, so the perceived pressure on the existing spaces at Eton Manor is unlikely to materialise.
These issues are raised in part to put the record straight, but also to illustrate how the company carrying out the market research on behalf of the LVRPA has interpreted the information it received in such a way as to project an image of local support for the project. If the market research had been carried out by a neutral organisation that was not being paid by the applicant, the findings may have been very different.
With best wishes
Save Lea Marshes