Bear Witness

Yesterday, Save Lea Marshes bore witness to the Lee Valley Regional Park’s continued attempts to commodify our open green spaces. We went to look at the temporary campsite at the Waterworks Centre.

What shocked me most was the infrastructure. The campsite is home to students competing in Shell’s Eco-marathon, which is taking place at the Olympic Park, for a week. But the site is so much more than a few portaloos and some tents. There are ranks of trailers containing flushing loos and showers. There are huge bladders containing fresh water, carried to the site by tankers, and equally large pipes carrying away the waste matter. There are arc lights to ensure everyone can move around the site without torches. There are huge communal tents for cooking and eating, and temporary roadways so that the team’s equipment can be ferried to and from their tents by vehicle. Lots of rented lorries are parked, not in the car park, which is empty but closed to the general public, but on the grass behind the Waterworks Centre. And the staff and students have full use of the Waterworks Centre, which is also closed to the public for the duration.

We spoke to one of the site managers and I asked if all the infrastructure was really necessary. Well, he said, Shell does want it to be more than a rough and ready campsite. They want the facilities to be something special. So our meadow has been mown to within an inch of its life, the land compacted and polluted with vehicles and the wildlife disturbed because some people who are visiting for a week must be especially comfortable. Is it fair that the needs of a few are put before the needs of a whole community?

One of the things Save Lea Marshes is particularly concerned about is the closure of the footpath that runs from the Waterworks Centre down the eastern side of the Nature Reserve and along the southern side of the Nature Reserve to Friends’ Bridge and Hackney Marshes. We raised this with Councillor Chris Kennedy, Hackney’s representative on the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA), and he contacted Vibrant Partnership who are renting the land on behalf of the LVRPA. This is the response he received:

When Vibrant started to discuss with Imagination (the operations company providing the campsite for the Shell event) they discussed the possibility of moving the whole site so that it all was on the south/east of the permissive footpath, thus allowing for the continued use of the permissive footpath. Early discussions looked promising and this could have been done for the camping part of the site, by moving the fence 4-5m from the previous years’ location, so away from the path. Security of the site may have been compromised potentially but we were all willing to consider this fully.

Unfortunately  due to the bins, toilets and shower blocks, potable water supply and access to the in-ground services we were not able to move the compound and provide less space for the camping element. You will see from the plans that there is infrastructure associated with the welfare of the students. This area includes regular daily movements of lorries and other vehicles to manage waste and water. The turning area is close to the site security and a safe distance away from living quarters of the campers but is adjacent to the footpath, therefore we could not split the site as the security for access to the site is at the gates adjacent to the ‘paddock’ and could not reasonably be split and is shown on the plan

We understand the footpath is a well-used link and we are mindful of this when hosting events, unfortunately for this event we have had to close the route for the duration.

Which reads as if Vibrant Partnerships and the LVRPA did everything they could to keep the footpath open, but the company setting up the campsite refused. We asked the site manager we spoke to about this and he was very clear. It would have been perfectly possible to keep the footpath open. They have more than enough space to the south of the footpath, and could have designed the site so that everything, including the lorries parked behind the Waterworks Centre, was to the south of the footpath. So why wasn’t this done? If I am being kind, I might postulate that Vibrant Partnerships just aren’t very good at contract negotiation. But the cynic in me suspects that the LVRPA never had any intention of ensuring the footpath was kept open. It is in their interest to get us used to being shut out of the land, so that we don’t object so much when they try to sell the land. It allows them to flex their muscles and draw a distinction between public rights of way and the footpaths they insist, at every opportunity, are permissive. This ignores, of course, their statutory duty to develop, improve, preserve and manage the land for leisure and recreation. That, surely, requires them to keep well-used footpaths – regardless of whether they are official rights of way or not – open for people to use.

The campsite will be gone in just over a week, but its legacy will live on. It is up to us to decide whether that legacy is positive or negative. Personally, I’m going to harness the pain I feel when I see the heras fencing patrolled by G4S security guards and channel it into efforts to stop the LVRPA selling this land. This land is our land.

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