In the beginning…
Three quarters of a century ago, as war was drawing to a close, the wartime coalition government published Professor Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan. Abercrombie saw the open spaces of the Lea Valley as a great opportunity for regenerative planning. He proposed joining together the green – and blue – open spaces into a ‘great regional reservation’ for the benefit of all Londoners.
More than 20 years later, Abercrombie’s dream became reality. A Regional Park and a Regional Park Authority were created, funded by the ratepayers of London, Essex and Hertfordshire, and stretching for 23 miles, from Stratford in East London to Ware in Hertfordshire. The Authority’s mission, set out in its founding Act of Parliament: to develop, improve, preserve and manage the Park as a place for the occupation of leisure.
The infant Park Authority set about its mission with a will, assembling holdings of land which, here in Hackney and Leyton, included Walthamstow and Leyton Marshes, the Waterworks site and Springfield Marina. Other sites, including the Middlesex and Essex Filter Beds, were added in the 1980s, forming a springboard to create the great regional reservation envisaged by Abercrombie.
Today, we see this vision of the Park threatened and beset from every quarter, from housing developments, land sales and laissez faire planning, and the worst of it is that most of the severe threats come from the Park Authority itself. Far from cohering the Park as a place for the occupation of leisure, round here the Park Authority seems more preoccupied with dismembering it.
What has gone wrong? And what needs to change? Before attempting to answer these questions, let us look at the three main threats to our part of the Lea Valley.
1) The ice centre
The present ice centre was built by the Park Authority in the 1980s. We in Save Lea Marshes do not, for one moment, dispute its role as a popular sporting facility, valued by novice skaters and experts alike, but it is a blot on the landscape. It has urbanised this section of Lea Bridge Road and encouraged house builders to push for development nearby. It is, however, coming to the end of its life.
The way forward, the Park Authority has decided, is a much, much bigger ice centre – two ice rinks side by side, one for elite skaters and one for general use – and they plan to build it on the site of the current building. A new ice rink will be broader and deeper, dominating more of Lea Bridge Road with its broader frontage, pushing back deeper into the Marshes and eating up more protected Metropolitan Open Land.
The Park Authority purportedly reached this decision after carefully scoring the Lea Bridge Road site against three other possible sites, including the Waterworks Centre and car park by Lea Bridge station, and unused land at Temple Mills adjacent to the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre at the northern end of the Olympic site.
Save Lea Marshes argued that either of those sites, although each with their own issues, would have been better than the current site, less disruptive to the integrity of the Park, more convenient for users and less likely to cause congestion. But the Park Authority chose the present site, using a scoring system that contained many curious assumptions and, most importantly, contained absolutely no weighting for environmental impact. If it had, the ice centre would not be planned for the present site.
We now know that the Authority is working to sell, lease or develop those alternative sites. The Authority will say that it had absolutely no thought of raising money from these sites when it scored them as possible locations for the new ice centre and only looked at raising money from them after they were ruled out. However, we think the facts strongly suggest the Authority had it in mind to sell off those sites all the time.
A small, curious but interesting fact: one reason why the Authority rejected the Temple Mills site was that it was within the blast zone of the storage facilities for the hydrogen-powered buses stationed nearby. That, apparently, made the site a no-no for an ice rink. The Authority is now busily negotiating to raise money by leasing the site – more Metropolitan Open Land – for a hotel. Guests can be assured that the Authority no longer considers the blast zone a danger!
Meanwhile the Park Authority has been working, full steam ahead, on the current site and it has already spent a fortune on planning and on consultants.
The Park Authority, with its duty to preserve and manage the Park, appears focused on desecrating Metropolitan Open Land.
2) The Waterworks
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when governance of the Park was better, the Authority acquired the defunct Essex Filter Beds from Thames Water, creating a much-cherished nature reserve and building the Waterworks Centre as an interpretation centre to serve the Reserve and the Authority’s adjacent pitch-and-putt golf course.
Twenty years or more later, the Authority has closed the pitch-and-putt course and has all but abandoned the Waterworks Centre, which is now rarely open and is virtually devoid of activity. And it has been trying to sell the land for housing.
The land is Metropolitan Open Land and, as such, is protected from inappropriate development. However, the Park Authority has been lobbying Waltham Forest Council to de-designate the land as Metropolitan Open Land and rezone the Waterworks Centre, car park and a huge swathe of land behind the building for housing.
Local people discovered the Park Authority’s plans when Waltham Forest Council launched its Lea Valley Eastside Vision in December 2016. The idea that a great chunk of parkland would be sold off to the highest bidder to raise capital to build the new ice centre, leaving the Waterworks Nature Reserve hemmed in by housing, caused a public outcry.
Today, Waltham Forest’s Draft Local Plan shows the area as Metropolitan Open Land and does not list it as a possible site for development. The Park Authority has publicly drawn back, for the moment, from plans to sell off the Waterworks site and now says it does not need the money from the land sale to pay for the new ice centre. But, critically, the Park Authority appears to have more-or-less abandoned any interest in the Waterworks site except to raise money by hiring it out for events. It has also offered up much of the Waterworks site in response to Waltham Forest Council’s call for development sites. And it has been touting the land to developers. We believe the Authority is biding its time until a new opportunity to sell off the site arises.
The Park Authority, with its duty to preserve and manage the Park, is focused on selling off protected Metropolitan Open Land.
3) The ex-Thames Water Depot site
Walking down Lea Bridge Road from the Waterworks and towards Hackney, we come to the secret and secluded ex-Thames Water Depot: the site, until the 1980s, of filter beds forming part of the Lea Bridge Waterworks and the site, too, where the Lea Valley Park project was launched at an event addressed by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1964.
Thames Water filled in the filter beds in the early 1980s and subsequently used the site as an operational depot until it no longer needed it and sold it – for £33.3 million + VAT – to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government acting on behalf of what is now the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), which brought forward a plan to build two academy schools. In a bold and principled decision, Waltham Forest Council rejected the ESFA’s planning application as incompatible with the site’s status as Metropolitan Open Land and the ESFA has not appealed the decision. The future of the ex-Thames Water depot is up for grabs.
The Park Authority is now, in one sense, the main player in this saga. However, it did have the opportunity to acquire the site for nothing back in 2011 as compensation for land given up to the Olympic Park Authority. With the lack of vision typical of the Park Authority, it turned down the offer because it could not work out a way of turning the site to ‘good account’.
While the Park Authority purports to care about the future of the site (as part of its statutory planning process, the Park Authority firmly committed itself to supporting ‘Park compatible uses’ for the site), it seems reluctant to step forward and defend the openness of the site. Perhaps Save Lea Marshes’ bold vision for it as a place for wild swimming and a place where people learn to live harmoniously with nature through small-scale food growing or sustainable foraging will capture the Park Authority’s imagination as it seems to be capturing the imagination of local people. We can live in hope anyway!
In the meantime, we continue to be disappointed that the Park Authority failed to snap up the site when it had the chance and thereby failing in its statutory duty to preserve the Park.
The Corporate Land and Property Strategy
Back in 2017, the Authority approved a new Corporate Land and Property Strategy. According to the Authority’s own documents, a mysterious and secretive group called the Land and Property Working Group:
has identified broadly areas of land for potential disposal which could be considered as land not required for regional park Purposes […] we will aim to dispose of those parcels of land over the next 10 years when market conditions are appropriate to ensure best capital receipt of revenue income. [emphasis added] (www.saveleamarshes.org.uk/DocumentSearch/display.php?Document=59)
The Park Authority has steadfastly resisted disclosing where these areas of land are. In the meantime, the landholdings the Park Authority has identified as ‘no longer required’ are undoubtedly being left fallow and offered up for development whenever the local riparian councils issue calls for development sites. This is why we strongly suspect, even though the Park Authority won’t say so, that the Authority’s estate at the Waterworks site is on the list for ‘potential disposal’.
This is a strange carry-on. When a strategic authority such as the Park Authority is set up to protect and manage open space, it should focus on strategic land assembly in order to carry out its purposes. That is the way other great open spaces, such as Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath, have been built up.
Yet the Park is engaging in an underhand policy of dismemberment.
We accuse the Park Authority
The statutory duties of the Park Authority are clear, and it is failing to exercise it powers and use its resources to protect and enhance the Park as it is required by law to do.
The Park Authority finds itself in a bind, certainly, one which affects many public bodies when political pressures force it to choose between its own institutional survival and fulfilling its purpose. The political pressure, in this case, comes mostly from Conservative-run councils in South London who are determined to drive down the taxes paid to fund the Park by cutting costs, selling land and building venues they hope will be profitable. In the meantime, the green spaces of Abercrombie’s vision are up for grabs to the highest bidder.
We accuse the Park Authority of defaulting on its purpose: reneging on its commitments and covering up its intentions. We deserve much better.