Threats to the Marshes – Encroachment of blocks around the Marshes

There are a number of ongoing threats to the Marshes and the wider Lea Valley environment, including the River Lea itself. Sadly, many of these threats come from the very public bodies which are entrusted with the protection of the Marshes: notably the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA), the body charged with protecting the Green Lung; Waltham Forest Council as the principal planning authority; and, in the case of the river, Thames Water, the Canal and River Trust and the Environment Agency.

The LVRPA in particular sees this southern section of the Lea Valley Park as an area from which to raise revenue. It has expanded the Ice Centre and the Riding Centre, created moorings on the River Lea, held music events, hosted camping sites and other ventures, planned to build houses and is planning to build hotels on its land; all to raise funds. Not only that but the LVRPA cannot be relied on to defend the Marshes from inappropriate developments on its fringe which will harm the open space.

Waltham Forest has, for the most part, backed the LVRPA’s projects, with the notable and admirable exception of the music festival at the Waterworks. In addition, it has pursued a policy of building tower blocks along the eastern side of the Marshes.
In the first of three blogs we discuss the threats from tower blocks.

New Spitalfields

The largest and most significant threat to the Marshes is the proposal to develop the New Spitalfields site. As far as we know Waltham Forest is continuing with its plans to build a small town on the site of the present New Spitalfields Market. Its latest thinking appears on this website https://wfreg19south.commonplace.is/en-GB/proposals/sa02/step1.

As can be seen from the two stars, Waltham Forest still plans to build tower blocks on the site. It also still plans to build a new bridge across a very sensitive part of the Old River Lea, posing a real threat to the river bank and the Site of Importance for Nature Conservation on the Hackney side of the river. In addition, it plans to build a cycle track north of the site through an untouched piece of land despite earlier showing an interest in saving this for wildlife. Waltham Forest has paid almost no attention to anything said to it. Consultation seems to be a complete waste of time. In every respect this remains an extremely harmful development.

New Spitalfields is right next to East Marsh and across the River Lea from Hackney main Marsh. Waltham Forest has indicated in its original site allocation it intends to build blocks of 18-30 storeys and 10-13 storeys on the site, so given the close proximity of the Marshes it is inevitable they will tower over the adjacent open spaces. No amount of tree planting will make any difference.

This will have a major and, we would argue, a very negative impact on the sense of openness of the Marshes and the enjoyment people gain from the experience of being away from the built environment they have to live with most of their lives. The predicted view from Hackney Marshes below was produced as part of an earlier skyline study of the visual impacts of the New Spitalfields development https://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/sites/default/files/2021-11/Draft%20skylines%20study%20south%20Waltham%20Forest%20sites%20part%201.pdf.

While Waltham Forest acknowledges there are sensitivities around height in its latest site allocation https://wfreg19south.commonplace.is/en-GB/proposals/sa02/step1 – ‘05.5.4 Sensitivities: The following elements of the surrounding context would be sensitive to increased height: – the River Lea and adjacent green / amenity space, which may be vulnerable to overshadowing’ – it continues to press ahead with these tower blocks. However, regardless of this, it is claimed in the plans for Lea Bridge Station, as is discussed below, that tall buildings will actually enhance the visual aspect of the Marshes and provide beneficial views for those on the open spaces.

It is interesting to note that as usual Waltham Forest focused on creating ‘new high quality landmarks’ which would define Ruckholt Road as a ‘gateway’, gateways and landmarks being constantly repeated themes in Waltham Forest planning applications, which it thinks justifies building blocks near open spaces. Height at the eastern edge of the site will ‘complement development at Leyton Mills’. When this site was first presented for consultation Waltham Forest produced the following statement in the skyline document referred to above about the opportunities the site offered:

05.5.3 Further opportunities include: – defining Ruckholt Road as a gateway to the borough with new high quality landmarks, – improving accessibility to the area’s green amenity offer, – capitalising on views to Hackney Marshes and the Queen Elizabeth Park, – clustering height at the eastern edge of the site to complement development at Leyton Mills retail park – potential for investment in sustainable transport infrastructure

The creation of a major population centre will also greatly increase the pressure on the neighbouring open spaces. This is not considered in the plans as presented so far. Given the size of the town to be built and its immediate proximity to the Marshes it is inevitable East Marsh and the Old River Lea will become playgrounds for this new population. These are public spaces for the benefit of the wider community but being so close to New Spitalfields will mean the Marshes will be at risk of being overwhelmed by its new neighbour.

Waltham Forest’s attitude towards these neighbouring open spaces is exploitative. The project will provide benefits by ‘improving accessibility to the area’s green amenity “offer”, – “capitalising” on views to Hackney Marshes and the Queen Elizabeth Park’. However, it isn’t Waltham Forest but Hackney that will bear all the costs of this development and none of the benefits. Hackney Council seems not to have understood the scale of the problem as Waltham Forest is pushing ahead with its developer fest regardless of any concerns or objections.

This is an inappropriate site for housing development under any circumstances, as it is part of the Lea Valley floodplain and will be seriously affected by climate change in terms of both river flooding and rising sea levels. We have already raised our concerns in another pointless consultation with Waltham Forest, as set out in this blog https://www.saveleamarshes.org.uk/2021/07/27/do-we-really-need-a-new-village-on-a-flood-plain/. Plus ça change…

Temple Mills Bus Depot

The Temple Mills Bus Depot site is an adjunct to the New Spitalfields site, on the other side of Ruckholt Road. It is also part of the flood plain and as vulnerable to flooding as the New Spitalfields site.

Once again, from what is known so far, Waltham Forest is planning to build tower blocks on this site. This site did not feature in the South Waltham Forest allocations document so there is no skyline survey. It also doesn’t feature in the latest Common Place web page.

However, as far as we know the blocks are likely to be built on top of the bus depot, which will make it a very cramped site. It is expected to host a new station, which appears on the New Spitalfields Common Place page mentioned above. This will also serve New Spitalfields, so there will be considerable flows of people moving to or from this site across or under Ruckholt Road.

Tower blocks built on this site will further extend the line of blocks running down the east side of the Marshes and add to the impact of the New Spitalfields site on East Marsh. The Bus Depot site is next to the open space at Eton Manor, which is a fairly small space. Any blocks built there will severely affect that space which will also be overshadowed early in the day.

The extra new population at this second site, a village to be added next to the town at New Spitalfields, will further add to the massive pressures on the Marshes.

Lea Bridge Station

To the north of these two sites is the development planned at Lea Bridge Station. Of the projects which have reached the planning stage this is the closest to the Marshes and will have the tallest tower blocks. The highest block on this site is planned to be 26 storeys.

Instead of challenging this development as it should, even though it recognises it will have negative impacts on the Marshes, the LVRPA has chosen not to object but to accept a feeble Section 106 payment, as shown in an LVRPA document below – this is Lea Valley danegeld!

The height of the two towers on Sites 1 and 3 are of concern in terms of their intrusion upon the open landscape character of the Regional Park and the current visitor perception of openness and removal from the surrounding urban area. The proposal has undergone a lengthy design review process to arrive at its current configuration. Amendments to the scheme have been discussed with London Borough of Waltham Forest and it is the case that significant reductions to the height of the development are unlikely, as the number of stories has been determined by the level of affordable units required, together with the considerable costs of dealing with the site constraints and commercial viability. In addition, intensive development adjacent to train stations is accepted policy nationwide.

The development, given its size and location, will generate a regular and sustained increase in footfall to the Park. The potential impacts of this are not considered within the supporting planning documents, although the benefit of the proximity of these green spaces is recognised in terms of recreational facilities available to residents. Whilst the Authority welcomes visitors to its open spaces it needs to be able to manage access to, around and through sites to maintain, protect and enhance the open spaces and key biodiversity features for which they are valued. 5106 contributions are being sought to help reduce the impact on the Regional Park and a package of proposed mitigation measures is under discussion with officers at the London Borough of Waltham Forest; these will be presented at committee. They would be secured via Planning Obligations/S106 contributions as part of any permission, if the Council were minded to grant consent.

Tower blocks built on this site will further extend the line of blocks running down the east side of the Marshes. The image below, taken from the planning application, gives an idea of how the two blocks, one tastefully concealed behind a tree, will dwarf the existing Motion blocks.

The scale of the two towers is shown in this graphic taken from the planning application.

The further images show how they will appear from the Marshes and Leyton Marsh. The first is taken from the Draft Skyline document https://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/sites/default/files/2021-11/Draft%20skylines%20study%20south%20Waltham%20Forest%20sites%20part%201.pdf. This is an old graphic. The blocks have since increased in height so their visual impact is understated. No graphic was presented of the impact on the Marshes in this Skyline document so the best view that was available was this view from Lea Bridge Road.

The second graphic, also taken from the Lea Bridge Station planning application, shows the two Lea Bridge Station blocks, as seen from Leyton Marsh, along with the cumulative effect achieved with the Motion blocks and the Gas Works development, which is also tastefully partly concealed by a bush.

Waltham Forest is brazen about its desire to build tall buildings. As elsewhere, the draft skyline document emphasised the creation of “landmark buildings that complement the taller heights already introduced nearby”. In other words, existing tall buildings need more tall buildings around them! The document goes on to say “The following elements of the surrounding context would be sensitive to increased height: – residential houses to the east of the site”, no mention of the Marshes to the west.

In the planning application the applicant was keen to provide ‘context’ in that there are other tall buildings in the ‘townscape’. So why not some more?

10.170 The Proposed Development would be perceptible in the backdrop of the view and would introduce several new blocks of tall and large development into the townscape. Blocks would be recognised within the context of existing tall and large development along Lea Bridge Road, although the scale (height) of the proposals would become the tallest feature on the skyline

Not only does the applicant not feel embarrassed about these developments close to the Marshes, it now brazenly makes the ridiculous claim that these developments will be beneficial and will actually improve the visual amenity the Marshes. Are we supposed to take this seriously?

10.175 The Proposed Development would form an attractive skyline feature and will improve the visual amenity of the view with high quality architecture. It would give rise to a Moderate Beneficial likely effect. This likely effect is significant.

During the consultation Waltham Forest’s agents declared the Marshes were only ‘apparently natural’ as they were man-made! The reality is all landscapes in the UK are man-made, even the Highlands of Scotland. And being man-made doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be protected from development in their current form.

Applications of this kind, as at the Gas Works, have already been accepted by Waltham Forest and are plainly pitched to fit in with the Council’s approach. According to the Lea Bridge Station planning statement the site is not even indicated for tall buildings and won’t comply with policy on delivering social housing yet they feel able to put plans of this kind forward for approval.

This aggressive approach suggests they know perfectly well that the whole point of open space is the sense of openness experienced by those using the space and that putting tall buildings on the edge of open spaces defeats the whole purpose of having open spaces, which is to allow people a feeling of freedom from the restrictions of the city and give them a place where they can enjoy nature. The benefits of green spaces for mental and physical health are now well established. Pouring enormous amounts of concrete is both harmful to that enjoyment and harmful to the environment.

Should these developments happen, the Marshes will be ringed on their eastern side by a line of blocks with: the Motion development already built; the Gas Works sites in Lea Bridge and the Score Centre in Oliver Road already granted permission (https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/planning-applications-and-decisions/planning-application-search/score-centre); Lea Bridge Station awaiting discussion at planning committee; the Bywater site at the south end of Orient Way, Leyton, along with New Spitalfields and the Bus Depot, all at an early stage of planning; and completed developments further south in the Olympic Park and further north towards Tottenham. The developments already built at the Motion site and those further north and south are shown below.

The Motion blocks as seen from the back of the Riding Stables
Developments to the north of the Marshes
Developments to the south in the Olympic Park

This latest round of developments at Lea Bridge Station and New Spitalfields and the Temple Mills bus depot will be the most damaging of all and need to be strenuously opposed.

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