Threats to the marshes – Part II

Threats to the Marshes – building and inappropriate uses on open spaces

This is the second of our articles on the threats to the Marshes and other green open spaces. In our first article we dealt with the threats posed by the growing number of tower blocks lining the eastern side of the Marshes and the scale of developments at sites like New Spitalfields, Lea Bridge Station and Blackhorse Lane, their impact on the openness of these vital open spaces and the greatly increased population pressures they bring. Green open spaces have a crucial role to play in improving the physical and mental health of people, particularly those living in over-crowded and deprived areas like South Waltham Forest.

However, not only are there threats from developments on the edge of the Marshes; there are also ever-present threats from development on the open spaces themselves, including from schemes to build sports facilities and other developments like hotels, entertainment events, poor management of open spaces and the lack of awareness on the part of the public about the damage they can do with thoughtless fun.

Developments on open space

The Ice Centre

The LVRPA is building a greatly expanded double pad ice centre at Leyton Marsh, a wholly unsuitable site which has poor public transport connections and is situated on a narrow congested road. It should have been put at Eton Manor, as argued by Save Lea Marshes, where it would have been close to the extraordinarily well connected Stratford Station, now the busiest rail station in the UK and about to add yet another connection with the advent of Crossrail. However, the LVRPA has its greedy eyes on the open space at Eton Manor as a site for a (probably not) money-spinning hotel, so this is the reason why it has had to put the Ice Centre on Leyton Marsh instead.

Just as with the Olympics, when Waltham Forest gave permission for the damaging temporary Basketball Arena, which was barely used, Waltham Forest has viewed the Marsh with disdain. During the hearing into the Ice Centre application, the Chair of the Planning Committee declared Leyton Marsh to be a “desperate, scrubby, piece of Metropolitan Open Land”. Of course, it is the LVRPA which is responsible for the state of this MOL, so if she has such a low opinion of this piece of land it is the LVRPA she should hold responsible. Instead of insisting on proper care of the Marsh Waltham Forest uses the LVRPA’s mismanagement as a reason to agree to its plans.

The new Ice Centre has expanded onto and towers over the Marsh and has already involved the destruction of trees and habitat, particularly an area known to have provided a home for hedgehogs, a species increasingly under threat in the UK. The image below, taken from a video shot by contractors Buckingham Group, shows the area taken by the development.

Ian Phillips described these impacts in a video filmed after planning permission was granted Unfortunately ecologists employed by bodies like the LVRPA are there to progress their employer’s plans and these ecologists were no different. The image below shows land at the rear of the old Ice Centre cleared for the development.

The image below, taken by Kimberley Rowley in mid January, shows how the Ice Centre dominates the Marsh.

The LVRPA made specious claims about Biodiversity Net Gain at the Ice Centre, the latest officially sanctioned trick up the sleeves of developers whereby an area is run down so the developer can later claim an ecological improvement when they come to demolish an existing amenity.

The site lacks good public transport connections so despite claims it will reduce car usage it will actually encourage car use. The Ice Centre includes a 155 space car park. The idea is that the Centre will host national events. In fact, it is likely the Centre will fail in this objective as the LVRPA has already had to reduce the amount of seating to save money, which makes it less attractive for important events. For the same reason, it also had to abandon its plans to keep the Centre open while the new Centre is constructed, thus breaking promises made to skaters, who were encouraged to write in in support of the plans.

Whether or not it succeeds in its national ambitions, the Centre will be trying to attract users from wider afield and given the poor public transport links this will mean more people travelling from distance by car. Consequently there may well be overflow problems onto local streets, particularly at weekends when such events are likely to be held.

The Ice Centre will have long-term impacts on the Marshes and, most particularly, on the Oxbow Island, discussed below.

The Oxbow island

Another vulnerable site is the Oxbow island, next to the Ice Centre. The LVRPA has failed to approach the development of the Centre in a holistic way. The Ice Centre will include a cafe, which will also have an outdoor platform where people can consume food.

Save Lea Marshes participated in meetings at the time of the demolition of the Ice Centre and tried to discuss the future of the Ice Centre in the context of the Oxbow and the Marsh. The LVRPA refused to discuss the Oxbow in those meetings.

After considerable argument the LVRPA agreed to hold a separate meeting on the Oxbow but then spent most of that on presentations of what they were doing, which caused considerable frustration for those waiting to discuss the project. Their proposals included two bridges across to the island. The discussion became heated and a further on-site meeting was proposed. However, before that on-site meeting could happen the LVRPA announced it was going ahead with construction of a new land bridge and culvert, see image below. No further discussion or meetings would occur.

Save Lea Marshes had proposed that the island be restored as an island without any bridges so that it could be a unique environment and wildlife haven on this stretch of the River Lea. We do not think the LVRPA’s plans for access are compatible with the ‘island’ being a nesting site for swans and a site for an otter holt.

The Oxbow is a relatively short distance from the Ice Centre and its cafe. The Ice Centre cafe will not just serve skaters and visitors to the Centre but also members of the public using the Marshes. People driving to the Marsh will be able to park for free if they spend money in the cafe. It is not hard to envisage that people will see the Oxbow as a pleasant location to take food to and enjoy as a hangout with all the implications this has for disturbing and harming that environment and the wildlife.

The Oxbow channel will be receiving the melt water from the Ice Centre rinks. This is supposed to be filtered and cleaned in reed ponds in front of the Ice Centre before entering the river at the Oxbow channel. Plainly it is to be hoped this will work and not cause problems for that channel and the river. The creation of water features at the front entrance of the Ice Centre raises concerns that flooding may occur in the future.

To create a flow of water from the River Lea to ensure this melt water is carried away, the existing land bridge and collapsed culvert had to be dug out. Instead of leaving the restored channel open, thus recreating an island, the LVRPA and the Canal and River Trust simply went ahead with building a new bridge and culvert, thus failing to take the opportunity to create a unique environment and wildlife haven on this stretch of the Lea.

Lee Valley Riding Centre paddocks

A decade ago Waltham Forest Council Planning Committee acceded to the LVRPA’s planning application to allow it to create a set of livery stables for use by private owners of horses at the Lee Valley Riding Centre, another money-making venture. A large area of land had already been appropriated by the Riding Centre as paddocks at the back of the Centre, removing that land from use by the general public. The owners of horses using the livery stables have been given access to these paddocks, meaning public land is being used by private owners of horses, rather than for a public service as was previously the case.

It is worth noting that Waltham Forest Council and the LVRPA had prevented the Manor Gardens Allotments from returning to the Olympic Park at Eton Manor on the grounds that this would represent the private use of public land. So, while they disputed the right of the allotments to return to land which might be considered their home Waltham Forest and the LVRPA had no compunction about allowing the private use of public land at the Riding Centre.

Livery riders also get to use the public space of the Marshes to exercise their horses. They are supposed to keep to prescribed routes but the Riding Centre does not take responsibility for monitoring their activity and the routes are poorly marked, meaning they can come into conflict with other users.

Another small paddock was created at that time on the Waterworks meadow for a failed pony-trekking project. This area remains fenced off even though the pony-trekking project failed years ago.

It is virtually impossible for Riding Centre staff to oversee such a large area of paddocks. In recent times they have faced the problem of people feeding horses. It is indeed inappropriate for members of the public to feed the horses in any way, but the result has been that the Riding Centre has had to double up the fencing and the fear is further controls over public access to this area may be instituted.

This is a public space now being used inappropriately to serve a private purpose. The irony is that the location of the Riding Centre next to the Marshes provides an added attraction for people coming to the Marshes to look at the horses. The location of the paddocks is therefore bound to be problematic. In reality what needs to happen is for the Riding Centre to hand back this large area of paddocks and stop the provision of livery services.

Further threats to open spaces

Eton Manor, hotel and UCL/LVRPA masterplan

The LVRPA is persisting with its abominable plans to build a hotel on Metropolitan Open Land at Eton Manor. We also hear it has linked up with University College London (UCL) to develop a masterplan for the area. This ‘master’ planning explicitly includes the hotel project so it seems UCL is backing the LVRPA’s abominable project.

According to responses to Environmental Information Requests, UCL wants to build sports facilities for its students at Eton Manor. From UCL’s perspective its investment in the site will be to help the university “attract and retain students”. Once again the use of public land is being discussed in terms of its benefits for private users.

While the need to take account of the interests of a variety of stakeholders are mentioned, including the ‘commercial partner’ for the hotel project, no mention is made of any public use of the facilities.

So far neither of these august bodies has allowed the public any part in this exercise. UCL is a newcomer to the area and why it thinks it has some right to intervene on this site – originally the “Wilderness”, provided and dedicated by philanthropists to meeting the needs of local people – is anyone’s guess.

A hotel at Eton Manor is an absurdity and an offence. Eton Manor is Metropolitan Open Land and thus unsuitable for development in general. Special circumstances could be argued for it to be used for a sports centre such as the Ice Centre, after all Eton Manor already has sports centres on it. However, by no stretch of the imagination can a hotel be considered a special circumstance. To get around this the LVRPA is trying to persuade the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) to change the designation of the land to ‘white land’, land on which development can occur. The LLDC is prone to making unprincipled decisions so this cannot be ruled out.

As mentioned above, the Manor Gardens allotments were supposed to move to Eton Manor after the Olympics, having been evicted from their site in the Olympic Park. First, the site was reduced to half the original size and a second site at Pudding Mill was designated for half of the Manor Gardens allotments. Then the LVRPA and Waltham Forest Council conspired to overturn the planning permission already granted by the LLDC for the remaining allotments site at Eton Manor. The LLDC went along with this underhand scheme

This alleged guardian of the so-called Olympic Legacy is supposed to be ensuring that this legacy benefits the ‘existing population’ of East London. Yet, once again an elite institution is muscling in on public land, and private interests are taking precedence in development projects.

Eton Manor is in the Borough of Waltham Forest and Waltham Forest Council is preparing a Framework for the area. It is unclear what discussions the Council has had with the LVRPA, although the LVRPA claims its plans have been welcomed by the Council. Waltham Forest has said publicly it opposes development at Eton Manor, so who knows what is going on.

However, at the moment the planning authority is the LLDC. Given that the LLDC turned down a set of allotments at Eton Manor, a green development and open to local people to apply to use, it is hard to see how it can agree to a hotel, not green and very definitely private and with no discernible connection to the mandates governing the LVRPA. But then with public authorities of this kind it is sadly hard to know which way they will turn next. Enter University College London! Why and who next?

Hostel/Housing at The Waterworks Centre and car park

The LVRPA has long had its eye on part of the Waterworks as a site for housing development and still dreams of getting Waltham Forest to agree to change the site’s designation to allow for housing. Fortunately, Waltham Forest has resisted this. An earlier attempt to develop the northern part of the site, including part of the old golf course along with the Waterworks Centre and car park, was fought off by Save Lea Marshes, which raised a fighting fund to take the matter to court should the LVRPA persist in its plans. The LVRPA tried to combat hostility by restricting their plans to the Waterworks Centre and car park but this also failed.

However, the LVRPA is persistent. Instead of doing what it should and developing the Waterworks Centre as a genuine resource for the local community it has continued to run it down. A recent programme of ‘engagement’ by the LVRPA with Save Lea Marshes to discuss the future of the Centre went nowhere.

It seems obvious to us that the Centre and the Waterworks Meadow should be treated as a whole when planning for the future. In fact, we understood Shaun Dawson, CEO of the LVRPA, had agreed at a meeting of the Board that the Centre and the Waterworks Meadow would be treated as a whole when planning their future. Of course, when this was brought to his attention he denied ever making such a declaration.

As things stand the LVRPA now has longer-term plans to develop the Waterworks Centre as some kind of hostel. There has to be a concern that this will prove to be a wedge to move on to plans for a larger residential development. Of course, the LVRPA will deny it has any such designs. But then this is an organisation that wanted to turn Walthamstow Marshes into a quarry, mooted the idea of a hotel in front of the Ice Centre, definitely wants to build a hotel at Eton Manor and most certainly wanted to turn this site into a housing development.

The Waterworks Centre should be developed for use by the community, as argued by Save Lea Marshes and others in the area like the Markhouse Corner and Lea Bridge Road Residents Association, which successfully applied for it to become an Asset of Community Value. The Waltham Forest Civic Trust is now applying for the ACV status to be extended.

Waterworks Meadow

The Waterworks Meadow is seen by the LVRPA as another money-making asset rather than a valuable natural open space. It was originally a well used mini golf course, which meant it remained a green open space. However, at the time of the Olympics the LVRPA scented an opportunity to make money by hiring it out as a camp site. It persisted with this usage for a number of years before turning to another money-making scheme, music festivals.

More recently, it ran into massive public resistance when it tried to host a music festival in 2020 although this plan languished with Covid. Fortunately Waltham Forest Council Licensing Committee turned down that application. However, that the LVRPA wishes to continue with these events was made plain in its Landscape document which did not just refer to future events but to investment in infrastructure to enable it to host larger events there in the future.

The potential for harm from such events has recently been highlighted by the extraordinary damage done at another LVRPA music festival site at Three Mills Green in Newham last summer (see photo taken in mid January below) despite a warning from their own staff that such an event would do damage. The Green was fenced off so it was not available for the community to use from the end of July. It was then left in such poor condition that it was unable to recover and it will plainly continue to be so for months to come. The LVRPA remains silent on the damage it has done.

Although Waltham Forest refused permission for the event at the Waterworks it gave permission for a similar event by Secret Cinema at Low Hall Fields to take over most of that open space for most of the summer of 2021, a decision only overturned by the intervention of Sport England which objected to this use of sports fields. The former leader of WF Council, Councillor Coghill, who has since resigned as Leader and become Vice-Chair of a property company associated with the Lea Bridge Station development, failed to respond to residents’ concerns over that Secret Cinema event.

Following the defeat of the music festival application Save Lea Marshes raised £5,000 to carry out ecological surveys of the Meadow These surveys demonstrated that a broad range of species utilise the meadow, including locally and nationally rare species, advancing the case that this land should be protected as a green space and be reserved for the recreation of local people. The Meadow is bordered by the Old River Lea and we consider at least part of it, most particularly the river bank, should be given the status of a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC), a designation which already applies to the Hackney side of the river.

In the past Hackney has allowed a large music event on Hackney Marshes, an event which also met with opposition from Sport England. Plainly it is necessary to remain vigilant about these threats as local Councils and the LVRPA cannot be relied on to protect their open spaces but see them as opportunities to make money.

The Old River Lea

The Old River Lea, as it runs past Hackney Marsh, is a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC), along with other areas along the River and the canal both north and south of the Marsh. Both sides of the River Lea, south of Friends Bridge at Hackney Marshes and the Waterworks Meadow, have now come to be treated as picnic and party venues. We have even had to contend with newspapers like the Guardian, which published misleading photographs by a local photographer who claimed to be an environmentalist, suggesting it is an idyllic wild swimming location The Guardian even repeated the offence despite letters from Hackney Council and others warning against this activity.

Considerable damage has been done by people partying or paddling in the river, leaving large quantities of litter and lighting barbecues and playing loud music as in this video This resulted in severe damage to the river bank, the cutting down of a tree after someone was injured using it as a swing, and harm to bird life to the extent of causing Little Owls to abandon their nests.

Hackney Council and the LVRPA have started taking steps to tackle the problem, although their effectiveness was not fully tested as the weather later in the summer was not as hot and the stresses of the pandemic were not so great as earlier in the year. However, banners put up by Hackney Council were torn down and thrown away and it is plain there are still plenty of people who continue to regard this area as a playground rather than an important natural habitat or SINC to be respected.

The river also suffers from severe industrial and sewage pollution which is an added and serious concern, ironically also for those who wish to use it to swim. Save Lea Marshes has taken part in discussions with Hackney Council and the LVRPA, and joined with other local campaigns like London Waterkeeper to get action on this serious harm to the river. We have also been carrying out our own testing of river water for phosphates which are an indicator for sewage pollution. The readings, which we regularly post on our Twitter account, have been extremely disturbing.

While it is urgent that this pollution should be stopped, the continuing failure of Thames Water, the Environment Agency and the UK government to get to grips with this problem means this is unlikely to be sorted out in the near future.

Instead of being able to rely on these public and private bodies, volunteers from other key campaigns like Plastic Free Hackney play a crucial role in cleaning up litter and waste matter from the river itself and the river bank as seen in the video below by Ian Phillips

Middlesex Filter Beds

Several years ago the generator powering the pump which fills the Middlesex Filter Beds with water was stolen. Since then the Filter Beds have been allowed to dry out, in contravention of the agreement the LVRPA has with Natural England for the maintenance of the Beds. The ecology of the Beds has been drastically altered and will take a considerable period of time to recover once water is finally pumped back into them. The LVRPA appears to be edging towards action but while it is able to find millions to finance pointless and harmful projects like the Ice Centre and a hotel it seems unable to rustle up the much smaller amount of money needed to carry out a task it has an agreement with a regulator to manage in keeping with its mandate to protect the Park.

Lack of consultation with the community

The Lea Valley Park exists for the benefit of the communities living nearby, and their needs and opinions should be at the heart of how it is managed. The one thing that has been highlighted by these cases is the lack of any ongoing consultation by the LVRPA with the community about the management of the Marshes. At one time there were regular forums with proper agendas, discussion and minutes. These were replaced by less formal ‘workshops’ and then by walkabouts with Rangers with no structure or follow up. When ‘consultation’ or engagement does occur, as with the Ice Centre and the Oxbow, it is highly managed and takes the form of presentations of what the LVRPA intends to do rather than discussion of what might be done. Save Lea Marshes complained some time ago to Green Flag about the lack of consultation. Green Flag wrote to the LVRPA to ask if they consulted the public and were told, yes they did. End of Green Flag’s ‘enquiry’.

The LVRPA faces little or no scrutiny by Local Authorities who treat it as a ‘partner’ organisation. Instead of fulfilling its role to protect and improve our vital Green Lung the LVRPA treats this part of the Park as a money-making asset with little or no regard to the needs or opinions of the communities that use it. We have written an open letter to Shaun Dawson, CEO of the LVRPA to highlight this failure

So far no response has been received to this letter.

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