A ‘Consensus’ Without a Vote: How the LVRPA Waved Through Selling Off Waterworks

Around 15 objectors attended the special meeting of the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority to consider Waltham Forest’s Eastside Vision document which included the proposal to build housing on the Waterworks site at Leyton Marsh. The LVRPA had deliberately moved the meeting from Waltham Forest to its headquarters at Myddleton House on the outskirts of London to make it hard for objectors to attend. It had been claimed Myddleton House was more convenient for Board members, however, about ten of the members failed to turn up. A disgraceful attempt to limit public participation.
Four objectors and one former member of the Authority spoke urging the Board members to oppose the Vision document where it related to the Waterworks site, highlighting the Metropolitan Open Land status of the site and the purpose in establishing the Authority to protect open space from development, warning members against setting a precedent for future misuse of MOL, pointing out the incompatibility of building housing next to the Essex Filter Beds Nature Reserve. They referred to the LVRPA’s own statements about the vital importance of the Lea Valley as a Green Lung, especially with modern day air pollution, and how when it was proposed to build Essex Wharf on the edge of the Park the LVRPA had opposed the development with the statement ‘Residential development does not fit within the remit of the Park.’ Yet in this case not only was the LVRPA not opposing development it was actually proposing it within the Park itself. No mention of this land sale had been made when the initial consultation about the future of the Ice Centre was carried out, even though it has since turned out that the sale of this land will contribute to the construction of a new Ice Centre.
Not one Board member asked a question of the objecting speakers. It was plain they had no arguments to counter the obvious strength of the opposition. All the points raised were ignored. The attitude of the Board could be summed up in the statement of one member that he was a pragmatist and did not think things could just stay as they were for ever. One member, Denise Jones from Tower Hamlets, did express astonishment at the idea of building on MOL. However, she still concurred with a supposed compromise proposed by Hackney Councillor Chris Kennedy that house building be limited to the footprint of the car park and cafe. This was presented as meeting objectors’ concerns, which it completely failed to do and was not a proposal endorsed by the objectors. Ms Jones also came up with a proposal to limit the height of any housing to be built on the site. This met with little support. Plainly this further limitation could make any proposed development unviable. Mr Kennedy showed no interest in it. To demonstrate how completely out of touch members were one even asserted that air pollution was getting better!
The Vision put forward by Waltham Forest of building housing at the Waterworks site ties in with the LVRPA’s decision to allow the sale of land. In turn, the sale of land for housing at the Waterworks is intimately linked with the Authority’s plans to build a new Ice Centre at its present site on Lea Bridge Road. Illustrating the confused thinking on the Board, one member suggested these two projects, the Ice Centre and the sale of land for housing, should be treated as being entirely separate! If this was to be done then there would absolutely no rationale behind the sale. In fact, not all the members were convinced of the need for an Ice Centre. Bizarrely, another member who expressed this point of view still made no objections to the idea of selling the land.
Stephen Wilkinson, the LVRPA’s head of planning, when invited to speak, said nothing of any consequence simply rambling through a feeble attempt at putting the plans ‘in context’, although he did insist, incorrectly, that it had always been a part of the LVRPA’s remit to support major venues, like the Ice Centre. He made no attempt to counter any of the points presented by objectors. One of the objectors had referred to counsel’s opinion that the LVRPA claimed it had received. He considered the LVRPA had gained little support from this opinion. Mr Wilkinson failed to provide any concrete statements from the advice to counter the objector’s comments. He avoided any discussion of the legal status of the land and the difficulties the LVRPA and Waltham Forest would have in altering this status.
He then handed over to a representative from Waltham Forest’s planning department to explain the ‘Vision’. The officer from Waltham Forest had little to add apart from the usual bullish discussion about the housing needs of the Borough and its desire to attract investment. Much of her presentation concerned Waltham Forest’s desire to create an attractive ‘Gateway’ to the Borough. Of course, the present green spaces at Leyton Marsh along with the facilities at the Waterworks provide exactly this kind of gateway and were specifically designed to achieve that purpose.
Essentially this vote is just another step along the road that the LVRPA has decided on. As Gerry Lyons pointed out, it was the LVRPA which had approached Waltham Forest with its proposal for building housing at the Waterworks. Disingenuously the Waltham Forest officer maintained the Vision is not a planning document. Strictly speaking this is so, however, it is plain the whole point of the exercise was for the two Authorities to co-ordinate their plans for the area.
Predictably the LVRPA Board went ahead and endorsed the ‘Vision’, including its proposal for housing at the Waterworks. It tried to make out that this did not imply approval at this stage, although in reality those in charge are determined to push ahead with this proposal. However, it was well worth making a show at the meeting. The presence of so many objectors was plainly a shock to the members of the Board. They know they will fact determined opposition. Unacceptable as Mr Kennedy’s suggestion was it shows that at least some of the Board are aware of the difficulties they face with public opposition. The Council will have to consult on its new Area Plan and get the agreement of the Mayor of London that it is compatible with the London Plan. Then it will have to be submitted to the Secretary of State who, in light of the public opposition, will probably have to send it to a public inquiry. Faced with public hostility and multiple objections and finding the site available for development restricted in size and height may convince Waltham Forest that it is on a hiding to nothing. Leyton Marsh has been the site of many famous and successful battles by local people to protect their open space. This will be another one.
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