Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Epping Forest Faces Cuts As Wanstead Flats Leased For Peppercorn Rent

There are plenty of reasons why the Olympics juggernaut has been able to roll ahead without comment or proper consultation, but some appear to have been far more supine than others in allowing it to plough on without thinking through the consequences.

Take the City of London Corporation, for example. It has bent over backwards to support the bid by the Metropolitan Police to use part of Wanstead Flats for an operations base next year, despite concerted opposition from people living nearby. The controversial Legislative Reform Order (LRO), a parliamentary procedure to amend the Epping Forest Act that protects the Flats, is currently awaiting final discussion in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The prospects that the LRO will be nodded through are extremely high.

One of the many surprising decisions made by the Corporation was to propose to charge the Met a measly rent of £170,000 for four months use of the Flats, instead of a more commercially sensible sum. This is all the more mystifying when seen against the following statement in the Summer 20011 edition of Forest Focus [PDF], the Corporation's Epping Forest newsletter:

Currently it costs the City of London £4.4 million per year to run Epping Forest including income generated. Carefully targeted reductions in service are being made totalling £457,000 which will sadly result in reductions in funding for tree work, ride maintenance, equipment and machinery, together with less improvement work on the Forest's farmed estate. Safety will remain paramount.

As a result, the budget for annual events has been reduced, meaning that long-standing events, including the Epping Forest Festival, which has traditionally taken place in September, will cease until further notice....

As a charitable trust, Epping Forest is seeking to offset the impact of proposed cuts by seeking additional grant support from key charities for the City's invaluable work on environmental education and biodiversity research. An update will follow on this application in the next edition of Forest Focus.

It seems entirely fair to pose the following question: how, when the City of London Corporation is making cuts and cancelling the Epping Forest Festival, was it prudent to support a controversial scheme that would recoup only £170,000, a tiny fraction of the massive £10 billions Olympics budget? Or, despite Epping Forest being a charitable trust, are its trustees unaware of their legal duty of prudence?

Increasingly, it looks as though the Forest has been sold short by people who have been blinded by the spectacle of the Olympics into handing over land held in trust for local people for what is essentially a peppercorn rent.

Perhaps the time has come to ask another entirely fair question - would Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats be better managed by someone other than the City of London Corporation?


The Corporation may say it is "seeking additional grant support from key charities". So why, after the Wanstead Parklands Community Project (WPCP) went to considerable effort to work with Conservators to apply for a lottery grant - even conducting a public consultation - did a small group of officials decide that they wouldn't even put the proposal through to the relevant City of London committee?

WPCP has expressed "shock and frustration" at this decision. What on earth is going on?

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