Tuesday 6 December 2011

Wanstead Flats - A Terrible Precedent Is Born

It is now either very late at night or very early in the morning, but I need to bang this out if I'm going to get any sleep.

The campaign against the use of Wanstead Flats during next year's Olympics by the police for a Muster Briefing and Deployment Centre has never just been about what happens in 2012. From the beginning, it has always been about the precedent set by choosing to enclose part of Epping Forest, an area supposedly protected by a 135-year-old Act of Parliament.

Yesterday's terrible judicial decision, by Mrs Justice Dobbs at the Royal Courts of Justice, meant that leave was refused for the presentation of the case for overturning the Home Secretary's order, which sets aside, albeit temporarily, the protection of the Epping Forest Act 1876. That judgment significantly increases the risk that parts of Wanstead Flats may be 'temporarily' enclosed again and again in the future, whenever it is deemed convenient or necessary.

Take, as an example, the World Athletics Championship that will be held in London in 2017. The likelihood that the interests of security will demand another Metropolitan Police Muster Briefing and Deployment Centre are high - the Met described such centres as an important tactic in their court submissions. Where better to site it then, from the police's point of view, than Wanstead Flats? Yesterday's decision clears the way for another half-hearted 'consultation' and the use of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act to once again sweep away the legal protections afforded to the Flats.

It doesn't matter the Home Office's own preparation was screwed up the first time they tried, or that this piece of highly contentious legislation has only, up until now, been used for minor, almost trivial 'tidying up' of existing laws: the judge decided yesterday that strong public objections are not covered by ministerial pledges to avoid the use of such sweeping powers for 'highly controversial' issues. In future, government departments will be able to change primary legalisation using a legislative order, with little debate in the House of Commons or House of Lords, as long as the majority of an obscure parliamentary committee, voting on party lines (as they did this spring), deem the decision uncontroversial. We, the public, have little say in the matter and no grounds to object.

Then, of course, there is the precedent set by the planning decision of Redbridge council. It too doesn't matter that Newham and Waltham Forest councils objected to the planned Olympics police base, or that more than 1800 signatures we collected in opposition, or than the planning committee in Redbridge told people that potential alternative sites were outside its remit. The decision was taken, with little apparent consideration of the objections, and the damage has been done. After next year, Wanstead Flats effectively becomes a useful 'security zone' whenever another major sporting event - held in the next borough at a staggeringly expensive arena that needs to recoup its costs and justify its existence - makes policing considerations a necessity.

Almost every weekend, I tend to end up walking on the Flats. All of my friends who live locally say it's one of the places that they love most about living in Newham - one of the few places, in many instances. Had it not been for the fact that I work in Forest Gate and was the first person approached in June 2010 by residents concerned about the police's plans, it may have been months before I found out that a place we love, an open space intended for our leisure and recreation, would be partially closed off during the Olympics. I can say this because I don't live on one of the streets closest to the Flats, where the limited publicity by the police was allegedly distributed, but a mile away.

I wonder how many people found out about the plans very late in the day: how many people missed the leaflets put out by the police, or even by the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign because it only had a budget of £180 in donations. I wonder how many people tried to make sense of what they could and couldn't include in a planning objection, or struggled to decypher and understand the laughable consultation document published by Home Secretary on her Legislative Reform Order. I wonder how many people even knew where to find it.

Those who expected, perhaps more than I have, that the courts exist to balance the rights of ordinary citizens against powerful state interests have given an important lesson - that they may have been hoping for too much from the judiciary. After all, it took the active support of the City of London Corporation in the 1870s and in 1946 when the Flats were under threat, instead of the tacit, shameful endorsement of the 'Conservators' in 2010-11, to prevent enclosure. This time, the Corporation took the money offered to them and residents were left to fight alone.

Back in 1871, history reminds us that it also took huge demonstrations on the Flats to stop the plans of powerful interests, with protests that demolished illegally erected fencing. Sadly, such passionate resistance is probably now a thing of the past, the product of a different age - and as Mark Twain once said: "there was but one solitary thing about the past worth remembering, and that was the fact that it is past and can't be restored."

Nevertheless, I must confess that, should I find myself wandering on Wanstead Flats this weekend, I know I'll hope that Twain, a satirist and writer who was right about so many things, was wrong about the past. Hope is always something worth hanging on to.


Clive Power said...

I'm sorry the bid was lost and I don't support the use of the Flats for the police muster points, etc.

However nor do I support retaining the Flats as they are. When I looked on the Flats this weekday mid morning, on the 30/40% I could see, there really was just the proverbial one man and a dog using it.

The story of the resistance to building on the Flats isn't the heroic story of local residents against the builders; it’s a tale of an undemocratic anachronism (the Corporation of London) and wealthier residents around the Flats (as opposed to say living near Romford Road) fighting against people like Bevan, post war, who said ‘the Corporation must bend to the will of the people’.

Sadly the bad guys won and the legitimate demand of West Ham (and East Ham?) councils to build council housing for 3000 on the Flats was defeated.

But with a housing crisis ongoing, people living in tinderbox garden sheds and semi-converted garages in Newham and with a waiting list of 8,9,10 years for 2,3 bed flats in Newham, it’s time to build on the Flats – say 12 council tower blocks that could house maybe 3,000 people.

kath said...

Oh Kevin. All these bodies have shirked their duties and left it to the next to make a decision and now there is no next. (is there?) I feel very disillusioned by the whole thing.

CaroS said...

Clive Power, I hope you are not serious.
I live south of the Romford Road but still want the Flats left alone. Isn't Forest Gate and its local services already crowded enough for you?

Anonymous said...

Clive, Newham is a concrete jungle.... there is a lack of greenery. You want to remove the last patch, for housing. When will there be enough housing?

Clive Power said...

Newham is just 13th out of 33 London boroughs in terms of population density at 67.3 people per hectare and nearly 10% of the borough is open space (source - http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/services/lept/boroughmap/newham/)

Whilst population density is not the same as building density, I would guess that the area in Newham adjoining Wanstead Flats (Capel Rd etc) has significantly lower density figures for both.

You can find postcards of when trams would bring people from the East End to Wanstead Flats a hundred years. They would both go boating (after WW1) or listen to a band playing on the bandstand.

Nowadays the only organised activities on the wider Flats are the funfair or circus (spring and summer bank holidays), bonfire night fireworks, model aeroplane flying at weekends and football matches (perhaps 12 pitches Sat and 10 pitches on Sun).

Most of the time the Flats are completely deserted save maybe during Summer. And even if all the activities listed above take place then only a very small proportion of the Flats are used.

Newham is in public housing crisis. I am pleased that the council has taken back the properties rather than being run by a Housing Association but it’s time for them to start building council housing again as even Epping Forest DC apparently is doing. I mean if they can spend £xm on the Olympic Stadium.

Build on half or two-thirds of the Flats whilst leaving room for football pitches, etc.

And remove control of the Flats (and Hampstead Heath, Burnham Beeches, etc) from that undemocratic body, the City of London, whose boundary is 7 miles away from the Flats.

Anonymous said...

Clive: You are right, City of London should give up control of Wanstead Flats and it should handed over to the National Trust.

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