The Save Wanstead Flats campaign meets next week to decide its next steps and a request from the Wanstead Village Directory website for a brief history of the campaign has meant I've been able to write up an account of what has been organised between June 2010 and January 2012.
This is something I've meant to do with other campaigns that I've been involved in: the activities of the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign, for example, really needs recording properly. But anyway. Here's the unfinished story of the battle to defend Wanstead Flats from the Metropolitan Police.
On 18 January, a residents meeting at Durning Hall community centre in Forest Gate will decide whether to continue the campaign begun in 2010 against plans by the Metropolitan Police to set up a deployment base, for thousands of officers during this summer’s Olympics, on Wanstead Flats.
Back in June 2010, news of these plans was leaked to the Evening Standard and as a result, a number of local people from Forest Gate who were concerned about the implications of this proposal came to see me where I work at Durning Hall. The charity that runs the building was able to offer help with publicity and a free venue for a residents meeting to test the true level of local opposition. This was held on 14 July and to everyone’s surprise, the centre’s main hall was packed to capacity: instead of the expected 50 people attending, there was nearer to 250. It was only after this meeting that the Metropolitan Police launched a public relations campaign, a website for their plans and a ‘pre-consultation event’ in August at the Cherry Tree Cafe in Wanstead. The response of the newly-formed Save Wanstead Flats campaign was to organise local people to gather together, on, 5 September 2010, for a well-attended Community Picnic on the Flats.
From the start, one of the main objections raised by campaigners to the police’s plans was that it undermined the protection given to Wanstead Flats by the Epping Forest Act, a law passed in 1878 after hard-fought battles by local people against building and enclosure. The worry has always been about the precedent this would set for future enclosure of parts of the Flats, especially as other major sporting events at the new Olympic Park (for the World Athletics Championships in 2017, for example) will inevitably involve further concerns about policing and security. We objected to the idea that Wanstead Flats is just ‘waste ground’, rather than public land that is valued by local people.
The Home Office planned to use a parliamentary process called a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) to overturn parts of the Epping Forest Act, even though a promise had been made, when the legislation creating this procedure was passed in 2006, that not be used for controversial proposals. An LRO had never been used for anything more than minor administrative ‘tidying-up’ of existing laws before and never in the face of significant opposition. On 14 September 2010, the Home Secretary launched consultation of the LRO and gave residents until December to comment.
In early October, a second residents meeting was held at Durning Hall, this time with representatives of the police and the City of London Corporation (the ‘conservators’ of Wanstead Flats) on a panel facing questions from another packed audience. Their responses were vague and largely unhelpful, with an underlying message that local people had had their opportunity to complain but that the plans would go ahead anyway. However, later that month the Save Wanstead Flats campaign made it clear that opposition would continue and issued a 'pre-action' warning to Home Secretary Theresa May, reserving the right to take legal action by way of judicial review. On 21 November, campaigners also organised an event called Take Back Wanstead Flats, which involved staking out the dimensions of the proposed site (using gardening canes and over a kilometre of 'Police Do Not Cross' tape) to show just how massive the Olympic operations base would actually be.
In December, Redbridge council opened consultation on the planning application for the site. During the planning period, the Home Office responded to its LRO consultation by acknowledging it had failed to understand the legislation that protects Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats – but said that it nevertheless intended to plough on anyway with an order to overcome legal hurdles standing in the way of a police operations base. On 24 February 2011, Redbridge council’s Regulatory Committee met to consider the planning application and rubber-stamped it with little debate, despite an 1800-strong petition from local residents, more than 80 formal objections and the objection of neighbouring Newham council. It was becoming clear how difficult it is to stand in the way of the Olympics juggernaut.
In March, the Home Office published the draft Legislative Reform Order, which meant that the future of Wanstead Flats was now in the hands of the obscure parliamentary Hybrid Instruments Committee. In May, the Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Commons decided by 5 votes to 3 in favour of granting the LRO but was highly critical of it.
In a last-ditch attempt to stop the police’s plans by legal means, Forest Gate resident Michael Pelling decided to take on the Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police by seeking a judicial review of the consultation process and the quashing of the LRO. The Save Wanstead Flats Campaign was named as an "interested party" in the case. In early October 2011, the original request for permission to apply for a judicial review was turned down and after a renewal hearing in November, the case was finally argued on 5 December at the Royal Courts of Justice. However, Mrs Justice Dobbs refused leave for the presentation of the case for overturning LRO, a judgement that campaigners believe 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.
This is why, over eighteen months since the first leak to the Evening Standard, those who have fought to protect Wanstead Flats are now meeting again to decide what steps, if any, they wish to take next. There are question of how to prevent the use of the Flats as a 'security exclusion zone' in the future and what, if anything, can be done to strengthen the Epping Forest Act, which has been severely undermined by the Legislative Reform Order. When the base opens, the immediate issues facing residents in Forest Gate, Wanstead and Leyton include the potential disruption, restricted access to the Flats and the impact of heightened security on freedom of movement.
Ultimately, the residents-organised Save Wanstead Flats campaign will also decide whether it can do any more to try and stop the Metropolitan Police plans - or whether it is time for the campaign to call it a day.