The Leyton Marshes, part of the Lea Valley, whose eponymous river flows down from the Chiltern Hills all the way through London to disgorge into the Thames near the Docklands, is a rare haven for wildlife and tranquility in the great metropolis. The beauty of the Lea Valley’s parks, river and marshes is the main reason we moved to Walthamstow fifteen years ago. Yet now it is threatened by a badly conceived development put forward by the very authority that was created to protect it. It has to be stopped.
I was vaguely aware last year that the Lea Valley Authority were considering plans to build on this place that I love so much, but it took a chance encounter today to discover the full threat. My habit of a Sunday morning is to rise with the sun and enjoy the first light of day to cycle or run around the marshes. My trip usually ends at the bird hides by the Middlesex Filter Beds, built in the mid-nineteenth century to overcome cholera by providing clean water to Londoners.
It’s a tranquil spot, despite being boxed in by Lea Bridge Road on one side and the famous Hackney Marsh football fields on the other, where David Beckham, among countless thousands of others, learned to play the beautiful game. Often it’s just me and a few dog-walkers on the paths, but the ponds are always alive with families of Coots, Moorhens, and Tufted Ducks. Over the years I’ve also been joined by Little Grebes (a duck that spends most of its days diving), Reed Warblers, Grey Wagtails, Chiffchaff, Cormorants, Shelducks, Long-tailed Tits, Gadwalls, Fieldfare, Scaup, Wheater, Teal, and Wigeon, and on one glorious occasion, a Sparrowhawk.
Normally it’s just the birds I talk to, but this morning I met a wonderful fellow nature-lover whom I only know by her Twitter handle: @suzehu. We got chatting as she alerted me to the bobbing flight of a Great Spotted Woodpecker coming into land on a nearby tree. I travel a lot for work and so hadn’t been down to the marshes for quite a few weeks, whereas @suzehu is clearly a regular. It turns out I have missed a nesting pair of Sparrowhawks and their fledglings, alongside some hyper-active Weasels and a trio of Muntjac deer that have migrated from the flocks in the more northern London sections of the Lea Valley.
I was also educated on the threat to the habitat that enables all these wonderful creatures to thrive in the big city.
The Lea Valley Authority, a body comprised of elected representatives of the municipal authorities that border the park, has decided this is a good spot to build a secondary so-called “free” school and a primary academy. Obviously I am in favour of schools and London’s growing population demands that we have more of them. But thoughtful municipal decision makers can always find better places than wildlife refuges on which to build them.
Fifty-six per cent of species have declined in Britain since 1970. As BBC Springwatch presenter, Chris Packham, put it to the thousands of people who joined him on the People’s Walk for Wildlife last month, “It’s horrifying. Depressing. Disastrous. And yet somehow we have grown to accept this as part of our lives – we’ve normalised the drastic destruction of our wildlife.”
We have, indeed, exterminated most other forms of life from the places where humans primarily live, but the Leyton/Hackney marshes are supposed to be different. For a start, they are designated as Metropolitan Open Land, areas of green space in cities that have essentially the same levels of protection as green belt. To permit development here the London Borough of Waltham Forest will have to decide that there are “very special circumstances”, presumably that is there is simply no-where else that it is humanly possible to build a new school.
When one looks at the guidance given by the Mayor of London, who has ultimate jurisdiction over Metropolitan Open Land in London, it is hard to see how the Lea Valley Authority’s plans for buildings designed to house hundreds of people ever got off the drawing board: “Appropriate development should be limited to small scale structures to support outdoor open space uses and minimise any adverse impact on the openness of M[etropolitan] O[pen] L[and].”
Even if you’re not bothered about the rest of nature (and are able to ignore the fact that humanity only survives and thrives as part of a wider eco-system), development on the Leyton marshes doesn’t make sense. The clue is in the name – a marsh, according to my weighty old Oxford English Dictionary, is “an area of low-lying land which is flooded in wet seasons or at high tide, and typically remains waterlogged at all times”. Is this really the right place to put a school?
Perhaps the proposers of this development didn’t see the warnings by the UK’s weather experts, the Met Office, last week about the rising incidence of flooding, amongst other extreme weather impacts, as a result of climate change? Maybe they also haven’t seen the tough report by the world’s foremost climate scientists of risks we now face from even fractional further increases in global heating?
Building on a flood-plain is precisely the kind of thing that public authorities need to be stopping, not encouraging.
I see that proponents of the scheme are claiming that they will leave the site with more “green space” that at present. Except that it turns out to be the usual developer double-speak. While over 50 mature trees will have to be felled to make way for concrete and bricks, the new “green space” will be simply acres of grass playing fields, devoid of the diversity that makes life so abundant in the marshes at present.
William Morris, the artist and designer who grew up in nearby Walthamstow and whose childhood home is now a wonderful museum, once said “There is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if men [and women] will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty”. Fortunately, there are plenty of people already doing there best to protect the marshes. My new friend from this morning is one of them, part of the Save Lea Marshes campaign. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has yet to approve the scheme and you can find out which councillors to lobby here. And, unless I have mis-remembered the Mayor of London’s powers in the ten year’s since I ceased working at City Hall, Sadiq Khan will have the final say. He has a good record of protecting Metropolitan Open Land and early indications are that he will oppose this development. There is all to fight for!