The 2012 Olympics in London generated much hype and large profits. Huge areas of East London were redeveloped; in a number of areas open green space was appropriated, for training facilities, police compounds…
One small site of resistance was Leyton Marsh.
Leyton Marsh is a large green space, just north of the lea bridge road, and east of the river lea. It lies between the urban areas of Clapton and Walthamstow, from where people come in droves to walk, picnic, exercise, fly kites, horse-ride, dog-walk, play games, and enjoy and experience the diversity of natural habitat.
It is designated as ‘metropolitan open land’, and is also an ‘archaeological priority zone’, sitting within a ‘principal site of nature conservation importance’, and in close proximity to a ‘site of special scientific interest nature reserve’. Under the council’s open space strategy, it is also deemed as a ‘special protection area’, and last year it received a ‘green flag award’.
Despite all the above, and in the face of 115 planning objections, (many from established groups, management companies, resident groups, and other associations each representing numbers of people, as well as several Hackney councillors), planning permission was given earlier in 2012 for an olympic basketball training facility.
The plans were for a tall building housing two 11-metre high basketball courts, plus a reception area, a car park, an access road, a drop off area, plant storage, and high security fencing. All this was supposedly be a temporary structure for a period of 8 months, after which everything will, said the ‘olympic delivery authority’ (ODA), be returned to its original state.
Despite ODA assurances that not only would everything be returned to its original state, but that further money will be spent on improving the land after october, campaigners and locals had serious concerns over the lasting effects of the disruption, especially on the delicate eco-system.
Even if the ODA’s promises were kept, they saw it as glaring idiocy to be spending so much public money on a temporary structure to then be destroyed with absolutely no legacy benefit to Londoners.
Rather than focussing purely on resistance, campaigners got busy searching for other solutions to the need for basketball training facilities. They identified three possible sites, much better suited to provide both the temporary facilities and then a lasting legacy.
The first of these was Walthamstow dog stadium, a large iconic enclosed space close to the olympic park which then lay idle [NB redevelopment work for housing has since begun there]. Second, just a stone’s throw from the marsh in Markhouse road, the Kelmscott leisure centre, whose basketball courts had recently been refurbished. Any further improvements to the courts or the buildings would have given lasting value to the local community. Lastly, there was the ‘score centre’, a purpose-built sports facility in nearby Leyton, with indoor football and basketball. Again, with minimal work it could have provided at least one of the training courts and left a lasting legacy benefit.
However, earlier that year, Waltham Forest council gave planning permission to the ODA. Even their own documents were riddled with notes that the development involved departure from a huge swathe of regional and national policies, and that the application didn’t propose any legacy benefits, and having established that it would normally be “refused as a matter of principle”, they went on to pass it on the sole basis of the “exceptional circumstances that delivering the London games create”.
So, 7,600 square metres of existing rough grassland were to be removed for the access roads alone, in an area designated a ‘principal site of nature conservation’. The buildings were to be placed on a huge paved area, and additional brick storage ponds to be dug. In order to return the area to its original state, all the soil and rubble were to be heaped in a further area of the marsh, resulting in “a significant area of the main part of the marsh being unavailable to the public for at least 8 months”.
Campaigners also identified very serious concerns over disturbing the soil in this area. The planning permission allowed 15cms of topsoil to be removed, but monitors clearly caught the ODA digging much deeper: a very serious issue because of the history of the area.
The site is actually where a lot of rubble is buried from bombed factories during WWII. Many of these factories used heavy metal and even radioactive materials, and much of the rubble was severely contaminated. Campaigners from the ‘games monitor’ site commissioned independent scientific analyses of soil from similar areas at olympic sites, and discovered dangerous levels of contaminants likely to be harmful to both workers and the public, including asbestos, radioactive waste and heavy metals like lead. There was also, with the deeper, unauthorised excavation, a real risk of unexploded ordnance, and indeed, shortly after the work began, and unexploded WWII bomb was discovered.
So, shortly after work began at the site, a protest camp sprang up next to it, and after on several occasions successfully and peacefully halting lorries from entering, the occupiers were summoned to the high court and the ODA were granted an injunction against “persons unknown who are unlawfully occupying…in connection with protest activity”.
The tent occupation which sprang up in solidarity with the Campaign to Save Leyton Marsh lasted nearly 3 weeks. The camp continued to grow with supporters arriving every day. Local residents and campaigners visited all day long providing support, bringing supplies and chatting with the campers.
No construction work took place on the Leyton Marsh site for some days, after local campaigners from the Save Leyton Marsh group stood in front of lorries preventing them from entering the site. Occupation campers joined with local residents standing in front and lying down under lorries.
A visitor said: “i was struck by the number of passers-by, mostly locals, who visited and were eager to talk to the occupiers. the kitchen is well-stocked due to the kindness and support of local people, and there is plenty of commitment and support for peaceful direct action when the lorries return (the building project has currently been abandoned for two weeks while the court case unfolded).“
On April 10th 2012, the small Occupy protest camp was evicted from its original site by bailiffs and police after a High Court Injunction was granted the previous week. Five arrests were made of protestors who refused to move from the front gate where construction vehicles were waiting to enter. One local resident was pulled out from under a lorry by bailiffs before it could be allowed to enter the site.
An eyewitness gave an account of the operation: “From early this morning, activists and local people held banners at the entrance to Lea Valley ice rink behind which lies the Leyton Marsh where the olympic delivery authority (ODA) have pushed through controversial building work on open metropolitan land.
As a result of high court injunctions granted last week on behalf of the ODA and the lea valley regional park authority (LVRPA), work was expected to commence on the land this morning after a two-week hold-up due to protest action by occupiers and locals.
A little before 8am this morning, several cars turned up containing around 16 bailliffs from ‘Sherbond enforcement’. One vanload of TSG also arrived nearby, although police kept a very low presence for a considerable time.
There are two injunctions currently in force. The first allows the LVRPA to recover their land and evict the small encampment which has grown up next to the building site. The second (a temporary injunction to be heard again on the 18th april) prevents ‘persons unknown’ from interfering in any way with the activities of LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games), or their agents, contractors etc, or from encouraging anyone else to do so.
At about 8.30, bailliffs started ‘serving’ the two writs’ by throwing them at people’s feet. However, anticipating this move, the camp had begun to move its tents and belongings to the grass verge next to lea valley road, outside the ice rink, and just outside the area covered by the injunction.
A little after 9am, I took a little look around and discovered half a dozen TSG vans plus other police vehicles parked about half a mile away on orient road, clearly ready for a massive operation.
Some of the activists used one of the tents to block the main entrance to the site, and bailliffs moved in at around 9.40 to try to remove this tent and its occupants.
Because at this stage the police did not seem to want to become involved, and as the bailliffs only had authority to move people to the edge of the injuncted area, a series of farcical events then ensued.
First, each time someone was removed, they quickly returned to the site and once again peacefully resisted the bailliffs’ attempts to clear the area.
Next, at around 10am, as workers approached a further gate to the compound, activists tried at first to keep the gates closed, but once opened, several entered the site with the workers. While a couple engaged the workers in dialogue, telling them about the toxic soil samples, the dangers to their own health and safety, and the highly flawed planning process, others jumped onto plant equipment, too high for ordinary bailliffs to safely remove them.
At 10.30, a small tanker lorry made its way slowly up the path to the first entrance, with bailliffs pushing protestors out of its path over and over. Activists and local people sat in front of the vehicle at the site entrance, and each time they were removed, more returned and kept up the obstruction. Two local women also crawled underneath the tanker with a young boy and a pet dog.
A couple of dozen TSG cops then showed up on the approach road, and at about 10.50, the protestors were warned they would face arrest if they continued to obstruct the work from carrying on. There was some confusion because police had clearly misheard their own instructions and claimed they were using powers under section 40 of the public order act, but eventually it became clear they were referring to section 14, which allows the imposition of conditions on a protest when it interferes with others going about their lawful business.
After several more minutes, police moved in and made a few arrests, although they were held up for a while by the women under the lorry as well as by a young man who jumped on to the roof of the vehicle. i saw four arrests, although the bbc have since reported six.
Despite the threat of incarceration or fines due to ‘contempt of court’, which was threatened in the writs, it seems this sanction was not used. Several tipper lorries then moved onto the site. Even after the arrests, one man jumped over the fences into the site and managed to hold up a tipper lorry for a while before being manhandled off the site by bailliffs.
The resistance will continue, with massive support from local people and even some hackney councillors who were present today. The campaigners are hoping for a fairer hearing on the 18th. They have complained that they were not given enough time to prepare a defence at the first hearing, and that the whole planning process was not only severely flawed, but that the ODA have already broken the terms of that permission.
One of the issues is that the consent was based on ODA undertakings to only remove 15cm of topsoil. one of my pictures clearly shows an area dug far deeper than that. The history of the land, and independent scientific analysis, both point to dangers of serious contamination not far from the surface. There doesn’t seem to have been a proper health and safety audit and it seems the HSE have not even received the necessary documentation relating to the building site.”
“The Olympic sprawl seems to have no ceiling” said one protestor. “The whole thing is basically a militarised advertising campaign.”
The Occupy camp was for a while moved to a grass verge by the side of the Lea Bridge Road.
After the Olympics the land was restored, but very badly: Spokeswoman Caroline Day said: “The reinstatement was just awful, the whole area’s waterlogged every time it rains.”
There was an attempt to use the land nicked for the basketball court to erect a new bigger ice-rink (to replace the existing one – this was defeated in court.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online