Housing vs Open Space: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

Infill Me… Infill Me… They’ve All got it Infill Me..

Amidst a crisis of genuinely affordable housing in London, with huge rent inflation, a shortage of social housing, and property as commodity speculation causing homelessness, poverty and hardship…

… Pressure has been growing for new housing to be built, often in places where there is little space for it. In particular, existing Council estates are being touted as the place to expand social housing stock – whether by building over small green spaces or garages, or by adding floors to existing blocks.

In many places these ‘infill’ proposals have arose fierce opposition, usually from residents on these estates facing losing green areas next to their homes, more overcrowded and shadowed cramming around them, and in B some cases, blatantly unsafe ideas of what can be stuck on top of their homes.

Advocates of infill accuse these residents of being ‘NIMBYs’  – Not In My Backyard – opposed to social housing, or just wanting it built elsewhere. Some councillors proposing infill have resorted to anonymous trolling of campaigners to try to shout them down; moral blackmail and names are thrown at campaigners to try shame then into shutting up.

NIMBYISM exists, but that’s not what we’re seeing here… In most cases, infill takes place where councils have also entered into hand in glove partnerships with developers to allow the to build private flats, often too replace demolished social housing. Many estates facing infill have often also experienced managed decline over decades. Campaigners generally support new social housing being built, but are asking the questions – why do we with little space have to lose it and face greater crowding; why was social housing given up in neighbouring areas? Do the most overcrowded estates deserve less space or have less say? Do they automatically have to pay the price for decades if catastrophic housing policy, for years of councils enthusiastically championing social cleansing, moving more well to do people in and dispersing the less ell off? and enabling the profits of large housing builders ? For councillors and c propagandists for infill, it’s a case of Yes – In YOUR Backyard…

More power to housing campaigners regarding to lie down, be labelled Nimbys and accept second class status because their tenure should not mean that they have no say in their environment…

The debate on whether to preserve open space or build social housing over it is not a new question. The conflict between housing for all and green space for all has been fought before, with similar dynamics and accusations. The campaign to preserve Wanstead Flats from development after World  War 2 is worth examining here…

Wanstead Flats had seen a campaign of protest and direct action against fences erected by the Lord of the manor in 1871, preventing it being built on. Along with much of the rest of Epping Forest, it had been preserved as land for public access in the late 19th century.

However, the huge need for public housing after World War Two resulted in pressure to build new homes on the Flats. This led to a dispute between advocates of social housing, and campaigners protesting that open green space was also very much needed.

Saving the Flats: The Wanstead Flats campaign of 1946

75 years after the attempted enclosure of Wanstead Flats by Henry Wellesley, Earl Cowley in 1871, another campaign was launched 75 years later, against the compulsory purchase of around half of Wanstead Flats for housing development immediately after the Second World War. 

B24FABA2-A73E-42F5-B8AA-5D506E2F7E3B.jpgLying immediately to the north of Forest Gate, the Flats was a popular destination for Eastenders, not only for just wandering, picnicking and hanging out, but for more organised events like fairs, bands and music hall performance at the bandstand, boating and fishing on the lakes and sport such as football and cricket. The crowded East End, with mainly working class people living in often run-down housing and working long hours, had a long and strong tradition of use of open spaces further east and north, and parts of Epping Forest or outlying places were important destinations, Fairlop Oak, Chingford Plain, as well as the Flats, were traditional gathering places…

Wanstead Flats had been recognised as a vital green space or “wedge” by the London County Council (LCC) in 1935 and the City of London, as Conservator of Epping Forest, organised a conference held at the Guildhall in 1939 to develop proposals for improvements on the Flats.

The outbreak of war in September 1939  put these ideas on hold, and instead Wanstead Flats itself hosted a variety of civilian and military uses during the War. These included allotments, anti-aircraft gun batteries, barrage balloons and bomb shelters. The bandstand was used as a collection point for salvaged wood from bomb damaged buildings and surplus food grown on the allotments. Later, parts of the Flats were closed off for use as a troop assembly point before and during the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. The area was also used as a German Prisoner of War camp.

By 1945, Wansted Flats were also being used for housing. Under emergency wartime powers, 102 “hutments” were already housing West Ham residents on the area north of Capel Road. East Ham borough authorities also proposed temporary housing between Manor Park and Aldersbrook.

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The wider context has to be appreciated here. The terrible destruction wreaked on East London during wartime bombing had made an already appalling housing situation across the East End much worse. Before the war the quality of much East London housing had been bad, and the war had not only seen mass destruction, but the sacrifices people had made had resulted in a build-up of expectation. People demanded improvements in their daily lives, and weren’t prepared to go back to the austerity of the 1930s.  A demand for better homes was a major part of this, symbolised un 1946 by the development of the mass squatting movement. The new Labour government felt under pressure to come up with solutions, and fast.

The Second World War obviously affected all across the country, but had a serious impact on the housing stock in East London in particular, and dockland areas had suffered the heaviest bombing. West Ham had been severely damaged during World War Two. The Royal Docks and associated industry had been primary targets (Target A), for the Luftwaffe air raids. During the London Blitz of 1940-41 thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs had fallen on the area. Later, 68 V1 flying bombs and 33 V2 rockets hitting the area added to the destruction. In total 14,000 houses were destroyed and many more were damaged within West Ham. By 1945 23 % of West Ham was designated as severely war damaged and was described as an area of “rubble strewn gaps and patched houses.”

The population of the borough of West Ham had declined from a high of around 320,000 people in the mid 1920s, but some 50,000 people were expected to return from evacuation or military service at the end of the war. By 1946 West Ham council had over 10,000 people awaiting homes, and many homeless people were crowded into unsuitable housing or living in temporary “Rest Centres”, some of them in local schools which were imminently to be returned to educational use. Other people were forced to live outside of the area splitting up families and friends.

With little on offer, some people locally took to squatting; as elsewhere, initially in disused army buildings. In the Summer of 1946, West Ham council reported that squatters had taken over former military huts on Wanstead Flats.

Responsibility for delivery was divided between the Ministries of Health, Works and Town and Country Planning, but housing itself would in fact be built by local authorities, ultimately co-ordinated under Aneurin Bevan, leftwing MP for Ebbw Vale, and Minister of Heath in the newly elected Labour Government. Bevan could see that housing would be a defining issue for the government, and had pledged to build 200,000 houses a years. He was determined to provide new housing quickly for the war weary population and expressed frustration with any delays. But like many in the Labour hierarchy, he saw planning as a centralised affair and harshly disapproved of people trying to improvise collective solutions for themselves. he authorised repression and obstruction for many of the squatters’ initiatives.

Proposed housing development on Wanstead Flats had already been backed by Bevan. He had little time for conservation of open space: in January 1946, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons about the emergency housing situation in East Ham, he declared:

“The people must have shelter… The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people.”

The 1944 Town and Country Planning Act introduced by the wartime coalition government led by Winston Churchill had given local authorities sweeping powers to deal with “blitz and blight” through reconstruction and redevelopment. To alleviate the housing situation West Ham council was determined to quickly provide better housing for the post-war population. It had already launched the “Homes Now” campaign to pressure the government over delays in providing finance and materials for housing.

A Map of the area proposed for the Compulsory Purchase

In March 1946  West Ham council decided to make an application under the Town and Country Planning Act to compulsory purchase 163 acres of Wanstead Flats, lying between Capel and Aldersbrook roads. Homes would be built here to house around 7000 people. The majority of this land lay outside of the West Ham borough boundaries; West Ham council noted that the London County Council (LCC) had already made applications for land in Chingford and Chigwell for housing outside of its own boundaries.
West Ham council favoured the idea of self contained cottage estates located away from heavy industry, a pattern that had been set by interwar developments further east, like Becontree. The trend was for population shift from the more heavily damaged areas in the south to the north of West Ham, and the open land of Wanstead Flats was an obvious target for development

However, the West Ham proposals were not universally popular. They were opposed by the Corporation of London, who had oversight of Epping Forest including the Flats, and all the other neighbouring local councils. Lord Mayor of London Sir Frank Alexander wrote personally to Bevan criticising the proposals.

Stanley Reed

On the ground, a vocal campaign was organised locally. Stanley Reed, a West Ham schoolteacher who lived on the Lakehouse Estate. became secretary of the Wanstead Flats Defence Committee, a broad based coalition of over 160 organisations including trade union branches, religious groups, political parties and sports organisations who came together to oppose the proposals. The committee organised public meetings, house canvassing, letter writing campaigns and lobbied local politicians.

If there were attempts to portray the battle as being between classes, that doesn’t seem to have been the case; not were Labour politicians all in tune with Bevan. Leah Manning the Labour MP for Epping was a vocal opponent of the proposed developments and presented Parliament with a 60,000 signature petition against the plans, attacking the plans during a Parliamentary debate as “vandalism.”. She spoke at many meetings against the proposals and was apparently prepared to sit down in front of the bulldozers…

Lewis Silkin, Minister for Town and Country Planning, and a former Chair of Planning for the LCC, ordered a public inquiry into the compulsory purchase, which opened on the 2nd December 1946 at West Ham Town Hall, Stratford (now the Old Town Hall). A leading argument against was that it was beyond the power of West Ham council to bid for compulsory purchase in the Forest. Wanstead Flats was undoubtedly a designated open space and was described as such in the Abercrombie’s Plan for London. However West Ham argued that it was attempting to follow government guidance to separate housing from industrial development.

The Inquiry lasted 4 days and saw some acrimonious exchanges. There were catcalls from the public gallery when the West Ham Town Clerk described the inquiry as a battle between “haves and have-nots” followed by cries of “shame!” when Wanstead Flats was described as an “unattractive open space.”

In April 1947 the inquiry ruled to reject the application. However Lewis Silkin did accept that the compulsory purchase was not “ultra vires” (beyond the council’s power) and the 1878 Epping Forest Act did not exempt the land from an attempt to compulsory purchase it.

 

Wanstead Flats remained, and remained, open space, enjoyed by 1000s.

West Ham Council went on to embark on a comprehensive redevelopment programme across the borough, and West Ham and East Ham councils jointly prepared proposals for development in the Pitsea and Laindon areas of Essex, although ultimately this development was undertaken by the Basildon Development Corporation.

The proposals by East Ham council for permanent development for schools on the Manor Park Triangle were eventually rejected following a later public inquiry in the early 1950s.

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The City of London, West Ham, East Ham, Wanstead and Woodford and Leyton councils later formed a committee to look at development of Wanstead Flats, producing some proposals which were implemented during the 1950s and is still used today.

The tension between preservation and development was central to the defeated Wanstead proposals. There were compelling arguments on both sides – much needed housing, or open space, vital to East End leisure and relaxation. That there was fierce mass support for preserving the Flats as space for pleasure shows that there was a sense of desire not just immediate need, or at least a balance between the two.

Similarly current infill developments now contain genuine arguments about new housing, ways to solve the crisis, vs open space, the ability to breathe a bit, use of intricate slivers of ground that make estate life a little easier… Local councillors shouting at campaigners that they are nimbys don’t have the same excuse of war damage that gave the Wanstead proposals weight; on the contrary, some of the responsibilities for shortage of social housing lies at local authorities’ doors. In tandem with deliberate National  housing policies & the rise of property finance as vital component of the speculation economy… there has also been mismanagement, co-operation with right to buy & stock transfer… Officers and councillors often also think they know better, that collective suggestions from below should always be subservient to themselves as experts, officers (tho only the ones who agree with their position) or elected officials…

Who has a ‘right to the city’ – it’s a complex question. The city needs to be available to us all though, and a balance between housing & open space has to be struck. In contrast to authoritarian pen-pushing and smoothing the way for developers’ profits and social cleansing, we need a movement that puts collectivisation of the empty private flats; control of housing policy from below for need not profit; genuine decision-making for all at its heart…

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The 1946 campaign was not the last contestation of open space on the Flats. A proposal to build temporary police prefabs there for policing the 2012 London Olympics was opposed by local campaigners under the banner of ‘Take Back Wanstead Flats’

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