Campaigners lose battle to keep Paralympics basketball courts off Leyton Marsh

Basketball court protest sign at Walthamstow Town Hall

A step too far? A temporary three storey basketball hall has been given the go-ahead by Waltham Forest Council. Photograph: Katherine Underwood

By a majority of just one vote, and in the face of stiff local opposition, a proposal to build temporary basketball facilities on Leyton Marsh was passed last Tuesday, 7 February by Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee.

Despite a capacity turn out, with opposition speakers filling all three of the available platform slots, the proposal – which will see a three-storey basketball training facility constructed on protected land – was passed by a vote of four to three to cries of ‘shame’ and jeering from the public gallery.

The proposals outline the construction of two basketball courts, an access road, car parking and plant storage containers on Leyton Marsh, the majority of which is protected land.

The courts are to be practice facilities for the Paralympic Games. However, local concern focussed on doubt over the temporary nature of developments, the long term damage to the marshland, the lack of public consultation, and the last-minute nature of the application – work is due to commence in just three weeks.

Hackney councillor Barry Buitekant asked why a thorough investigation had not been set up into alternative sites – the marsh is designated Metropolitan Open Land, which has the same protection as the green belt.

Cllr Buitekant pointed out that in 2009 the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority offered the land to the Olympic Delivery Authority and asked why, if it had been deemed unsuitable then, it was suddenly suitable now.

Other opponents expressed concern about the damage which the marshes might sustain.  Virginia Draper, who lives in direct sight of the development site, asked why no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been conducted.

An EIA, which would determine the impact developments would have on the marsh’s rich natural habitat, is usually standard procedure.  The fact that no assessment has been conducted is something which Waltham Forest councillor Alan Siggers “could not believe.”

Instead a desktop survey was used, despite being described by its own authors as ‘sub-optimal.’

Those speaking for the motion were at pains to stress the temporary nature of the construction, and pointed out that contractors had already been engaged to begin removing it on 15 October.

Cllr Jenny Gray said she couldn’t understand why there was so much opposition to something which would be inconvenient for only a few weeks. She also said that she didn’t think the impact on wildlife was going to be “that great”, adding that the structure “wasn’t really that huge.”

Ian Ansell of Waltham Forest Council’s Development Management Team said that “after an exhaustive search” the site was the only possible location for the facilities.  However, Cllr Buitekant said there was very little information available on such a search.

Summing up, the chair, Cllr Peter Barnett, agreed that if the structure had been permanent, the application would not have even reached the committee as it was “clearly unacceptable”.

Both Hackney and Waltham Forest residents expressed their frustration and anger at the decision.

Pat Andrews who has lived near the marsh for 73 year felt that the decision had been a foregone conclusion and said she had seen the area being fenced off before the meeting had started.

Paul Winterhart, a long-time Hackney resident echoed concerns that the committee had already made their minds up, despite a petition of over 1200 signatures and support from London Assembly Green Party member Jenny Jones.

Plans to protest against the decision were being made within moments of the meeting ending.

Commenting on the outcome, an ODA spokesman said: “We are delighted with the decision by Waltham Forest Council and will now focus on starting construction of this temporary venue.

“We will be working with Lee Valley Regional Park Authority as the landowner, the council and local community to keep any impact on this section of Leyton Marsh to an absolute minimum and will restore the land to public use as soon as possible after the Paralympic Games.”

In a statement to the Hackney Citizen, the ODA said it has spent £15 million creating a series of Games-time training venues, including Hackney, providing London with new world-class sporting facilities.

The organisation also points out that Lee Valley Regional Park Authority will spend £65,000 of ODA funding to improve the area: it says seating will be increased, and pathways and gateways improved while work will also take place to enhance the existing habitats for a variety of wildlife that live in the Valley including the construction of an otter holt and kingfisher bank.

It claims alternative sites were sought but were unsuitable, for a variety of reasons, including the extra run-off area required for wheelchair basketball and the International Olympic Committee rule that training venues must be within a 30 minute drive of the Olympic Village.

For more information about the development go here (external site).

To sign the e-petition go here. (external site).

Join the Facebook group ‘Don’t be Harsh, Save the Marsh!’ for information and updates on opposition.

Note: this article was updated at 7.45pm Monday 13 February 2012 with additional information from the ODA.