Charity’s ‘frustration’ as fight for Waltham Forest water park continues

A community-led charity fighting for an open-water swimming park in Waltham Forest say they feel “deeply let down” over “misinformation” surrounding their campaign.

The East London Waterworks Park team (ELWP) has raised more than £500,000 since 2022 to convert an old waterworks site in Lea Bridge Road, but this dream has been threatened by government plans for a secure children’s unit on the same site.

There is no such facility in the capital and the Department for Education (DfE) has said the former Thames Water depot is the only suitable site in Greater London.

The ELWP’s plans would involve turning the 5.68-acre site into a wild swimming park complete with a ‘forest school,’ an arts building and mosaics.

ELWP chairwoman Abigail Woodman said the initial “shock” over the plans for a secure home for up to 24 vulnerable children had “now turned to frustration and disappointment” with Waltham Forest Council and the DfE.

She said: “We were given in-principle support by two local councils (Waltham Forest and Hackney), who we now discover are part of the pan-London development vehicle set up to develop the secure facility for children.”

In a statement, council leader Grace Williams, said: “We have met with the ELWP group and we have been honest and open about the significant feasibility issues regarding their plans for this site.”

The ELWP however says that the only concern councillors raised with ELWP was the potential cost of the land. The council did not clarify to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) when these ‘feasibility issues’ arose, or what they specifically were.

Cllr Williams added that the council was now “fully supportive” of the “need” for a home, saying: “We are acutely aware of the absence of a secure home for vulnerable children in London.”

The children’s unit is currently in the pre-planning stage, meaning no formal applications have been made.

Cllr Williams had previously congratulated ELWP for reaching its £500,000 milestone in early 2023, saying it indicated a “huge appetite” for wild swimming in the borough.

Fellow councillor Gerry Lyons expressed support for the plan previously, but told the LDRS he had not been speaking on behalf of the council.

He echoed Cllr Williams’ sentiments that it was “clear that there is an urgent need” for a secure children’s home. He added: “We have a duty to ensure vulnerable young people are accommodated in suitable facilities when the need arises.”

ELWP has also accused DfE of spreading “misinformation” by claiming that it had told the community group the land was not for sale.

The ELWP chairwoman said: “To add insult to injury, it is now being publicly claimed that we were told the land was not for sale, which could incline people to believe we misled our supporters when we set up our crowdfunder in June 2022. Yet, in reality it’s the government that is misleading people.”

The Department for Housing (DLUHC) currently owns the land, and would have only put it on the commercial market had it found that there was no public or educational need for the site.

A DfE spokesperson told the LDRS: “An educational need was identified after consulting with other government departments and public sector bodies, and [the DfE] is now proposing to build a secure children’s home on the site.

“LocatED [a government-owned property company] has previously communicated to the community group that this site is not for sale and they will be updated accordingly should this position change.”

The campaigners say they were only told about the secure children home plans in January this year, roughly five days before they were announced publicly.

With a view to submitting a comprehensive planning application for the site, ELWP had raised a total of £506,225 from 4,612 donors. Over the next nine years, the charity expected the water park to bring in more than £18million.

Building on the widespread support, ELWP maintains a swimming park would be a better use of Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), and more in line with the policy’s intentions to protect the landscape and areas of natural conservation.

Metropolitan Open Land is treated similarly to the Green Belt, and councils are encouraged to refuse any inappropriate developments that would detract from its natural characteristics.

Though Waltham Forest Council previously rejected plans for a school on the site, a spokesperson from London Councils, which oversees the 32 boroughs comprising London, said the “chronic” need for such a unit constituted “very special circumstances”.

She said: “This much-needed secure children’s home presents very special circumstances to justify building on this site. This justification will be set out and published in the full planning application along with details of the other sites that were considered.”

As it would be built on MOL, it would need final approval from the Greater London Authority.

The land was selected from a longlist of 70 sites – cut down from a prospective list of 450. Though campaigners are sceptical it is the only suitable land in the capital, the DfE maintains it is.

London Councils previously refused to publish why it is the only such suitable site in the capital, arguing that its reasoning was “in draft” and not ready for public release.

On Wednesday May 15, a petition to “save” the land from the government’s plans crossed 10,000 signatures.

A spokesperson for ELWP said: “This level of support underscores the overwhelming public interest in the future of this land and the ongoing widespread backing across the capital for creating East London Waterworks Park.”

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Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter

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