London Councils refuses to elaborate on children’s home plans that jeopardise waterpark

London Councils has refused to reveal the list of sites it considered for a secure children’s home that it is seeking to build in Lea Bridge.

The authority, which represents the 32 borough councils in London, has put forward proposals for a children’s unit at the former Thames Water Depot in Lea Bridge Road.

The move has been criticised by locals who fear it could jeopardise plans for the East London Waterworks Park (ELWP), a wild swimming park that campaigners have crowdfunded £500,000 for.

The ELWP sent a Freedom of Information request to London Councils, asking for a list of the other sites it had considered for the home.

But their request was turned down, with London Councils saying it was “in draft” and “still being developed”.

In design materials for the proposed home, London Councils stated that there is a “severe shortage” of secure homes for vulnerable children which means that children in welfare placements are often sent “hundreds of miles” from London.

However, ELWP campaigners have said they are frustrated at a lack of transparency shown by London Councils. They also doubt the 14-acre site is the most suitable location for the specialist home.

In a statement issued to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), ELWP chair Abigail Woodman, said: “If the Thames Water Depot site really is the only possible place to build a secure facility for children in London, why are we being prevented from seeing the site selection analysis?

“And how can a conclusive site selection analysis still be in draft? It is either complete and ready for scrutiny, or it is incomplete and nobody really knows if the Thames Water Depot is the only place in London for a secure facility for children or not.”

Abigail added: “We believe the only possible use for the land is East London Waterworks Park – a unique nature-rich space co-designed, led, and backed financially by the community, for the community.”

The land in question is Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). Land with this designation is afforded the same protection as the Metropolitan Green Belt.

Councils are required to ensure that MOL sites in their authorities are protected from inappropriate development, except in “very special circumstances”. Developers who want to build on MOL are also required to show there was no other suitable site that was neither MOL or part of the Green Belt.

In 2019, a Waltham Forest Council planning committee turned down a government  application for a primary and secondary school on the same site.

In its refusal, the committee said the proposed size of the school buildings were “excessive” and they would result in “substantial harm” to the surrounding open land.

Speaking previously, the council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for housing and regeneration, Ahsan Khan, said the 2019 proposal for the school was rejected “primarily” because there was no need for extra school places locally.

Cllr Khan added: “A proposal to build on Metropolitan Open Land can only be approved in very special circumstances, in line with Waltham Forest and London-wide planning policy requirements.

“Any planning application submitted will be carefully assessed to ensure that the impact on the surrounding environment is fully considered.”

If approved, the home would provide specialist care for London’s most vulnerable children. There is currently no such facility in the capital.

In a statement supplied to the LDRS, a spokesperson for London Councils said around 450 sites were identified initially, of which 70 were longlisted for further consideration.

They added: “In addition to the site selection process, a sequential assessment is being developed – this is a requirement for the planning application for this site.

“The final sequential assessment will contain details about the other sites that were reviewed as part of the site selection process and will further confirm the Thames Water Depot on Lea Bridge Road as the only suitable site for this facility.”

Those details will be included in the formal planning application.

The spokesperson added that the current managers of the site, the Department for Education, would be obliged to consider alternative educational or public sector uses for the site prior to considering a commercial disposal.

Since 2018, hundreds of residents have backed the proposals for the community wild swimming park.

But while some remain resolute, other residents are less optimistic about the park’s prospects.

A spokesperson for the Waltham Forest Civic Society said there “may be no real chance of defeating” the application for planning permission. 

He added: “It is clear Waltham Forest Council is intending to grant permission [and] we cannot see the Mayor of London refusing to approve [it]. We would be very glad to be proved wrong, but we think it is inevitable that planning permission would be granted.”

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter