Natural pool plan under threat

Proposals for a new community-owned swimming pool in east London are facing uncertainty after London Councils revealed its plan for a secure children’s home on the same site.

The site, a 5.68-hectare former waterworks on Lea Bridge Road, has been the target of a five-year campaign to create a community-owned park and swimming area called the East London Waterworks Park.

However, London Councils, which represents the capital’s 33 local authorities, is hoping to build a new secure children’s home on the former industrial site.

The land is on protected Metropolitan Open Land within the Lee Valley Regional Park, wedged between Lea Bridge, the River Lea and the Waterworks Centre Nature Reserve.

Although details of London Council’s proposals remain unclear, a leaflet published by the development team claims that it is the “only suitable location” for a secure home in London.

The home would provide 24 specialist welfare placements for “highly vulnerable children with complex needs” which are under a “severe shortage” nationally.

A spokesperson for London Councils refused to share images or further details of the plans with the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), arguing there will be a public consultation meeting on Wednesday February 7.

The current owner, the Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing, bought the site for £33million in 2016.

Abigail Woodman, director and chair of the East London Waterworks Park, said her organisation – which has raised more than £500,000 from the public – is proposing a “unique space for the whole community”.

She told the LDRS: “There are real areas of deprivation nearby with very few affordable options for local people to exercise.

“This space could be incredibly beneficial for local people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

Ms Woodman said locals should attend the consultation meeting to “find out about [the children’s home] and share what they think”.

Obtaining planning permission for a secure home is likely to be challenging, as the site – in the Lee Valley Regional Park – is designated as Metropolitan Open Land, protecting it from “inappropriate” development except in “very special circumstances”.

In 2019, a Waltham Forest Council planning committee refused an application by the Department for Education, to build a primary and secondary school.

The committee said the school buildings were “excessive” in size, would cause “substantial harm” to the surrounding open land and failed to provide links to the surrounding Lee Valley Regional Park.

A spokesperson for local campaign group Save Lea Marshes said it is “very concerned” about the secure home plans.

They added: “Waltham Forest previously refused plans to develop the site for schools and there is already a community based plan to rewild the site and create a wild swimming venue which fits with the needs of the area and is consistent with its status as Metropolitan Open Land and the objectives of the Lea Valley Park, of which it is a part.”

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority – tasked with protecting and enhancing leisure facilities and nature in the 26-mile long park – will play an important role in the planning process.

The authority’s development guidance says new land uses should be “compatible” with the surrounding park, add to leisure and nature conservation activities, “enhance landscape quality” and bring heritage buildings back into use.

This could include a waterside visitor hub, a biodiversity visitor attraction, sporting facilities, accommodation for park visitors or community-use buildings.

Developments which fail to meet this criteria “will be resisted”, the park authority’s guidance warns.

When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the park authority said: “We received notice of this project only this week, and in these early stages, we are still gathering information.”

“It’s important to note that these types of applications involve comprehensive evaluations across various factors.”

The council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for the environment, Ahsan Khan, claimed the school was rejected in 2019 “primarily” because extra school places were not needed in the area.

He 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.”

Further details of the proposals are expected to be shared at a consultation meeting at Lee Valley Ice Centre on February 7 from 3pm to 8pm, as well as at londonschbuild.co.uk

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter