15 April 2024

Nimby Watch: The hidden dangers of wild swimming


In a new series, CapX is celebrating the people trying their damndest to save the country from affordable housing or decent infrastructure. This week, some people who really, really like wild swimming…

Where is it? Well, funny story-

Please tell me it’s not East London, where you just so happen to live, again. I can’t do that I’m afraid: it’s in the Lea Valley, just inside Waltham Forest’s border with Hackney. But this one really is a doozy.

Fine. What’s there now? What used to be there was a waterworks filter bed. But that was filled in some time ago, and now the 6 acre site is a Thames Water logistics centre – essentially, a big car park.

And people don’t want to build on it? Oddly enough, no: there is not, that I have noticed, a furious campaign to protect the car park, replete with claims it’s an outstanding site of natural beauty and that cattle drovers of medieval Essex frequented this very car park and so on. Despite the fact the site is classified as metropolitan open land, a designation similar to green belt but for inner London, there are actually two plans to build something here.

In the red corner are the Department for Education and London Councils, an umbrella body, which has chosen it as the site for a secure children’s home. This would provide housing, education and healthcare for 24 highly vulnerable kids, aged from 10 to 17, who have experienced instability and suffered trauma, and who would not be able to leave the site without escort. As things stand, there is no facility of this kind anywhere in London, and a severe shortage of such provision nationally which means that currently kids are being sent as far as Scotland.

Sounds important. And in the blue corner? Some people who would like a swim.

You’re being facetious again. I really wish I was. The proposal for the East London Waterworks Park (ELWP) would turn the filter beds into swimming pools, restore some of the surrounding heritage buildings, and re-wild the rest of the site. It would also include a forest school, ‘where people of all ages can learn about our natural world’. This plan has no official backing or status whatsoever – but campaigners have made a lot of noise, plus raised half a million pounds through a crowdfunder, which is a lot of money, albeit not nearly enough to actually make their plan a reality.

Matters came to a head in February, when two things happened. One was that the Labour-run Waltham Forest council abandoned its 2022 manifesto promise to build a new lido at Low Hall, just over a mile to the north, on the grounds that it couldn’t afford it. The other was the planning consultation for the children’s home, which would take the other plausible site for such a lido out of contention. Cue furious blogs, social media campaigns and reports on local news, all of which, it must be said, gave far more prominence to the desires of local swimmers than the needs of London’s most vulnerable kids.

Okay, but does the children’s home really need to be there? This is the big question. Its proposers claim to have conducted an extensive survey of possible sites in London, and determined that this is the ‘only suitable location to build this facility’. They have, however, refused to release details of what other sites they considered or what criteria they used, leading the proponents of the East London Water Park to ask, not entirely unreasonably, why the developers are refusing to produce their evidence.

They should probably do that. Quite. As things stand, though, both groups have said the land is the only suitable location for their respective proposals. If we take that on face value, then which side you’re on here really does come down to a simple debate about which you think matters more: wild swimming or vulnerable kids. An unnerving number of people have looked at the situation and opted for the former.

So what happens now? It’s not entirely clear. The ELWP campaign – chaired, incidentally, by three-time Green Party council candidate Abigail Woodman – have launched a pair of petitions: one on the website of Waltham Forest council, which says it’ll debate anything that gets 3,000 signatures or more, and one that anyone can sign. As things stand, the former is on 3,193, and so, one assumes, the debate will go ahead.

What the campaigners are hoping to gain from it, though, I’m not entirely sure, since even if the council did roll over, there’s no money to turn that logistics centre into a park anyway. But it might slightly delay the construction of a facility for London’s most vulnerable children. And that’s kind of a victory in itself, isn’t it?

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.