Tag Archives: Planning

A growing controversy over the Lee Valley’s glasshouses

  • Tied up

    Narrow boats on the Lee Navigation near Cheshunt. All photographs: Paul Nettleton

  • Quality time

    A family of swans in the Lee Valley

  • Milk ripe

    Berries ripening in the Lee Valley sun

  • Nesting time

    Arranging the eggs

  • Power in the park

    The National Grid electricity sub-station in the Lee Valley park

  • Growth industry?

    Glasshouses seen across the Lee

  • A bit Wind in the Willows

    Aerating a pond in the Lee Valley

For a gallery of images please click on the photograph above

My favourite way in to the River Lee Country Park is to drive up the Crooked Mile from Waltham Abbey and turn left into Fishers Green Lane before parking up and taking a walk or a bicycle ride around the Seventy Acres Lake. Striking out south brings you to the Royal Gunpowder Mills museum, north to more gravel pits and Nazeing Marsh.

It all sounds a bit Wind in the Willows and there are plenty of people messing around in boats – whether it be on the Lee Navigation, where there is a steady traffic of pleasure seekers in narrow boats along the canalised waterway, or at Holyfield Lake. Here the members of Fishers Green sailing club must steer clear of the weirs.

The park draws walkers and anglers and birdwatchers and photographers in all weathers, to watch the comings and goings of the wildfowl and the march of the seasons.

After rain, the Horsemill Stream and the Cornmill Stream and the Small River Lea (the alternative spelling), all part of the flood relief system, can run swift and powerfully. Even when the waters appear placid there’s plenty going on under the surface.

 Invasive species

Invasive virile crayfish have been found in the river, where in the 80s the signal crayfish wiped out the native white clawed crayfish. There are also terrapins, bought as pets during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fad and released into wild after their owners tired of their growing size and appetites.

Then there are the human battles, for the future of salad growers in and around the regional park. And, with local authority budgets cut, there is political pressure on the authority to become self-financing.

Their glasshouses are, say the growers, too small to secure the long-term viability of the valley’s traditional market gardening. They say they are being squeezed between the demands of supermarket buyers for year-round supply and cheaper produce, and the park’s opposition to expansion of the area under glass.

The park is not a planning authority but has to be consulted by Epping Forest district council, where most of the growers are located. It has no remit to support horticulture, rather seeing production as a secondary function (pdf).

The river has a long history of quarrying and industry which has shaped the valley’s post-industrial landscape alongside farming and the glasshouses which have been in operation for more than a century.

Today, to the east of Cheshunt, there’s a mainline railway running within earshot of the river and electricity pylons march along the valley floor and across the former gravel pits to a substation. National Grid wants to upgrade the overhead lines to carry 400kV instead of the current 275kV. Consent is being sought for the work, with a decision expected by 2014.

The park’s boundaries skirt the extensive industrial estate on the west bank through Brimsdown, and the vast Sainsbury’s distribution centre by the M25 at Waltham Abbey. The jobs they provide are essential. There are pockets of deprivation in the town and it is not so far from Tottenham, which is seeking its own economic recovery after the London riots.

The authority wants the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with the momentum they generated for regeneration of brownfield sites and the watercourses around Stratford, to be a world class park for Londoners and a tourist draw in the green belt of Essex and Hertfordshire.

Hectare upon hectare of glasshouses, especially built taller and perhaps making more use of artificial lighting to extend the growing season and range of crops, are not seen as an attractive landscape feature. Nor are heavy lorries welcomed to narrow local roads.

A report by consultants to Epping Forest council (pdf) in 2012 set out in considerable detail the challenges for the growers and the dilemma for the councillors, who also have to contend with the pressures on the forest itself as another “green lung” for London.

Among the report’s conclusions were proposals to increase the area designated for protected cropping in glasshouses to head off increasing competition. This comes from abroad and also from Thanet Earth, the development of vast glasshouses in Kent where Combined Heat and Power technology means waste heat is used to warm the crops while electricity is produced for the grid.

 Cucumber festival

When the shelves of the city’s supermarkets boast of locally-sourced or “East Anglian” produce, they are likely to mean cucumbers grown by members of the Lea Valley Growers Association alongside tomatoes and peppers.

For the past two years they even held a Great British Cucumber Festival to celebrate the fact that the valley produces 75% of all UK cucumbers – about 1.2 million a week. There’s no event this year but “Cue Fest” is due to return in 2014.

The Epping Forest report painted a picture of an ageing generation of farmers running businesses on a knife edge of viability, needing to invest to thrive and grow, but hemmed in by physical and planning constraints. The need is for largely level sites, suitable for glasshouses which are regarded as temporary structures, and sufficient energy.

On national salad day last month, David Heath, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was asked in the Commons by Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, if he was aware of the concentration of salad growers in his consituency around the villages of Roydon and Nazeing.

 Halfon asked his Conservative colleague: “Will the government place more weight on food production in the planning system to help the Lee Valley growers and glasshouse industry in my constituency?”

Hansard records the reply: “There clearly needs to be proper accommodation for growing food stuffs in this country through the planning system, but it is equally right the government are clear on this that local planning decisions need to be taken locally. Central government have continually to remind our colleagues in local government, however, that having sustainable food production in this country is a top priority. We have an increasing population to feed, and we must ensure that we can do so in a sustainable way.”

A reminder perhaps to the park authority that the coalition made transforming the economy a priority for all parts of government, or as David Cameron put it in his first major speech as prime minister in May 2010, a big part of our strategy for growth is getting out of the way of business.”

The views into the LeeValley from High Beach in Epping Forest are striking. A study of Google Earth or Maps gives you an idea of the extensive area under glass, but its hardly on the scale of the Netherlands. My own view is that there is room for more glasshouses without throwing stones at the park’s leisure remit.

 

Margate: a faded seaside town in February – gallery

  • Lido shuffle

    Margate Lido awaits redevelopment. I hope they save the sign. Tracey Emin could have done little better

  • Going down

    The lift to Walpole Bay beach was closed but there were concrete steps straight out of East Germany nearby

  • Sign language

    Margate is littered with signs prohibiting this, that and the other. Some make sense given the speed with which the tide changes

  • Art housed

    Turner Contemporary art gallery and the visitor information centre in Margate

  • Retail revival?

    Margate old town shops. Just add people

  • Margate harbour and, left, the Arlington Tower. Tesco want to build a megastore on the site of the shopping centre with flats. The decision rests with Eric Pickles, the communities secretary

A February Thursday provided the opportunity for a first ever visit to Margate. A walk along the beach, a stroll round the old town’s growing number of retro shops, and fish’n’chips al fresco across the road from the harbour when the sun came out. The attempts to revive this Kent seaside town merit closer study, especially as the Mary Portas designed  scheme is proving controversial. There were French school parties gathering on the steps of the Turner Contemporary gallery,  business people bustling away and a handful of anglers and birdwatchers on the prom. We saved the Dreamland and penny arcade side of town for another visit, and walked past the Winter Gardens – coming soon Simple Minds – and the crumbling Lido built into the cliffs above sandy Walpole Bay beach in Cliftonville. The water quality failed some pollution tests in 2012, which is a shame. Click on the photograph for the gallery. More at http://margatearchitecture.blogspot.co.uk/   Photographs: Paul Nettleton

The planners, HS2 and the bonfire of red tape

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There must have been disappointment at the BBC2 when the first programme in its documentary series The Planners drew only 1.3 million viewers, some 5.5m fewer than would be expected for the peak time slot.

 

Days after the controversial announcement of the northern extension route for the HS2 railway, this portrayal of how developers, local authorities and the public are reacting to the government’s stripping away of planning controls  to encourage construction with the aim of kickstarting the economy is both timely and engaging.

 

Who cannot have felt sympathy with householders faced with losing their views of farmland on the edge of Winsford in Cheshire. They even pursued a fruitless hunt for great crested newts, a protected species, in their attempt to bock the building of 540 houses, with all that entails in disruption during construction work, additional traffic and the loss of an open aspect for which they’d doubtless paid a premium in house prices?

 

You might have wondered why a human resources company boss could not have a dropped kerb to facilitate parking in the front garden of her Regency house in Pittville, Cheltenham, “just like her neighbours”, instead of having to manoeuvre round the back as if her car was a horse being led to stables?

 

Solar panels

 

At least Basil and Rachel Thompson, retired GPs nurturing a beautiful garden in a grade two listed house in the shade of Chester’s historic city walls, were allowed to put 17 solar panels on the slate roof of their garage.

 

Conservation officer John Healey objected to concealing wall walking tourists’ views of the slates with large modular reflective panels. Basil pointed out that the office block looming above the far side of the wall looked “just like a panel”.

 

Indeed, redbrick Centurion House, boasted slate grey window frames and acres of glass arranged as if to resemble a fortress – lacking only Roman soldiers peering over the top.

 

Healey said he could not “answer for the sins of those who were here in the 70s”. This failed to answer the Thompsons’ point that solar panels are a response to 21st century needs for sustainable energy.

 

After the elected councillors voted through the installation, Healey was interviewed while looking down from the walls, oblivious to the blooms most tourists would have admired and with his back to the office block monstrosity rising behind him. It even had me jumping from my seat and prodding at the screen in astonishment.

 

Appeal costs

 

Still, even as the nimbys brief their lawyers in attempts to derail HS2 that are likely to delay its construction for years – not in my leafy acreage, please – you have to wonder if the balance has swung too far in favour of private developers.

 

Planning officers and councillors alike must now calculate the likely costs of losing an appeal to the planning inspectors if they reject any application. That’s not treating an application on its merits.

 

Developers who secure outline permission can return time and again, asking for more blocks and more flats. They can build closer to the neighbours than agreed drawings showed, yet not be forced to tear down the timber frames and start again. Both are examples close to my home in South Woodford, north-east London.

 

And while the predicted benefits of HS2 for the North and Midlands are now being questioned by academics and rail experts, such as Christian Wolmar, it is becoming all but impossible to stop a railway or a Thames bridge or a housing estate on a flood plain, all in the name of economic recovery.

 

Dither over HS2

 

The Chinese, we are told to wonder as we were once told to work more like the Japanese, will have built thousands of miles of high speed railway while we dither over HS2. But in the bonfire of red tape, so beloved of Tory politicians at their annual conference, are we ignoring the growing clamour in China for controls to avoid preventable deaths in the breakneck race for growth?

 

Would we accept the pollution-laden air of Beijing, where CNN last month reported an air quality index reading of 700? The World Health Organization regards 25 micrograms as healthy.

 

There’s a telling quote in a People’s Daily Online article after fire killed 53 people in a 28-storey building in Shanghai in 2010. It raised concerns at the lack of fire safety measures and facilities in China’s biggest metropolises. “The drive for modernisation should also include the quest for a greater peace of mind,” the article said.

 

It’s a lesson lost on British politicians engaged in dismantling protections for the public won at Westminster over many years, or seeking in Brussels to negotiate away workers’ rights in some à la carte European Union.

 

The Planners is on BBC2 at 8pm on Tuesday