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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 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.
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.