One thing is certain – news that the Metropolitan police planned to site its Olympic operational centre on Wanstead Flats should never have appeared first on the pages of the Evening Standard in early June. The proposed plans, which iinvolve creating a fenced, high-security compound with buildings, parking areas, stables and even police holding cells for at least three months during 2012, are so close to residential neighbourhoods in Newham and Redbridge that they were always likely to become controversial. To enable the police to use Wanstead Flats as a base, the City of London Corporation, who manage the land for the benefit of local people, intends to amend an act of parliament that has protected Epping Forest from enclosure for 132 years. The precedent this sets, on top of the disruption, the secrecy and the sense that the Olympics are being used as an excuse for those in power to do whatever they like, has resulted in a storm of protest. But even after years as a community worker in Newham, the strength of feeling has been a surprise even to me.
The Save Wanstead Flats campaign has grown from a public meeting in mid July, which itself came about because a small group of local people saw the Standard article and approached Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate (where I work) for help. We provided our main hall for free and helped with publicity, but on the evening of the meeting, we have no idea how many would turn up. As we soon discovered, the meeting was packed to capacity, with over 250 people attending and a unanimous message emerging from local residents– there was overwhelming opposition to a police operational base, concerns about the conduct of the City of London Corporation and real anger about the lack of consultation. A steering committee was formed – and more than 20 people signed up to be part of it.
It took a month for the police and the Corporation to react, but in what looked like a direct response to the public meeting, they finally decided to undertake what is laughably known as ‘community engagement’ in early August. A public relations company was hired to arrange meetings with a selected few, rather than the wider public, whilst a website set up to sell the case for using Wanstead Flats during 2012. Worryingly, local residents finally found out that ‘consultation’ on the plans for the Flats would end on 26 September, with comments considered by Redbridge council later in the year. With the first, closed ‘listening’ event arranged for mid-August, this meant that there was only a six-week period, half of it during the peak holiday season, when local people would be able to voice their concerns. This isn’t a proper consultation – it’s a tick-box exercise.
The campaign has continued to insist that representatives of the police and the Corporation attend a public meeting arranged by local people themselves and on their own terms, with sufficient time to make sure local communities around the Flats have been informed. A small delegation turned up at the police’s initial presentation of their plans and hand-delivered invitations to the campaign’s public meeting, which has been set for on 6 October. But we are still waiting to hear whether the police or Corporation officials will turn up to answer questions.
Meanwhile, a Mass Community Picnic has been called for Sunday 5 September at 1pm, on the spot to the west of Centre Road where the police want to site their base. It’s an opportunity for everyone who lives near Wanstead Flats to come along with food, picnic blankets, their children and their friends and join others to demonstrate the local community’s opposition to these proposals.
Choosing to try and site an Olympics policing base on Wanstead Flats has touched a nerve – and in part, it’s one that reveals genuine and underlying concerns about the Olympic Games itself. So much of the rhetoric both during the bid and in the five years that have followed has focused on what a privilege it is for London – and east London in particular – to play host to the Games. There have been so many promises about the benefits that residents will experience. Instead, the biggest impact has been disruption, decisions made will little involvement of local communities and a sense that we are being pushed aside to make way for a sporting event that has little to do with us.
What is possibly more surprising is how long it has taken for more people to stand up and say, “enough!” The same broad support was far from evident when the residents of Clays Lane had their homes bulldozed to make way for the Olympic park. Perhaps because Wanstead Flats is used by such a wide range of people of all ages, or because a local community centre was prepared to offer its support, has helped to galvanise opposition. But whatever the reason, the Metropolitan police and the City of London Corporation has a real fight on its hands – and plenty of questions that this time need far more than vague assurances.