Beneath the sleek surface of the 2012 London Olympics there is turbulence. Even as officials bask in the glowing approval of the International Olympic Committee, desperate last-minute efforts are being made to provide basketball practice facilities. In the process green space on common land near the main Olympic site in East London is being trashed.
The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is resorting to its exemptions from the normal planning process to rush the project through. Minimal assurances about treading lightly on a ‘temporary’ site have already been broken, with foundations dug far deeper than permitted.
In response, indignant local residents have formed the Save Leyton Marsh campaign to protect a much-used and loved open space. They have recently been joined by Occupy London in a sit-down protest that has brought work on the site to a halt.
Quite how such a basic facility can have been overlooked, or more sensible alternatives for the practice courts ignored, are among many questions the ODA has thus far resolutely refused to answer, preferring instead to take the occupiers to the High Court.
Leyton Marsh has an instructive history. It was once ‘Lammas Land’, held in common to grow hay for winter feed. Local parishioners had ancient rights to graze cattle and horses once the hay had been harvested.
In the 19th Century much of the surrounding land was built on by railway, water and gas companies. In the early 1890s the East London Waterworks Company erected fences illegally. On Lammas Day 1892 a large demonstration took place on the marsh and the fences were taken down. The Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee was set up and successfully challenged the water company in court. This led to the Leyton Urban District Council Act 1904, stipulating that the marsh must be kept as open space.
During World War II it was used to dump rubble from the Blitz. A V-2 rocket then hit the marsh, leaving a crater that is still visible today. As predicted by local residents, an unexploded bomb was uncovered almost as soon as work on the Olympic facilities started.
Left for decades to become industrial wasteland, in 1971 much of the area was acquired by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority – which works under the motto ‘For nature, sport and discovery’. Its hasty deal with the ODA may have something to do with sport, but it has nothing at all to do with nature – and only unexploded bombs to offer by way of discovery.
Faced by Armada of earth-moving equipment, the occupiers have meanwhile discovered a rare opportunity in London to pursue quite another, more gentle if non-Olympic sport - boules.