How campaigners took on the Lee Valley authority and helped save the park
PUBLISHED: 10:11 06 June 2019
Plans for the Lea Valley Regional Park at one time mooted turning Hackney Wick woodland into a Japanese garden and to build a fairground at Lea Bridge to "rival Tivoli Gardens". Long time critic of the authority which runs the park, Laurie Elks, tells Emma Bartholomew about his campaign
In the 1970s Hackney Society chair Laurie Elks founded a campaign calling on the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA) to "mend its ways".
"They were all about building leisure centres, and they weren't interested in the countryside," he claims of the organisation set up to manage the 12-mile stretch from Stratford to Hertfordshire.
"Our objective was for them to tear up their master plan and they eventually did. I think we changed the direction of the park authority but I can't prove it."
On Tuesday June 11 Laurie is giving a talk at St Augustine Tower with the Hackney Society, asking whether the 50 years since the park was founded have been a "triumph, disaster or somewhere in between".
Most of Hackney's open space lies within the park including Springfield Park, Millfields, Hackney Marshes and Eastway, now part of the 2012 Olympic Games site. The idea was first mooted by Professor Abercrombie in his 1945 Greater London Plan where he spoke about creating a Green Belt. "These areas are a great open-air lung to the crowded East End - their preservation is essential," he said.
The Lee Valley proposals lay dormant until the '60s when Hackney mayor Lou Sherman came along with his "wily and far-sighted initiative" to put them into action. Laurie credits him for being "one of the giants of post-war Hackney history", and he had a vision of a smartened-up park with "jazzy waterside cafes".
The main obstacle was funding, so in 1961 he hired a boat and took civic dignitaries upstream to persuade inner London and Essex councils to give backing.
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It took legal form through the Lee Valley Regional Park Act of 1967. In 1969 the LVRPA published a master plan detailing proposals for the entire park. It had become a vast regional space with leisure facilities to serve the whole of London and beyond. It included turning Hackney Wick woodland into a Japanese garden, a multi-sports centre at Eastway, and to build a fairground at Lea Bridge to "rival Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens" with a fairground, circus, dance hall and arts centre.
"The authority was a child of the '60s when people thought everything was possible, and the state could take the lead, when it seemed we'd get richer every year and there would be more and more money to spend on these things" said Laurie. "Had they realised those plans, they might have done something fantastic or it might have been bloody awful - but what happened was those plans fell away and in its place we got these grim leisure centres."
Laurie had read about the wonderful plans for the park as a teenager and when he moved to Hackney in 1972 he "couldn't work out what was going on". So he pretended to be a teacher asked to see the LVRPA's press cuttings file.
"It was a lie, but I just had a feeling something wasn't quite right," he said. "The London end got too caught up in big facilities and I don't feel they really carried out their remit to weld all the spaces into a great regional conservation which is what Abercrombie proposed. I found all up and down the valley there were people who hated the park authority and weren't aware of each other's experiences, so I thought this will be the start of a campaign. Using the phone book I found all the critics and that was the start of the Lea Valley Association in 1978."
With Bob Hart he persuaded Lou Sherman to join as president, and they became a counterweight to the Park Authority. "We tried to have one association stretching down to Newham," Laurie said. "People supported different political parties and cared about different places, but we agreed the park authority was doing a terrible job."
Meanwhile the Save the Marsh group was set up to stop the LVRPA from turning Walthamstow Marshes into a boating lake. Laurie remembers conservationist David Bellamy attending a meeting at Chat's Palace. He said: "It was electric. The hall was absolutely full, and that was the moment everyone in the room said this campaign has to succeed. There aren't many things 40 years ago etched in my mind but that certainly is."
A new master plan was published in 1986 and Laurie was told by its CEO he mustn't give himself any authority for anything he'd done.
He said: "If we hadn't have done it, I think the reservoirs would have been dug up, and the filter beds would be filled in. We got the park authority to think again but it's not a victory you can prove."
Laurie is planning to write a book about the Lea Valley .
The free talk on Tuesday starts at 7.30pm. Register at staugustinestower.org.