Astroturf on Wanstead Flats?!

I have to admit that when I first heard someone say there was a plan to put astro-turf on Wanstead Flats, I assumed that it was a rumour that was unfounded.

Quite apart from anything else, I remember vividly meeting with the Corporation of London with Ellie Robinson and Seyi Akiwowo, and learning more about how the Flats are managed and maintained. One point that was made, quite firmly, was that the trustees who oversee the Flats were of the view that Wanstead Flats primary role is a ‘wild space’ and unspoilt, and hence the residents’ requests that we were bringing for additional litter bins, and for signage about litter and dog waste, were impossible to accede to, because even the erection of a bin would be an unnecessary and therefore unwanted intrusion of person-made structure onto an untouched space for wildlife.

So I dropped a line to my contact at Wanstead Flats, tentatively asking whether there was any substance to this idea, and was fully prepared to be told that this was a scurrilous falsehood, and would never be allowed.

I was surprised, therefore, to get an email back* confirming that this is an idea that the Corporation are looking at. I thought in the interests of clarity, I might post it here so that all the information I have is shared, verbatim, in one place:

Thank you for your email regarding artificial grass pitches. This possible project has been in discussion since 2016 and has been referenced in a number of public papers but is being looked at again in more detail this autumn. I have just posted the below on our website by way of an update and hope this answers your query for now – more detailed information will be presented when we consult, as much of this is still to be looked in to. Planning permission, flood risk and environmental studies will all be required before the project could be approved.

Over the past 130 years Wanstead Flats has provided a key facility for sport in East London, alongside widespread provision for informal public access and nature conservation.

In July 2016, the City Corporation approved the submission of an ‘expression of interest’ for the Football Foundation funded ‘Parklife’ Football Hubs Programme – a national initiative designed to improve access to grassroots football. This submission was of interest to the Football Foundation, who would like to see more frequent access to inclusive grassroots football training and competitive matches in East London.

The Football Foundation granted £34,000 to commission early scoping and feasibility work which commenced in late 2017, with no commitment to progress the project. Following initial desk-based feasibility work the Football Foundation consented, in principle, to fund an ambitious project on Wanstead Flats. The City Corporation granted the same ‘in principle’ match funding in October 2020. The project seeks to provide additional facilities at the Harrow Road football site on Wanstead Flats, including the installation of three Artificial Grass Pitches (AGPs).

The project partners are still at the very early stages of project development, which has only just recommenced after a lengthy hiatus due to the pandemic. It is important to the partners to gather public opinion about any potential project and a programme of consultation will be an important part of any project development. However, the partners still have initial viability studies to complete, including outline planning advice to ascertain how feasible proposals are and to fully understand any constraints before the partners are in a position to consult the wider public.

The proposed project aims to sustain current levels of grassroots football provision on Wanstead Flats, which supports several health, wellbeing and diversionary activity targets for the local community. It also aims to reduce the overall footprint on the Flats taken up by sport by replacing 17 of the grass pitches with the three artificial grass pitches. This means that around 34 acres of Wanstead Flats can be recreated for ecological benefit such as wildflower meadow or species-rich grassland. At the same time the durability of AGPs will increase football pitch availability for use by local clubs, soccer schools, schools, afterschool clubs and the wider community.

As soon as public consultation is launched, expected to be later this winter, the partners will announce this on social media and the website.

So that was surprising, and potentially alarming, to say the least. Although the consultation isn’t open yet, I did reply almost immediately and said:

I’m aware that the Harrow Road pitches aren’t adjacent to Newham, but the whole of Wanstead Flats is nevertheless a much-treasured local space, and so I’d be really grateful if you could pass on to your colleagues who run the consultation that I’d really like to be kept informed about any progress with the project.

I can’t speak directly for all of my residents, of course, but I feel reasonably sure that their responses would be similar to my initial thoughts: welcoming the ecological impact of more areas being wilded, concern that the pitches should still be available to community teams who may have small budgets, and concern also about the environmental impact of astroturf on local wildlife, and micro-plastic pollution.

I’m going to share your response on some local social media, where people have been asking with some concern about AstroTurf on the flats, as I know this is something that people are worried about – indeed it’s come up in my emails and on the doorstep already.

I haven’t yet heard anything else, so can only assume that the consultation has not yet started, but will chase this up again if no more information is forthcoming. I do try to be open-minded about proposals, but I have to say that my instinctive reaction to the idea of any artificial covering on any part of the Flats is a firm ‘no way’. The potential impact on wildlife, not to mention flooding, is quite alarming. As soon as I know any more, I will share it, here and also on social media in places like twitter.

I hope this post is useful – I’m aware it doesn’t say much but thought this issue was sufficiently important that it was helpful to publish it as a stand-alone piece.

*Actually, having checked, the email I got with all this info wasn’t in reply to my initial email, but was in response to an email to the Corporation that a resident kindly copied me into. Big thanks to Jan for copying me into her query.

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