New Spitalfields, a harmful and unsuitable development in a location at risk from flash flooding

Hackney, like every other authority in the UK, is preparing a climate action plan and like every other authority it devises its plan on the basis of its own territorial boundaries. A major problem for plans like these is, of course, that climate knows no borders and trying to ‘fix’ the problem in one part of London without coordinating action with other authorities will undermine the whole project.

The Lea Valley Park and the Marshes, East London’s Green Lung, is the most important green open space in East London and thus Hackney’s most important resource for combatting climate change. In its climate action plan, Hackney recognises the importance of cross Borough cooperation with regard to flooding, although it fails to demonstrate how this cooperation will work. However, it fails to mention the importance of protecting the vital open space of the Lea Valley and the Marshes in its climate action plan, nor does it call for cross Borough cooperation to protect this vital resource.

Green and blue spaces are vital for people’s social well being, particularly in terms of their general health and, more specifically, their mental health. These spaces are also essential for combatting city heat, air pollution and emissions. Protecting such spaces is crucial for the future populations of this part of London. Cooperation between Boroughs is therefore essential.

However, while much ink is spilt on how vital it is to combat climate change Boroughs still push ahead with large-scale development plans. The most egregious of these plans is Waltham Forest’s proposed New Spitalfields development, scheduled to start in 2027. The site allocation for this proposal is part of Waltham Forest’s Local Plan, which is at present being reconsulted after the inspectors rejected the first draft. Once a site allocation is decided, say for housing, then this will inform any future planning application.

The proposal, which will require a planning application, includes up to 3,000 homes, towers of up to 30 storeys (the tallest buildings are indicated by the two stars in the diagram below), a bridge across the Old River Lea to the Hackney side of the river, possibly pubs and cafes on the river bank near the bridge, a cycle/pedestrian path up the east bank of the river and access points to East Marsh. The site allocation refers to the benefits to residents of access to and views over the Marshes, obviously good selling points for developers.

While this project will bring immense benefits to Waltham Forest, including considerable council tax revenues, the costs and harm will fall on Hackney. The population pressure of a small town of 6-7,000, possibly more, residents right next to the Marshes will be immense. The presence of massive towers right next to the Marshes will seriously affect the sense of openness of the green open spaces, reducing its usefulness as a place to relax and thus benefit people’s mental health.

The bridge across the Old River Lea will take residents directly onto the Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) which runs right along the Hackney side of this section of the river. This is a vulnerable environment already severely damaged by a much smaller number of swimmers and party-goers. Parts of the bank on both sides of the river has been denuded of plants. The land does not recover after its summer battering. Birds like kingfishers have been disturbed and, in the case of Little Owls, have abandoned their young. The cycle/pedestrian path on the east bank will open up that side of the river making the whole river vulnerable to severe disturbance. Pubs and cafes would bring people from outside New Spitalfields to this vulnerable river.

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA), which is responsible for administering much of the Marshes, in an internal document expressed concern about the impact of the much smaller development at Lea Bridge Station on the Park. The document referred to the negative impact on the Park of both population pressure and towers of up to 26 storeys. If they viewed the impacts of a much smaller development project so negatively then the scale of the impacts of New Spitalfields must raise much greater concern.

Recently Save Lea Marshes wrote to the Mayor of Hackney and other cabinet members, including Councillor Coban, pointing out the threat to the Marshes and Hackney’s green and blue spaces and the harm Hackney would suffer.  We also pointed out the very real risk of serious flash flooding in the Lea Valley. The Mayor, unsurprisingly, referred to the need for housing and considered it was possible to combine protection of the green and blue spaces and a massive housing development. Earlier in October 2021, when the matter was first raised, he said Hackney hoped the development "helps prevent the poor treatment of the river, but also seeks opportunities to 'improve local biodiversity and nature recovery'". It is hard to see how this is possible given the scale of the development.

Regarding the need for housing it has to be pointed out the inspectors for the Waltham Forest Local Plan have criticised the council for building far more housing than is required by the London Plan. Waltham Forest has made it plain it is building in large part to raise council tax, thus housing need is not their sole purpose. In addition, it is building most its housing in the south of the Borough, which is already the most crowded and deprived part of Waltham Forest, and which also has few local green spaces and is thus more reliant on the Lea Valley for meeting its open space needs.

Waltham Forest’s developments, as at Lea Bridge station, do not necessarily produce genuinely affordable housing. Waltham Forest is looking to its interests by building at New Spitalfields. Regrettably Hackney does not seem to show a similar concern for its interests and its green and blue spaces, which will be overwhelmed by this development.

In his reply, the Mayor did not refer to the risk of flooding. We are constantly told not to build on flood plain. New Spitalfields is on flood plain, in the middle of a river valley. The site is lower than other parts of the Marshes which have been raised with building rubble or in the case of East Marsh by the leftovers of the Olympics coach park, which should have been removed after the Games. The river will become a torrent in the event of an extreme flash flood while flood water will also come down the railway. New Spitalfields is on a bend on the river meaning it will be more vulnerable to a torrent. It is also crossed by the Dagenham Brook, which is culverted under the site, but which is also liable to flood. The proposal includes opening the culvert.

In case it is thought the climate emergency is still a future event it just needs to be recalled how meteorologists were simply astounded by what happened in the summer of 2022 when temperatures in London exceeded 40C. This was thought to be impossible as Britain is an island and thus immune to such dramatic heat events. This disbelief was highlighted in an article in the Guardian ‘“We were looking at it, going: no, this isn’t realistic, it’s not going to happen,” says Rich. Then, in the office, he watched as the temperature continued to rise.’

Sea rise will mean the Thames Barrier will be closed more often and climate change will mean more severe flooding, including extreme flash flooding, in the Thames and Lea valleys. Flooding events elsewhere show how devastating this can be. The most dangerous scenario is one where a high tide forces the closure of the Barrier at the same time as flash flooding occurs in the river valleys, leaving flood water nowhere to go.

One of the critical issues for the control of flooding will be the provision of land to absorb flood water. Even Waltham Forest acknowledges this. It is known the flood relief channel has almost flooded, although this was some time ago. It is no longer an adequate defence. However, there is little to show how this need for land to absorb flooding will be met.

Far from preparing for the risk of flooding, Waltham Forest is planning this massive development in a vulnerable flooding location. The development will greatly increase emissions by pouring enormous quantities of concrete, further stress water and sewage systems and greatly increase air pollution on Ruckholt Road.

This is an entirely unsuitable development in a very risky location. Save Lea Marshes has proposed that at least part of the site, the northern part next to the river, should be returned to marsh land to absorb flood water, in line with the known need, and help protect the area. This would also improve the capacity of the open space to combat climate change and increase the provision of much needed green and blue space. The southern part of the site should be retained for light industry, its present designation. New Spitalfields is well situated close to the motorway which takes lorry traffic away from the area. This use will continue to provide jobs for local people.

For further information on this and our other campaigns to protect the Marshes, please contact Save Lea Marshes on and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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