Fighting to save Ham Lands – by David Williams

The biggest campaign that I was fighting in the 1970s was stopping building on Ham Lands. What had happened with Ham Lands is they were former gravel pits, disregarded and looked upon as ‘the wasteland’, one of the names for it used on the Wates Estate in the 1960s.  But the planning history of it was that Wates got permission to build on the 70 acres which is the Wates Estate now, but were then refused permission to build nearer to the river on the river side of Riverside Drive and in the typical local government way after Wates had managed to get housing price compensation for this because of some planning technicality a purchase notice was served on both Richmond upon Thames Council and the Greater London Council and the then Leader of Richmond Council who told me about this afterwards, said that they weren’t having the GLC buying this, god knows what they would do with it, so they felt they had to buy it and one of the things that I had I discovered for the big public enquiry we had for building on Ham Lands in 1975 was a Housing Committee paper when committees were in private, the papers were not released so things were said in those papers that didn’t really look very good when they saw the light of day shining on them and the explanation as to why it was probably the right thing to do to buy the land, what they should do with the land now they had bought it, it said that they had paid a considerable amount of money for it so it was probably expedient, expedient, that part of it should be built on, a word they would not have used if they realised that this document was going to become public and used against the Council at the public enquiry ten years later.

So we had this soggy compromise of building on 15 acres of the 33, which of course would have got some money back that the Council had paid for it but it was wildly, wildly unpopular.  It finished up with a planning enquiry after the Council had given themselves permission in 1974 about the 15 acres which was a memorable three weeks.

The next stage with Ham Lands was that they decided not to go with the two housing associations that they had been employing saying they were going to build social housing, housing for rent, which of course they didn’t.  They eventually in 1981 or 1980 sold off the first 5 acres of this 15 acres they had planning permission for near Beaufort Court which is now the Locksmeade Estate and sold it to a private developer.  The next 5 acres going to be built on, was planned to be built on in 1983, and we set up the Ham Lands Action Committee again, it wasn’t this time chaired by a local amenity society person, they said no David you chair it.  We had a public meeting, we first of all issued a leaflet saying what the Council were planning to do, giving all the names of the people on the Planning Committee, saying this is who you have to write to if you feel you want to object to this.  We had a public meeting at Ham Hall, now the youth club, and we had 150 people there, I had a couple of amenity society people speak, I had a Labour Party representative speak, I had a Conservative Party representative speak because the local Conservative, as well as the Labour Party had joined the Action Committee, quite brave of the local Conservatives actually they got a lot of stick for this from the Twickenham Borough Council Tories and I finished up speaking from the chair and then we had questions and somebody said who do we write to, what do we say?  I said you must write to the Chairman of the Planning Committee, this is his name, this is his address, please take this down and I’m not going to tell you what you’ve got to say, you have to put this in your own words.  You have heard all the arguments tonight as to why we shouldn’t build on this land, promise me that all of you will write tonight or tomorrow morning to Councillor John Popham telling him why you shouldn’t build on this land.  And I saw John Popham at York House about 4 days later and he said “All right David you win I’ve had 70 letters in the last two days”.  I thought “YES”.  But the Tories were still resistant to this, they didn’t like to be out-manoeuvred like this, it was their decision to make and they weren’t going to be diverted if they could possibly help it.

We won control of the Council and this happened in November 1983 and only five days later by coincidence we had a Council meeting at which the Local Plan was coming to the Council so Ham Lands development was deleted.

By 1987 it was designated as one of the several open spaces in planning terms and a report was produced about the ecology of it and one of the key things that had helped us win was that the London Wildlife Trust did a survey of the flora and fauna and what had been in-filled gravel pits had become surprisingly interesting particularly with the birds that were there and also the orchids, the wild orchids, and the fascinating thing about Ham Lands that Geoff Hyde expostulates at great length about, but you know it’s fascinating, because of the all the different in-fill there are little micro areas.  You can move ten yards and the soil’s quite different, and therefore the plants are quite different, and there’s the best part of 100 acres of in-fill like this and some of it’s bad, and some of it has concrete barges, old gravel barges not very low beneath the surface, it doesn’t drain properly, there was one place with tons of broken glass had been dumped and it’s not very easy growing stuff on broken glass.  But we got really rare orchids, beautiful flowers, bee orchids are the famous ones but there was an even rarer one as well known as the pyramidal orchid.  They were fascinating but the other thing that was fascinating was that Ham Lands was the only site in Greater London that the stonechat was nesting on.  So we had a big ecological lobby as well saying this was ludicrous building on this, ludicrous, and the only five acres we lost is where Locksmeade is.