Restoring Wanstead Park

IMG_5866-7©Richard Arnopp

In the fifth of a series of articles looking at the developing plans for restoring Wanstead Park, Richard Arnopp from the Friends of Wanstead Parklands brings us up to date on hopes to resolve the problems with the park’s lakes

The lakes in Wanstead Park are the most visible remaining features of its past as one of this country’s great landscaped gardens. All completely artificial, they are now nearly 300 years old, and for most of their history have suffered from fluctuating water levels.

As the Friends have described in previous articles, this has been due to several factors:

  1. The failure of systems designed to supply water to the lakes from outside the park.
  2. The loss of much of the natural catchment area to development since 1900.
  3. The introduction of modern drainage systems and other services around the park, which has lowered the water table and created leak paths.
  4. The loss of the River Roding as a source for the Ornamental Water.
  5. The unfavourable geology on which much of the lake system sits.
  6. The lack of effective lining, or its deterioration beyond repair, in two of the most vulnerable lakes, compounded – in one case – by wartime damage.

Wanstead Park was listed as a Grade II* landscape “of special interest” by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 2001, following an earlier Grade II designation in 1987. Since 2009 it has been classed as “At Risk” on account of its deteriorating condition. The state of the lakes was a major factor in this.

For more than a decade, the Friends of Wanstead Parklands has been working with the park’s guardians, in particular the City of London, to identify long-term solutions to the problems with the lakes. In 2013 a Wanstead Park Project Steering Committee was set up, involving all major stakeholders, to try to develop an achievable and sustainable plan for the restoration and future management of the park. Under its auspices, the consultancy LDA Design was engaged, and produced a draft Parkland Plan which has gone through several drafts as the knowledge base has developed, circumstances have changed and costs have been clarified. The latest draft proposes three themed work packages. Two of the packages are framed to meet the objective of getting Wanstead Park off the “At Risk” register. These would require a substantial capital funding package involving a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We hope to be in a position to publish details of the finalised Parkland Plan shortly.

The City commissioned a hydrological survey from JBA Consulting which provided a much clearer understanding of the way the lake system works. However, the whole project was galvanised by a development in a quite different quarter. Under the requirements of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, the Environment Agency confirmed in December 2017 that the lakes in Wanstead Park, which were classified as “Large Raised Reservoirs”, should be raised to “High Risk” status, as an uncontrolled release of water in a major flood event could, in theory, put people’s lives at risk. It should be emphasised that this was not a cause for panic or a criticism of the way the lakes had been maintained, but an almost automatic consequence of the way the new regulations now dealt with lake cascades of this type.

The City of London’s response was to arrange an inspection by the independent civil engineer who monitors the management of reservoirs. He advised that an engineering assessment of the dams needed to be undertaken in the first instance, as it was likely they would need to be strengthened, perhaps raised, and provided with new spillways. The engineering assessment has now been commissioned and should be completed by the end of 2019. It is anticipated the modifications required could cost up to £10 million, based on what has been spent on a similar project on Hampstead Heath.

As far as the City of London is concerned, a bill of this size is not good news, but potentially presents an opportunity for Wanstead Park. This was because spending to strengthen the dams would come from central, rather than Epping Forest, budgets, and it would make sense to carry out other improvements and repairs to the lakes at the same time. Any non-statutory element of the work could potentially be used as match funding for a parallel bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. A grant from that quarter could be used to cover a range of non-water-related improvements to the park, and potentially offer the prospect of covering more ground on a shorter timescale than had ever been contemplated, albeit perhaps with a rather later starting date than previously hoped.

Given the likely deadline for the completion of works on the lakes, timings for a lottery bid would be very tight if any of the spending was to be used as match funding. This is a once and for all opportunity which must be got right!

Similar projects in Highams Park and Hampstead Heath have brought big improvements, including in aesthetic terms. The work will inevitably be disruptive, but the City of London intends to plan and carry it out carefully, taking into account local concerns.

Watch this space!

For more information on Wanstead Park, visit wansteadpark.org.uk