Johnson in doghouse over plan to demolish greyhound stadium


LONDON LETTER:Time is running out for dog racing in the capital, as social needs trump attachment to a sport whose heyday is long gone

IN THE 1930s, Walthamstow greyhound stadium in east London attracted crowds of 5,000 people and more, who earned the reputation of being the biggest betters.

In its heyday, the Kray Twins were regulars, while, much later, footballer David Beckham collected glasses in its restaurant for pocket money.

Owned by the Chandler family, Walthamstow hosted five meetings a week – two daytime fixtures and three at night – before the clock finally tolled on August 16th, 2008, at 11pm.

The final winner was Mountjoy Diamond, running from trap number two, who won the 640-yard race in 40.33 seconds – one of 26 of its career victories.

Today, the grade two-listed stadium with its famous neon light looks forlorn, but it illustrates the contradictions faced when demand for housing runs up against the desire for life to remain the same.

This week mayor of London Boris Johnson supported Walthamstow Forest Council’s decision to approve plans to demolish it and build nearly 300 homes, a nursery, allotments and green spaces.

Even some of his own are not happy with him. MP Iain Duncan-Smith, who represents next-door Chingford, said he was “absolutely furious” about Johnson’s decision.

Speaking on local radio on Wednesday, Duncan Smith, who happens to be work and pensions secretary, railed: “This is a bad decision and I have constituents of mine saying, ‘What’s the point of Boris?’”

In his defence, the mayor, who insists that nothing will bring the greyhounds back, said: “I share the sadness of many about the demise of dog racing from this historic corner of London.”

The plan to build houses was approved by the council last May, while Johnson says he would have been overruled on appeal if he had rejected it.

Like most politicians from time to time, Johnson is being skewered by his own quotes, since in 2010 he said he was dismayed that there would be no more dog racing in Walthamstow.

Now he is under pressure from all sides, since both he and all of London’s councils desperately need space for the estimated 500,000 homes required over the next decade.

Faced with the barrage of criticism, Johnson pleaded: “After years of toing and froing we had to make a decision. It was going to start to decay and become an eyesore and I think it was better to go ahead.”

The houses are to be built by London Quadrant, a social landlord that has 66,000 properties in London rented out for less than the market rate in a city where housing costs are crippling.

Some local opponents want the greyhound track back. Others are unhappy about the number of properties. Still more fear the creation of “a slum”.

Some believe the new estate, if built, will exacerbate traffic delays at a nearby roundabout, while more think Walthamstow cannot support more housing without spending on services.

Though not covered by new planning rules designed to encourage building, Walthamstow illustrates the difficulties to be faced when decisions have to be made.

Unlike the four-year battle that has occurred in east London, the Localism Act, 2011, and a new planning policy framework lay down that decisions should be guaranteed within 12 months.

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition wants local councils to be taken out of the equation if they have “a track record of consistently poor performance”.

Indeed, the Conservatives want to go even further, abandoning demands on developers for affordable homes if such demands make projects unviable.

Instead, developers should be able to appeal previously agreed targets if they run into problems, with the planning inspectorate left free to set a new number.

However, the Lib Dems are unhappy, believing the Tories are trying to curry favour with major builders – some of whom are substantial donors to the party.

Equally, the Lib Dems believe that plans to let house-owners build larger extensions than can be built currently without planning permission – a boost to the economy, say Conservatives – are flawed.

During their September conference, Liberal Democrat delegates slated the plan, saying it would cause neighbourhood disputes over the garden fence and environmental damage.

Back in Walthamstow, some mourn for a track that was once known as “the Lords of the dogs”, when greyhound racing was the poor man’s entertainment.

Great tracks such as White City, Catford and Harringay have long since disappeared, while Wimbledon is now the only track inside the city’s bounds.

Even there, the future is not guaranteed. Wimbledon football club, now living in self-imposed exile in Milton Keynes as the MK Dons, wants to come back.

Greyhound racing’s future in London may lie in the hands of Irish businessman Paschal Taggart, who has lodged plans for a four-tier £30 million (€37.4 million) stadium in Wimbledon.

Complete with hospitality suites, restaurants and bars, Taggart believes that in a city of eight million, there are still plenty who want to go to the dogs.