In the words of Marks and Spencer, this isn’t just any dog track… this is the Walthamstow Stadium. When it closed in 2008, eighty years of cultural heritage in my corner of East London came to an abrupt end. Local sadness at its loss has turned to anger as the housing association that bought the track for a large sum reject any attempt to restore it as a going concern. The campaign to “save our stow” rumbles on. Why should readers of LabourList care? Because as it does it is becoming a model for how applying Labours ideals add value in the most unlikely of circumstances; that even a dogtrack can be an emblem for the difference progressive politics makes.
The site has been left to fall into disrepair over the last three years, but interest in its future remains as strong as ever. As the MP for Walthamstow it’s often the first issue people raise with me, reminiscing over a great night out there and curious as to why it closed. There are fantastic stories of the day when Winston Churchill came to visit or the times Vinnie Jones raced his dogs there. It’s famous as the inspiration for Blur’s Park Life album cover and David Beckham even worked as a waiter in the Paddock Grill at one time. History oozes out of every piece of sand slowly blowing around the crumbling listed buildings.
Thousands of local people support the campaign to restore it and it has even united Iain Duncan Smith and I in common cause trying to make that happen. Yet the current owners, London and Quadrant (L&Q), persist in arguing local people don’t want dog racing. They want the land for a new “village” of flats and talk of a nursery, leisure centre and allotments as extras to encourage planners to give them the go-ahead. Meanwhile the owner of another dog track, Bob Morton, has come forward offering to underwrite a proposal to buy back the land, restore dog racing and build affordable housing around the site too. L&Q have responded by commissioning reports into the financial viability of the sport and refusing to negotiate.
As a local MP I’m saddened that Mr Morton’s plan has been given such short shrift– not least because during the fight to get the stow back I’ve challenged him to develop the most progressive dog track in the world. Consequently I’m delighted Mr Morton has made three commitments– firstly, working with CitizensUK he has pledged to be a London Living Wage employer for the hundreds of people needed to run the site. Secondly, working with the Co-op and Supporters Direct he has pledged there will be direct community involvement in the track. Finally, he is working with the League Against Cruel Sports and the Dogs Trust to ensure animal welfare standards would “raise the bar” for the sport. These are not gimmicks – careful planning and negotiation has gone into ensuring they could be delivered if L&Q will sell to him.
Restoring the dogtrack of old would certainly bring back great local entertainment; doing so in the way in which Mr Morton now plans will reap benefits far beyond the scope of these original ambitions. It would also bring affordable homes to an area with 8,000 and more in overcrowded housing, an economic boost of decently paid part time work in a constituency with child poverty running at 37% and reconnect the local community to this key attraction by giving them a real say in how its run. I don’t doubt L&Q’s sincerity when they say they want to do what they think is right, but in making a contribution to Walthamstow their plans pale in comparison.
This shows how the campaign for the track is fast becoming more than the sum of its parts. If successful it has implications for how progressive ideals can be applied that go well beyond the concerns of the good citizens of Walthamstow or even the dog racing public. That’s why I’m asking those outside of E17 who share these ideals to help:
– L&Q will need planning permission from the local authority to turn the land into flats. You can let the local authority know your views on whether this should occur by emailing them. You can find their details here.
– You can also tell L&Q that if they really are a socially responsible landlord they’ll do the right thing by negotiating with Bob Morton. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
– The Mayor of London has previously supported the restoration of the track – he has additional powers that he could use if he chooses to help make this happen. Let him know you’d like him to do so by emailing him: email@example.com.
As L&Q themselves state, they are a charity with £10 billion in the bank to put towards making sure they get their way. Nevertheless, whilst Mr Morton is still ready to return to the negotiating table to secure this alternative, I will continue to urge L&Q to sell because of the impact his proposal could have on the people and place I represent.
To achieve change, Labour must be relentless in applying our values at both a local and national level to the challenges ahead, however hard the circumstances may be and however long the odds of success. I know that this building has so much more yet to give to Walthamstow – if we come together to back Mr Morton’s proposal, the dog track could be not only a hub of the community in E17, but an icon for the relevancy and potency of progressive principles across the UK for generations to come.