The candles are out on the chestnuts which line the main avenue of London’s loveliest park. Enjoy it in its pristine condition while you can.
On 23 March, the planning board of Greenwich Council voted 10-2 to allow the Olympic equestrian events to be staged in Greenwich Park in 2012. A World Heritage Site, Grade One-listed landscape and wildlife haven will be subjected to prolonged closure to the public, soil treatment and removal, which risks destroying Roman and Tudor artefacts, the lopping of ancient trees and the construction of a 23,000-seater stadium for the dressage and show-jumping.
A cross-country course of around three-and-a-half miles will loop over an enclosure of only 183 acres; compare that with two other possible locations, Richmond Park, which is nearly 14 times as big, and Windsor Great Park, which is twice as large again and regularly hosts equestrian events.
As might be expected, opposition to these plans has come mainly at local level, notably through the formation of No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events (Nogoe).
The action group has now decided both to put up a candidate for the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency on May 6 and to explore what legal challenges can be made to the March 23 decision.
The argument advanced for Greenwich was its proximity to the main site at Stratford, thus enabling a “compact” games, in accordance with the International Olympic Committee’s wishes. But another condition of the 2012 bid was “legacy”, and of that there will be nothing but a badly damaged park, parts of which could be fenced off for five years to allow the soil to recover. By contrast, the choice of existing horse-trial centres such as Hickstead or Badminton would have left permanently improved facilities. Their rejection is all the more galling in that the compactness criterion will not prevent rowers and canoeists from competing at Eton Dorney and sailors at Weymouth and Portland.
The decisive factors in the choice of Greenwich appear to have been twofold: pressure from the British Equestrian Federation, which wanted to be near the centre of action (at the Beijing Olympics their events were held in Hong Kong), and the enthusiasm of the big television networks for what is undoubtedly an “iconic” location.
The government has thrown its weight behind Greenwich. The Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, even stated that the die was cast before 23 March. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and his predecessor, Ken Livingston, and the local Labour MP Nick Raynsford, back the bid, as does Royal Parks, an agency of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Of local groups, the Blackheath and Westcombe Societies objected to the planning application, while the Friends of Greenwich Park and the Greenwich Society expressed strong reservations.
On May 6, at both constituency and council level, voters can express what they think of their elected representatives’ enthusiasm for laying a much-loved, fragile site before the Olympic juggernaut.