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2012 Olympics preparations exposed users of Manor Garden Allotments to radioactive waste hazard, documentation from the period reveals. Failure to adequately investigate contamination in the former West Ham Tip landfill prior to extensive excavations also gambled with the health of local residents, construction workers and archaeologists. The Olympic Delivery Authority’s misleading media communications then actively sought to conceal the seriousness of the risks taken.

Documentation obtained through the Environmental Information Regulations show spoil was being excavated and stockpiled without safety precautions yards from the allotments while food crops were still being grown, and exposed areas containing unidentified radioactive material were left unmarked and unprotected. 

The works took place during 2007, during the five months prior to the final removal of the plotholders and demolition of their gardens. The affected area was immediately to the east of the allotments – the site of the Olympic Velodrome and Basketball Arena and next to the Athletes Village. Like much of the Olympic park it had once been a waste tip active prior to the introduction of controls on disposal of hazardous and radioactive waste.

In the 1970s the tip area was remediated by capping and covering with 2 to 3 meters of clean topsoil and then landscaped to create the Eastway cycle circuit and parklands. But the original waste remained in place, extending in some areas to a depth of 20m. The waste with remaining contamination is still there beneath the Velodrome and surroundings, though the protective cover is now as little as 60cm.

The Olympic construction project required the whole area to be levelled and the Hennicker’s Ditch watercourse, which ran close to the allotments, excavated and culverted. The works were carried out by Galliford Try Infrastructure (Morrisons) beginning in April 2007. This involved the disturbance of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of spoil and deep digging into the landfill refuse, which had a significant risk of radioactive contamination – a hazard of all landfill sites of its period.

It is made clear in government guidance from DEFRA on potential sources of radioactive contamination that "It is likely that radioactive materials of unknown nature were deposited in landfills prior to the implementation of regulatory controls.". This advice was ignored, with no comprehensive prior surveying or monitoring of excavations when they commenced – despite the proximity of the allotment gardens and the still-inhabited Clays Lane Estate.

Contaminated waste stockpiles encroach on allotment plot

Excavated spoil from the contaminated tip is stockpiled next to an occupied plot.

Radiological surveying of excavations was delayed until the plotholders had left – 5 months after excavations began. A single Radiation Advisor from Nukem (now known as Nuvia), brought in by the ODA’s contractors Morrisons, only arrived on site and began surveying on the 17th September [1]. Immediately, elevated levels of radioactivity were detected across the area.

The danger had been further compounded by the reuse, prior to being aware of its properties, of radioactive material to backfill areas previously excavated to remove Japanese Knotweed – spreading contamination onto the surface. Two such areas lay within metres of the allotments.

By the 26th September – only 3 days after the final closure of the allotments – an internal report was produced indicating elevated radioactivity levels had now been discovered in 10 locations in the vicinity of the allotments [7] – in stockpiles, exposed surfaces and backfilled areas. These may have been generating harmful dust for months [2], and no suppression measures were in use.

Dust blowing off the site had been an issue since works began, and had been the subject of numerous complaints from Clays Lane residents.

On 18th October the ODA issued a press release claiming that a radioactive dial had been found together with ‘very low-level readings in small isolated areas’. It contained the assertion "Monitoring has been carried out since earthworks started in the area as a result of research into possible contamination." – this was untrue. No radiological monitoring took place for the first 5 months of earthworks. It also wrongly claimed "The radiation readings are in a small, isolated area of the site which is well away from the public".

In an attempt to add technical credibility to their claims, a report by the ODA’s project designers Atkins was released at the same time – the ‘Review of procedures relating to the discovery of radioactive substances’. This contains little of substance and looks like PR reassurance exercise rather than a genuine investigation. While confirming that "Low level radioactive contamination was discovered on site during excavation and waste sorting from 17 September 2007", it failed to note that this was only because that was the first date that anyone had checked for it – and that people could have been unknowingly exposed for months previously.

The Atkins report concludes "Procedures are robust and properly implemented" - but lacks any examination of their details, when they were introduced, or how they were implemented. While claiming "Based on the information available to date… it is highly unlikely that any member of the public has been unnecessarily exposed to ionising radiation", it is clear this was a matter of luck. After 6 months of construction activity there was minimal and sketchy radiological information. The report contains no references to specific documents in which the procedures are said to have been defined, and there is no evidence of scrutiny or approval by the local planning authority – the ODA’s Planning Decision Team.

The delay in starting any form of radiological surveying and its limited scope may have been intended to avoid drawing public attention to the radiation hazard or risking the construction schedule. If radiation associated with the works had been identified at an earlier stage, it might have caused complication and delay as well as a PR problem – and alarmed construction workers.

Lord James of Blackheath revealed in a House of Lords debate on the Olympics on 12 January 2010 that the construction site padre "heard great disquiet expressed by the workforce undertaking the excavations on the village site due to the large deposits of radioactive material that were lodged there" and asked "How successful was the removal of this material before the workforce had to engage directly with it, and what steps were taken to protect them?".

There was no removal, and protective measures were minimal and introduced too late to be effective.

Example of 3D survey of radioactively contaminated tip

Example of a detailed survey of a radioactive tip. No such survey was undertaken on the Olympic rubbish tips before excavation. A case of dig first, spin later?

The authorities may also have been concerned about the possibility of legal action if it became known that radioactive contamination was being uncovered while members of the public occupied land in the immediate vicinity – particularly if spending long periods outdoors and growing food. Earlier in 2007, the residents of Clays Lane had commenced application for an injunction to stop the dust-creating works near them, but this was refused on the grounds that it ‘risked stopping a project of major national importance in its tracks’.

Julian Cheyne, who lived on the Clays Lane Estate until July 2007, comments:

“Residents not only lost their homes and community but were also afflicted by the dust created during the first seven months of the ‘clean-up’. As time has gone on we have heard more about the dangers this clean-up created in disturbing industrial and radioactive contaminants which were buried on the tip and which were being dug up while we were still living on the estate. The ODA and other agencies monitoring the ‘clean-up’ seem to have shown scant regard for correct procedures in dealing with these hazardous materials and have created a legacy of waste and destruction which will haunt past, present and future residents and users.”

The Remediation Strategy for the area, approved by the ODA on 25 January 2007, failed to acknowledge the possibility of widespread radiological hazard. Though there was some evidence that several barrels of radioactive material had been buried at depth at the far edge of the site, the strategy relied one very limited survey from 1994, and on the basis of this concluded that there was no significant risk to human health posed by the reported buried material.

It failed to acknowledge the real problem – risk from unknown material buried in other parts of the old tip. This collective ignoring of DEFRA advice by the regulatory bodies is confirmed in a Health and Safety Executive response to a complaint by a local resident in June 2007:

"Radioactive contamination – as no intrusive work is being undertaken yet in the areas identified from studies the issue of exposure to workers or others in the area should not arise"

Further evidence of the lack of planning and preparation is demonstrated by the ‘Unexpected Contamination’ Remediation Change Notes submitted to the ODA’s Planning Decisions Team. There was little excuse for this contamination being unexpected, as the existence of the old tip was no mystery and the potential for this contamination was clear. Basic radiological screening would have warned of problems – and hundreds of core samples had been taken across the site to test for other contaminants.

The ‘background radiation’ counts subsequently recorded on survey sheets are also unusually high at around twice the expected natural level for the area, suggesting a pervasive problem that should have been detected at a much earlier stage, and warranted caution and detailed investigation.

Whether all the sources of radiation were identified is doubtful, as despite the scale and extent of the earthworks there was only one Radiation Protection Advisor on site to perform surveying between September 2007 and May 2008. Many areas were too difficult or dangerous to access.

In addition to the hazard of contaminated dust, the construction site was easily accessible for members of the public to come into direct contact with radioactive material. This can be seen in the photos below. The allotments were being used as a route for construction vehicles and there were no access restrictions or signage in place.

A total of around 3000 tonnes of the ‘unexpected’ excavated radioactive soil was removed from the vicinity of the allotments following their closure, together with 150kg of artefacts such as radium dials which are still being stored on the site. The soil was reburied in Tower Hamlets about 500m south of the allotment site, together with further radioactive waste from the Main Stadium area – close to waterways and planned residential developments. Since over 550,000 tonnes of other waste has been removed from the Olympic site to landfill, retaining the material in this sensitive location suggests it may be too dangerous to dispose of legally elsewhere.

The ODA and other authorities involved in the Olympic preparations were negligent in disregarding guidelines and permitting intrusive works to proceed in an area with significant risk of radioactive contamination – without adequate oversight, precautions or risk management. The ODA, as local planning authority, were responsible for imposing and enforcing planning conditions in order to ensure contaminated land was properly managed and remediated at all stages.

Julie Sumner, who spent much of the summer of 2007 on her plot near the excavations, concludes:

“One of our arguments for leaving the allotments alone was the level of contamination safely captured underneath. Our fear was that our beloved land, surrounding nature reserve and river would have unknown quantities of contamination released into them by the vast earthworks planned. Little did we know that we could be put directly at risk too.”


Document shows radiation monitoring started 17 Sep 2007

Confirmation from the ODA that no radiation monitoring took place while Manor Gardens or the Clays Lane Estate were occupied – but started as soon as the plotholders were gone.


Dust spreads as the contaminated West Ham Tip is excavated – 21st June 2007. At this time Clays Lane Estate was inhabited, the allotments were fully open and the construction site easily accessible to the public.

Radioactive dust method statement

This Remediation Method Statement was not submitted until 04/09/2007 and was never given planning approval. There was no approved Method Statement until May 2008. Works continued regardless with ineffective dust suppression.


View from back gate of Manor Garden Allotments – showing that by July 2007 excavations were already advanced and no precautionary measures evident


Nukem Olympic Eastway radiation survey 17/09/2007

Nukem Olympic Eastway radiation survey 25/09/2007
Examples of Nuvia surveying – commencing the week the allotments closed. The ‘culvert’ in the second survey is shown on the photo below.


London Olympics radiation map near allotments

Locations of radioactive waste discovered in excavations and stockpiles near the allotments. Highlighted for clarification.


London Olympics radiation excavation, Hennikers Ditch culvert

Hennikers Ditch culvert works already far advanced while Manor Gardens still in use in September 2007. Radioactive contamination was later identified in the excavations and in arisings. Clay’s Lane Estate is immediately behind the red crane


Morrison ionising radiation works HSE application

The HSE were not notified until 28 September 2007, after the allotments were closed, though excavations into the radioactive tip had started at least 5 months previously.


Related articles and coverage:

More 4 News item from 2007

Olympic Zone 6A Full Site Specific Remediation Strategy Dec 2006 (PDF file) ODA

Tonnes of radioactive waste casts doubt over London’s Olympic stadium legacy The Guardian 20/06/2010

London 2012 – A Rubbish Olympics…
Games Monitor

Contamination and Controversy in the Olympic Park Games Monitor

The new Olympics time bomb Evening Standard 24/11/2006

Should we beware the East Wind? OPEN

The approval of the Olympic Parks and Public Realm Post-Games Transformation planning application was a disappointment for the MGS plotholders whose lovely old site will be replaced by something far inferior in the future Olympic Park.

It is also a betrayal of the thousands of people on allotment waiting lists in the local area, who were hoping for a genuine example of sustainability and response to local needs in the Olympic ‘legacy’.

At the ODA planning committee meeting at Stratford’s Old Town Hall on 27th April, approval was given for only 2.1ha of allotment provision after the Olympics. It is split into two parts at opposite ends of the park, nowhere near the original Manor Gardens site. The illustrative layouts show 85 plots – only two more than the original Manor Gardens site, destroyed in 2007 to enable park landscaping.

The earlier promises that the allotments would be ‘moved back’ to a location near the old site and would be of improved quality have been broken. The northern Eton Manor area is particularly bad, squeezed between a giant wind turbine, major roads, a hockey pitch and car park. It will be exposed to wind, noise and disturbance from the large numbers of visitors they hope to attract to the location – while the old site was peaceful, secluded and enjoyed an almost rural wildlife-rich setting.

MGS read a statement to the Planning Committee outlining their objections and dissatisfaction with the process.

  • There was no consideration of the importance of a legal assurance of permanent status.
  • There had been no opportunity for MGS to influence the park design at any stage, though there were public statements that they were being closely consulted.
  • The ODA’s Statement of Participation was misleading in its account of the December 2009 meeting and workshop with MGS, omitting the most important issues raised.
  • The splitting of the site would reduce its quality, and further damage the community.
  • The northern site at Eton Manor is in very close proximity to Ecotricity’s planned 120m wind turbine. There are no similar installations anywhere so close to sensitive receptors and we should not be forced to be guinea pigs. The site should be moved or the turbine cancelled unless independent research can prove that no-one will suffer ill effects or distress from long term, outdoor exposure at such close range.
  • Designers had refused to consider creating a more secluded ‘walled garden’ at Eton Manor to make the location more acceptable

Alison Nimmo of the ODA claimed that it had “been really hard work” trying to find 2.1ha for allotments. With a park area totalling 200ha being designed from scratch, of which 103ha was to be public open space, it shows what a low priority they were given. Since the loss of Manor Gardens was one of the most widely criticised and unpopular impacts of the Olympic development, the failure to try and mitigate this by making new allotments a key aspect of the legacy park design is unforgiveable.

There are now over 1800 people on waiting lists for allotments in the boroughs surrounding the Olympic park. Our survey revealed that there are many more who would like a plot were they available. It is extremely difficult to find land for new allotments in London, and converting existing public open space can be contentious. So the scale of the Olympic redevelopment and the amount of public land available has been a tragically missed opportunity for a substantial increase in allotment provision.

The intention is to build 10,000 new residential units in the park, without gardens. The populations of the surrounding boroughs of Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest are projected to grow by over 100,000 in the next 20 years. These people are being deprived of the incomparable benefits of an allotment garden of their own by the decisions made now. Once the hard landscaping and elaborate plantings have gone in there will be no chance of changing anything.

We were not the only ones who considered the plans unacceptable. The representatives of the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham (in which the majority of the Park lies) wanted the application rejected and revised, Newham stating the Park plans were ‘not high quality’. Of particular concern were the lack of any details regarding facilities such as toilets and play areas, the large expanses where there was no planned usage, no warm-up track and poor connections.
London Cycling Campaign criticised lack of cycle parking and substandard cycle lanes.

Over 6ha between the Main Stadium and the Aquatics Centre is to be left as a huge expanse of hard surface.

The planning decision turned out to be example of the hasty bureaucracy of Olympic rubber-stamping with all objections being swept aside, and the planning committee granting unanimous approval to the application after a token display of criticism. In this case, the excuse was the rumour of the potential loss of £350m of funding if there was delay in approving the application. Though no-one seemed sure what the actual risk was of the money disappearing, or what the facts of the matter were, it was enough to ensure that it got waved through.

How Green Was Our Valley…

This aerial image shows the blighted landscape of the Olympic construction site – Manor Gardens Allotments was the area by the river in the middle, with the narrow bridge going to it.


Almost all the remaining vestiges of vegetation visible in the image have now been removed.

Before the bulldozers moved in:


bbc2 BBC2 Documentary to be shown 9pm Wednesday 11th March under series banner ‘Building the Olympic Dream’

Tells the stories of three of the evicted groups as we tried to prevent the land we lived on, owned or gardened, from being bought from under our feet by Compulsory Purchase Order. The footage of Manor Garden Allotments will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who visited the site before its destruction. It’s obvious beauty puts pay to the myth propagated by the London Development Agency and the government that the whole Olympic Park area was a wasteland until the Olympics came along to rescue us!

The programme has time for only the most basic description of the plight of the three. The Lifeisland Campaign to protect Manor Gardening Society is barely touched on, nor the lengthy negotiations with the LDA and eventual Judicial Review supported by Friends of the Earth. However the tensions caused within the society and the human impact of our struggle to resist eviction against mightly odds is apparent.

hr-lunch julieweeding1

Our Plan

Meanwhile in early July 2008, the Society gathered to party and to put their heads together and work out what had made the Bully Fen original Manor Gardens site function so well. The current sites problems and the aspirations for any future site were all discussed. Every member present spoke, often very movingly. The sense of loss still strong. 13 year old Boris and 86 year old Tom gave their perspectives on the past and the future. All the ideas presented were taken off and formed into a diagram or mind map of how the Society would like the Legacy Park plots to be.

In late July members met with the ODA designers. Some months earlier MGS had asked to meet in the very early stages of the thinking about the Legacy Park. It was agreed that since MGS is the only evicted community to be returning to the park after the Olympics we have a special status. This means discussions will take place with us earlier and separately from the wider community surrounding the park.

A venue was discussed and the Committee decided they would invite the designers to the Marsh Lane site. Partly to show them a site that does not fulfil our criteria, partly to prevent any power point presentations (no electricity) but mostly to be able to roll out our usual standard of hospitality to our guests.

The guests included Vincent Bartlett form the LDA, he supervised the eviction process, Tom Smith of EDAW Landscape Designers and John Hopkins of the ODA with responsibility for overseeing the transition to 2012 and then beyond to Legacy. Six members of MGS with a particular interest in the Legacy attended including our co-chairs at the time, Kath and Julie and Secretary Mark.

They arrived to a sumptuously laid out table of fruits, vegetables and Turkish treats such as Humous and fresh Pitta bread so readily available in this area. Mostly bought due to the lateness of crops this year.

MGS had drafted an agenda and Julie chaired the meeting. She presented the Societies ideas and mind map and there was tangible excitement from the ODA team. The diversity of uses with sustainability at the heart was described as a microcosm of what they envisaged for the whole park. The irony that the very place these mind map ideas had been based on had been destroyed did not pass Society members by. The meeting ended with a promise of another meeting before the end of the year.

We were given a timetable of plans to be drafted to go out for public consultation in early 09, then planning applications at the end of the year/early 2010.

Our understanding at this stage is that the Hackney Mayor, Jules Pipe, is adamant that he does not want allotments in the Hackney segment of the Legacy Park and the Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales is not much keener. Their objection is that allotments are semi-privatised spaces, which benefit only a small number of people. Their aspirations for the Legacy Park are that it should be available to the whole community. Yet the entire 320 Hectares of the Park area has been privatised for at least six years surrounded by high security fencing and guarded by police. The original allotment site was a mere 1.8 Hectares. MGS argue that we hold a democratic waiting list and that the small area of more private fenced in plots is needed to cultivate a close community, give security to women, children and the elderly while they garden and to keep the rabbits out! Beyond that we are enthusiastic about having a more public food growing space where our skills can be shared and events held. We would welcome any thoughts on how small allotment enclosures benefit the wider community. We would also be grateful to anyone prepared to write to the Mayors expressing that view. If there are votes in it!

Over the summer 08 the recommended ‘ripping’ was carried out. The fist attempt was deemed to have made an improvement so some established plot holders struggling with the conditions decided to have their plots ‘ripped’

In the dryer areas good crops were achieved so it was clear the soil was of good quality if only the drainage had been properly constructed.
In October a very efficient company removed the electricity pylon which hung over the site. This was part of the pylon removal project for the Olympic Park. There was minimal damage or disruption and the look of the site is a little improved.

Society's idea for the Legacy Park

Society's idea for the Legacy Park

Survey On Legacy Plots


In May 08, the Society, funded by The Villiers Park Educational Trust, conducted a survey of people in the boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney by inserting a flyer in the local papers asking people if they would be interested to have a plot in the Legacy Park. It was time to find out the level of local demand for plots as discussions with the LDA showed their intention to put MGS plots back in a hidden corner of the site behind a games venue and next to a flyover. Yet MGS is guaranteed by the Compulsory Purchase Order a larger site located in a like for like location. Over the last four decades at least four hundred allotment plots have been bulldozed in the lower Lea Valley (now Olympic Park) area to make way for roads, railways and now the Olympics.

The survey attracted a surprisingly high response rate for a survey of this type and from a wide demographic. Thank you to all those who responded. There are now almost two hundred people on the waiting list for MGS and Legacy plots. This is in addition to the long waiting list for plots in most inner London Borough. It takes four years to get a plot in Hackney. When funding has been found MGS plan to contact those who responded to the survey and invite them to put in design ideas for Legacy plots.

Our new community shed which is beginning to look more homely on the inside thanks to Cynthia’s donation of little gingham curtains and more grand and unique on the outside since RCA MA student, Thomas Pausz, built a classical portico.


Heavy rain fell thoughout November 07. It quickly became apparent that the ground at Marsh Lane Field was as it says on the tin – marsh. The allotments, designed and built from scratch, at a cost of £1.3M, by Olympic contractors Birse Civils, had filled up with water, which couldn’t drain away.

On a third of the site plot holders couldn’t stand on the soil without sinking up to their knees in sludge within seconds. There were some hilarious moments, as plot holders had to be rescued, sucked in over their wellies. Children, however, had to be carefully supervised to keep them away from the affected plots.

In January 08 after the LDA had continued to claim the problem would settle down with time, Julie and new Co-chair Kath, got LBC Radio down to the plots early one morning. Presenter Jim Wheeble phoned Andrew Gaskill of the London Development Agency at 7am to ask what they were going to do about the flooding. Mr Gaskill agreed to commission an independent drainage expert to look at the site and promised he would follow his advice.

It wasn’t until the end of March that we had a diagnosis.

The contractors had to wait for optimum weather conditions before the ‘ripping’ process could be undertaken so many plots remained unworked through the summer. Weeds suited to damp conditions began to establish themselves and with a diminished number of members the Society found it difficult to establish their own new plots and maintain the large area of empty land.

Tom struggling to cope with flood

Tom struggling to cope with flood

Deluge at Reg's plot

Deluge at Reg's plot

18 Months On

It’s the beginning of the second growing season sine the community were evicted from the Olympic Site and relocated to Marsh Lane Fields.

Much has happened in the last eighteen months. Those Manor Gardening Society members remaining after some decided they couldn’t start again or wasn’t worth starting again only to be re-relocated in seven years, held their AGM and voted for a new committee. The last two years experience told them they needed A committee able to handle the press and communicate by email if the Society is to fully participate in discussions about the Legacy plot provision. There was a determination to make the Marsh Lane site as fruitful a temporary home as possible.

In his thoroughly entertaining book “One Man And His Dig” (‘adventures of an allotment novice’), Valentine Low includes a chapter on Allotments Under Threat. He highlights the relentless pressure on allotment sites all over the country and describes the experiences at East Acton, Eastleigh and Redbridge as well as Manor Gardens. He came along to the last Open Day to give a reading:

When the allotment-holders at Manor Gardens in the East End faced the threat of losing their plots, they were pitted against an opponent even more formidable and intransigent than Colin White and the Hogarth Club (who wanted to build a private health club on 100-year old allotments in East Acton). They were up against the London Development Agency, a body armed with statutory powers and rather more highly paid lawyers than Colin White could ever dream of. Their aims were also rather more significant than just building a health club: as the Mayor of London’s agency for economic growth, they were charged with the task of acquiring the land for the 2012 Olympics – and the allotments were in their way. Continue Reading »

The award-winning Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva, came to visit us while making the London’s Gardens: Allotments for the People feature (follow link to listen) for their popular “Hidden Kitchens” slot on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”. We were delighted to be featured in this very well-produced story which went out on 27th June 2008. NPR produces programs for an audience of 26 million across the States.
Continue Reading »

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