London 2012 is the spark for a multi-million pound upgrade of the 'home of grass-roots football' marked by wider sporting provision and more intensive use, reports Tom James
Hackney Marshes, one of Britain's most renowned community sports resources, is to receive a multi-million pound facelift under plans newly unveiled.
And not before time it seems. "I wouldn't put cattle in some of the changing rooms," was the reaction of one official after a tour of the facilities last year.
The impetus for improvement has come from the London 2012 Games and the part that Hackney and the Marshes will play in the provision for it. The 73 sports pitches, mainly laid out for football, but also for rugby, are 50% under-utilised according to one estimate, despite the fact that some 1,500 players play there on Sundays - a factor that has kept the ravages of intensive use at bay, resulting in surfaces that are generally considered to be "pretty good" according to a technical advisor at the Football Foundation, which has been working closely with Hackney council for two years on finalising a development strategy for the Marshes.
Hackney Marshes can lay claim to being recognised worldwide as the home of grassroots football. They are, reportedly, the largest expanse of playing fields in Europe and have, over time, become almost a CV requirement for many of today's professional footballers, with such top players as David Beckham and earlier, Terry Venables, having played there at one time or another in their youth.
As metropolitan open land, the Marshes are protected from commercial or residential development. However, the strategy is understood to involve plans to incorporate other sports and leisure facilities on the area.
Survival is vital. Research by the London Green Party revealed that the equivalent of 1,500 pitches had been lost in the last 10 years in London. The report said that the decline in green spaces was especially acute in east London. The Marshes are one of the few remaining playing fields in inner London.
The vision is to increase intensification of use and to boost weekday activities. This, in turn, will place greater emphasis on the need for quality pitch care and provision. A sportsturf agronomist is understood to have surveyed the site and to be preparing a report for Hackney council from which it can present a formal application to the Football Foundation concerning the fine detail of the work required to the playing surfaces and the drainage systems.
The famous pitches are now due for a dramatic facelift thanks to the planned multi million pound redevelopment of the whole area. The first stage in the rebirth was marked in early July when Hackney Borough Council gave planning permission to an application for facilities and pitches to be replaced and relocated under preparatory plans for the 2012 London Games and beyond.
Changing room buildings will be demolished at North and South Marsh to be replaced with new ones, with 'ancillary activities' also being developed at the latter site. Mabley Green will also receive a replacement changing room building, while the pitches on East Marsh are to be relocated 'temporarily' to the North and South Marshes and sporting pitches reconfigured.
Resurfacing of one of the two existing all weather sports pitches at Mabley Green will include the addition of fifteen metre high floodlighting to replace existing ones as well as associated landscaping.
The news marks the beginning of the multi-million pound process of change for the sporting hub as plans are laid to intensify and diversify use of the huge hectarage of pitches and to markedly improve the standard of changing provision.
East Marsh - 16% of the entire area (12 pitches) - is to be given over to the Olympic Delivery Authority as part of the development for the 2012 Olympic Park, although it will stay in use until May 2011 when work begins in earnest to provide parking facilities for the Games.
But what then? Despite protests by Sunday leagues, green groups and other lobbyists, assurances have been given that East Marsh will be returned to its former use after the Games.
Hackney Council is adamant that one of its most prized 'possessions' will return to its original state after the sporting extravaganza has passed. "In 2013, the Marshes will be back to what they are most famous for," says Councillor Guy Nicholson, cabinet member for regeneration and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Cabinet; "grassroots football, as well as rugby and schools athletics." He also stresses the importance of the Olympics involvement, stating that "It will act as a catalyst to push forward the investment package for Hackney Marshes."
The question-mark hanging over the future of the Marshes post-London Games has been categorically removed, he adds, thanks to a "potent legal agreement" which ensures the return of East Marsh as a fully functioning community sport focus. "We can do no more than what we've already done to ensure the return of the East Marsh to its original use," says Nicholson.
But, beyond the legal commitment, there is a widespread will to see an improvement in the quality of provision at the Marshes. News of the changing room projects will come as a relief to 'weekend warriors' and sports providers alike as efforts intensify to bring ageing facilities in line with today's needs and expectations.
The Football Association (FA), Sport England and the London Development Agency (LDA) have, together, agreed a shared capital investment which could reach as much as £7m, with the FA understood to be matching the £3m-£3.5m that Hackney Borough Council and the LDA have so far committed.
That money comes at a price - nothing less than the resurgence of the Marshes as a modern provision, able to serve changing demands. Improved 11-a-side and mini football pitches and rugby pitches on North Marsh, a new cricket oval and mini youth pitches on South Marsh and, on Mabley Green, new all-weather pitches to add to the changing facilities. On East Marsh, improvements are expected to include ten new football pitches.
Improvements also cover the more technical elements of pitch regeneration, and Hackney Council is understood to be expecting a report from a sportsturf agronomist laying out recommendations that include reseeding playing surfaces with more rugged, harder-wearing grass species adapted to withstand the more intensive use planned.
Other matters to address include updating drainage systems, with hopes to redevelop the current system to a more efficient drainage method that will be practical in the wet winter months and, more importantly, encourage even more community use to "bring the Marshes back to life, back to where they were 20 years ago", according to Nicholson.
He views the proposed new facilities as a real opportunity to expand the use of the Marshes, which, he says, are currently only being used to around 50% of their capacity, "and that mostly at the weekend for predominantly men's football".
Using the area for a more diverse range of activities as well as sport, is his mission. "I want to see people coming to the Marshes not just to play football, but to just walk or to sit with a picnic when it's sunny. Currently, we have a very specific, predominant, market - football. We have a perfect opportunity now to improve the profile of the Marshes for all sorts of activities, and improve its use by women and the disabled."
As well as funding from football affiliated bodies, there are also hopes from the council to seek support from the London Marathon Trust as well as rugby and cricket organisations.
His comments before the planning consent sent out a clear message about what needed to be done to raise standards of facilities. "If we seriously want to see improvements in participation, the changing and sports facilities need to be brought into the 21st century." It now appears as though he has his wish.
Between now and the rejuvenation of Hackney Marshes by 2013 lies the world's biggest sporting activity, one in which Hackney Borough Council is strategically positioned.
Certainly the LDA appears to be in no doubt about the assurances on the Marshes future; a spokeswoman commenting: "The whole masterplan process gives guarantees for the restoration of pitches. That we will be restoring the area to its original make-up is seen as hugely positive and it will be done with care and consideration."
The legacy of the 2012 London Games should ensure that the proving ground for so many of our sporting stars returns refreshed and more strongly positioned than ever to provide a key community sports and leisure provision long into the future.