East London residents are fighting to save one of the oldest city farms in the capital after Newham council recommended its closure.
The cows, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs and even a kookaburra at Newham City Farm have been enjoyed by generations of schoolchildren and local residents since the farm opened in 1977.
But the farm, which is in a park between two schools in the Custom House area of the borough, never reopened when the coronavirus lockdown ended, and the Newham council cabinet is being advised at a meeting on Tuesday to permanently close the free facility.
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition to save the farm, with residents saying it provides urban children with rare opportunities for close encounters with animals as well as providing therapeutic services for people with special needs.
“It’s the jewel in the crown for local residents,” said Karima Turay, whose 17-year-old son has volunteered at the farm since he was 14. “We are the poorest ward in one of the poorest boroughs in the country and Custom House is synonymous with crime and being ‘poverty stricken’ but we have great things like more greenery than most other places in London and the farm. To have it taken away – it’s the final kick in the teeth for us.”
“It’s a regular day out for all our family,” said Jenny Mwangura, who attended the farm’s opening by Princess Anne in 1977. “It’s such a valuable community asset. Everyone who goes there loves it – young and old. It provides great employment opportunities for young people and for people with disabilities. I used to take my mum there when she had dementia. The farm does riding lessons and hands-on learning experiences with animals. Where else in the middle of London would you have sheep-shearing and wool-spinning and showing kids how to milk a cow?”
Dee Lamb described the farm, which is situated in King George V Park, as “a lifeline for many families” and “a go-to place” for her adult son, who has Asperger’s. “It’s place to unwind and gain comfort from the animals,” she said. “They do not judge or give offence. Taking the farm away will remove a successful operation that autistic humans can reach.”
In 2018, the council decided to remove the farm’s annual GBP332,000 running costs from its budget and seek commercial sponsorship, but it has not found any and said that this model was no longer viable after the coronavirus pandemic.
An independent inspection for the council last November revealed “a number of issues relating to the condition of some of the animals” according to a council spokesperson. Two members of staff were suspended and legal proceedings are active.
In documents to be presented to cabinet members for a decision on Tuesday, the council said it would be recommending closure with the farm area repurposed as publicly accessible green space, with “an enhanced biodiversity and sustainability offer” possibly including green gyms, play facilities, food growing or additional trees and woodland.
A council spokesperson said: “Whatever decision is taken, the council is committed to ensuring the farm area remains a publicly accessible green space for use by the local community.”
If the decision is taken to close the farm, the council said it would draw up a new masterplan for the entire Beckton District Park area.
The spokesperson said: “The plans will be subject to full consultation with residents and will give the community the opportunity to provide views around whether or not an animal offer could or should still be provided in some way.
“We want to take the opportunity to consult fully with local people about what they would like to see in this area and what sort of facilities people want, with an ambition of linking these parks together to create a network of green space that will work for the local community, especially families and children, for the years ahead.”
Local residents argue that the council should give them the opportunity to launch a community-run or charitable farm, a model followed by many of the 50 or so city farms across Britain, such as Spitalfields.
But Newham council said the farm had twice previously been run by community groups and both times had been handed back to the council.
Local resident Marielle Fidele said: “The whole park and farm has been forgotten about. The council have run it down purposefully and they are claiming they need to spend a lot of money to bring it up to standard.”
Of allegations of poor animal welfare in the past and the council’s claim that the farm is not currently safe to be reopened to the public, Mwangura said: “I would say that’s an absolute load of rubbish. I’ve been a regular visitor since it opened and there’s never been any issues or complaints about animal welfare or health and safety. It’s always top-notch in there. They want to close it without even asking the local community. I smell a fish somewhere.”