A new book by Dr Jim Lewis charts the history of the Royal Small Arms Factory and its transformation into Enfield Island Village
In September 1988 Enfield Gazette reported that the vacant Royal Ordnance site at Enfield Lock – known for nearly 200 years as the Royal Small Arms Factory – was at the centre of a fresh “asset stripping” storm.
It was further reported that in parliament the shadow defence secretary, Martin O’Neill, wanted a full investigation conducted – implying that Enfield Lock and other Royal Ordnance sites had been sold off too cheaply and taxpayers were shouldering the massive financial loss.
In the years that followed, several ideas for the Enfield Lock site were put forward; among them one from the National Army Museum to establish an outer-London base for some of its larger exhibits. While this particular proposal seemingly gained local popularity at the time, the scheme fell through when the directors of the museum allegedly asked Enfield Council for a dowry of £2million.
As various proposals for the site’s regeneration came and went, the shell of the large machine room began to deteriorate rapidly. Parts of the building were crumbling because of serious water ingress, as the structure had not been maintained following its sale to British Aerospace. Furthermore, the overall preservation of the complex, with its surrounding buildings, was not being helped by the fact that a number of local police forces had been allowed to use the site for training purposes. I can recall walking through the former factory grounds at the time and they were littered with spent ammunition rounds with a few derelict cars scattered throughout the site’s internal roads.
British Aerospace, which had purchased the site from the government in 1987, made two planning applications in the same year to redevelop the land. Later, it formed a joint venture company with property developer Trafalgar House under the name Lee Valley Developments, and in 1991 submitted an application for a residential development.
Regeneration was not just a question of finding a new use for the Grade 2-listed factory building; development was further complicated by a range of quite thorny planning issues which had the potential to cause costly delays. Prior to 1994, the land on which the Royal Small Arms Factory stood had been designated part of the Green Belt, but the lifting of this designation and the subsequent boundary changes in 1995 brought it within the jurisdiction of Enfield Council, rather than Epping Forest District Council, of Essex.
Between the planning applications in 1987 and the later boundary and land use changes, Lee Valley Developments had been making a number of other applications to the local authority to redevelop the site. All were unsuccessful, including at least two appeals. To have gained planning approval Lee Valley Developments would have had to meet in excess of 60 stringent requirements under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
After eight years of setbacks, it is possible that Lee Valley Developments became frustrated, which caused them to cut their losses by selling the site in 1996 to Fairview New Homes. Outsiders watching these drawn-out negotiations must have wondered whether there was ever going to be a sustainable regeneration plan that would meet all the required approvals, and if there was such a plan, whether anyone would be bold enough and perhaps foolhardy enough to take it forward.
This article is an edited excerpt from the book The Factory that Became a Village written by Dr Jim Lewis and published by Libri Publishing Ltd. To buy a copy: