Iain Duncan Smith delivered a stinging rebuke to Boris Johnson’s Conservative leadership aspirations after the London Mayor approved a scheme to turn the Walthamstow dog track in east London into flats.
A furious Duncan Smith asked “What’s the point of Boris?” and accused the Mayor of failing to show leadership following the decision to demolish the famous stadium, which featured on the artwork of Blur’s Parklife album.
The Mayor rubber-stamped a plan for 294 homes and a leisure complex to be built at the Grade II listed stadium, which hosted dog racing for 75 years but has lain dormant since 2008.
The permanent loss of Walthamstow stadium would leave Wimbledon as London’s only operational greyhound racing track, following a series of closures over 20 years.
Information released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that housing association London & Quadrant, which is behind the development, expected to make a £14.5 million loss on the project and may have to renege on community funding obligations.
Mr Duncan Smith, the MP for Chingford, said he was “absolutely furious” at the decision made by his Tory “friend”. He told BBC London 94.9: “This is a bad decision and I have constituents of mine saying ‘What’s the point of Boris?’.”
In an extraordinary attack aimed at a fellow senior Conservative, the Cabinet minister went on to question Mr Johnson’s leadership pretensions. Mr Duncan Smith said: “I’ve been secretary of state for a while. You take tough decisions.”
“Sometimes when your officials tell you that this might happen, you say ‘Lots of things might happen but I tell you what will happen. I’m going to overrule this or make a decision here’. And that’s what it takes to be in charge and to be leader. Sometimes you have to take a few risks.”
Mr Johnson said he “shared the sadness of many about the demise of dog racing from this historic corner of London.”
He added: “A huge £2 million contribution to the surrounding community has been secured from the developer which will deliver vastly improved local sports and leisure facilities for generations of east Londoners to enjoy.”
Andy Rowland, a director at London & Quadrant Housing Trust, said: “Our scheme will bring £50 million worth of investment into the borough, including £3.8 million to improve local leisure, education, health and transport facilities. This will preserve the architectural heritage of this iconic and historic site for the whole community.”
Rick Holloway, of the Save Our Stow campaign, said the Mayor had overlooked a rival bid from businessman Bob Morton, backed by football manager Harry Redknapp, which would have secured a new dog track and created 500 permanent jobs.
Mr Holloway questioned L&Q’s pledge to create 250 new jobs and build affordable homes. “The world’s number one dog racing track which used to have 5,000 people going to it every week is now going to be a fortress housing estate,” he said.
Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, may be given the unenviable task of adjudicating between the former Tory leader and the Mayor, who is said to be preparing the ground for a leadership bid.
Mr Duncan Smith is campaigning with Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, to save the dog track. Ms Creasy said: “Both Iain Duncan Smith and I have argued L&Q’s plans don’t represent the best deal for the taxpayer or local residents.
“There are now very serious questions about the financial viability of L&Q’s plans and what this means for the public purse. I believe there is a case this could be considered a matter of national importance and so something in which the Secretary of State could intervene if he so chooses given his powers. He has previously expressed concern for the fate of the dog track.”
Declining attendances have dealt a hammer blow to the UK’s greyhound racing industry. From 33 in operation at the sport’s peak, Wimbledon is now the only track still running in London, with Romford and Crayford the nearest venues to run regular nights.
Wimbledon’s future is also under threat after the Greyhound Racing Authority (GRA), who own Plough Lane greyhound stadium, unveiled plans to convert the site into a 15,000 seat football stadium, without a dog track.
The Walthamstow stadium was opened by the Chandler family in 1935 and attracted 5,000 fans at its peak, offering races five nights a week.
L&Q said any financial loss on the Walthamstow development, set to house a community-run sports centre, small allotments and a children’s nursery, would be funded by its reserves.
Mr Duncan Smith is the second Cabinet minister to question Mr Johnson’s leadership aspirations. Ken Clarke told the Conservative conference that the Mayor should focus more on “governance” instead of “treading the boards”.