Walthamstow Town Square: regeneration tensions

by Jack Brown

Protesters were out in force in Walthamstow Central recently, opposing the redevelopment of The Mall shopping centre and a portion of the adjacent Town Square and Gardens by retail investors Capital & Regional. Opponents of the scheme claim the land is being sold to C&R, “to build shops and luxury flats with zero per cent affordable homes”. Major debates around development and “regeneration” are taking place at a number of sites across the capital at the moment. However, as this particular protest occurred just ten minutes from my home, I thought I’d investigate a little further.

Aspects of the proposed development instantly raise eyebrows. The scheme is essentially focused on the redevelopment and extension of The Mall, the main shopping centre in Walthamstow, but features the construction of four residential tower blocks on top of the centre and also involves the development (and transfer to private ownership) of one third of Walthamstow Town Square and Gardens, an adjacent public space. It will mean relocating a children’s playground and chopping down a row of trees, and the tall tower blocks will, of course, significantly alter the appearance of the area.

Whilst the claim that “zero per cent” of the new homes will be “affordable” is technically inaccurate, the actual figure of just 20 per cent of the proposed 502 new homes being deemed “affordable” falls short of Sadiq Khan’s planning guidance encouraging 35% minimum from housing developments that have no public subsidy. There are also legitimate questions about how “affordable” some properties so defined really are for most Londoners. But to state that there are “zero affordable homes” in the scheme is misleading. It has also been repeatedly claimed that one of the towers will be “taller than Centre Point”. However, whilst the proposed towers will be tall for Walthamstow, planning permission has been granted for “up to 29 storeys“. Centre Point stands at 33.

Time to declare an interest. I grew up in Walthamstow, moving up the road to neighbouring Highams Park when I was eleven, and returning when I moved into my first rented flat. I have visited and used Walthamstow Market, which sits alongside the proposed development, all my life. In fact, I first became aware of the protest when I walked past it on my way home from doing the shopping. The Town Square, an open space with some peculiar landscaping, a giant LCD screen that shows very little of interest, and an open space where huddles of religious preachers and mobile phone contract hustlers alternate, holds a very special place in my heart as where I was first mugged as a teenager. I have no great affection for the space itself, but I do have a real interest in finding out what would cause such a commotion so close to my home.

The Square has never really functioned well as a public space and, with the exception of the well-used playground, is a place most people wander through rather than stop in. However, it was well occupied and noisy during the protest, as the video below shows.

As a passer-by, the impression was of great excitement. There was no threat whatsoever, or any feeling of real hostility, but rather the impression was that, as that many people had gathered and got organised in such a public location, that there must be a good reason they were angry.

But it doesn’t really take many people to create this impression, in the scheme of things. And it is worth contrasting the demographics of the protesters with those of Walthamstow as a whole: when watching the video, perhaps bear in mind that the borough of Waltham Forest is younger than the national average, with a median age of 34, and that 48% of residents are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The protesters carried signs branded with the logo of the Socialist Party, who have no representatives on the council. None of this is to say that they are automatically wrong by any means, or that they shouldn’t be heard, but only that they are observably not typical of the area’s population.

The protest claimed to represent “Communities against Corporations”. However, in such a diverse and mixed area, there are many different communities and those communities are not static, but constantly shifting, through both internal and international migration. For me, there is something a little uncomfortable about so many older residents, many of whom were themselves migrants into Walthamstow from elsewhere in the UK at some point in their lives, and many of whom already own their properties, protesting the construction of new homes for new, (often younger), incoming residents.

The arguments against the development are very confused. There are claims of “social cleansing”, which is normally a charge levelled at the redevelopment of social housing estates, when it is feared that existing residents will be relocated. There is currently no housing on the Town Square site at all, and the proposal represents a net gain of over 500 new properties, so it is unclear who will be “forced out”. In fact, the scheme’s entire reason for existence is to increase the number of homes in the borough. Additionally, the protest is focused on the privatisation of public space, but the majority of the existing public space will remain public. Walthamstow is also far from short of open space; the largest urban wetlands in Europe recently opened to the public just down the road, at the bottom of the market, and is free to access for all.

There are accusations that the scheme is designed to suit the needs of property developers and those who can afford to buy the new properties rather than the homeless, whose need is greater. Fair enough – although the council has also recently announced a scheme to buy up 400 properties to house people in temporary accommodation. With central government funding of local government cut to the bone, the money for local councils to build housing simply isn’t there. There is an argument that it is schemes like the Town Square development that fund projects to relieve homelessness through Section 106 contributions, purchasing land and increasing rates income. This funding model is certainly open to criticism, but there is not currently a better one on the table.

I should now declare my financial interest. As a long-term resident of Walthamstow, and as someone who has recently bought a shared ownership flat there, it is in my interests that the scheme be cancelled. Building more flats will increase supply and potentially knock a few quid off of the value of my property. More people will mean more pressure on the area’s infrastructure and more people on the Tube in the morning.

It seems unlikely that these things will have failed to cross the minds of the protestors, many of whom (you would hope) are existing residents – although perhaps they have. But just because something doesn’t particularly suit my personal interest, I don’t think that means it shouldn’t go ahead. I love where I live, and I have lived in this corner of Waltham Forest all my life. But I alone do not own it. Anyone who knows anything about the history of London knows that the city is not static. Change is the only constant in the most diverse, tolerant, global city in the world.

That is not to say that I like this particular scheme, or that it couldn’t be improved. This is clearly a complex issue, if less complex than that of other controversial regeneration projects across the capital, such as the Haringey Development Vehicle in the borough next door to us. There are strong arguments both for and against change, and they must be heard and investigated. It is much easier to get angry about what you are against than to suggest a positive, deliverable alternative. In such a polarised climate, it is important that rational, reasoned debate, of the kind which cannot be heard at protests, is given space.

On London exists to provide the space for debate Jack Brown describes. It cannot keep going and growing without your financial help. A five-week, all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign ends on Thursday, 8 March at 8.22 a.m. Please pledge what you can. Thank you.

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