Clare Coghill became leader of Labour-run Waltham Forest Council in May and the first woman to hold that position in the immensely varied Outer East London borough’s 52-year history. Born in Halesowen, she has also lived in Tower Hamlets and in the South of France. We met in her office in Philip Dalton Hepworth’s extraordinary, Grade II listed Town Hall and talked about housing, schooling, gentrification, street parties, cycling, Chingford, Highams Park, Lea Bridge, Leyton, Stella Creasy, Iain Duncan Smith, the activities of Momentum, the legacy of the Olympics and how to ensure that the borough’s most vulnerable residents are looked after properly when local government finances are getting tighter all the time.
Question: What are your objectives as leader and what challenges do you face in trying to meet them?
Answer: As for all council leaders, the budget is phenomenally important – making sure we’ve got the resources we need to support all our residents, particularly the vulnerable ones. I previously held the children and young people portfolio, and it affected me deeply to understand the responsibilities we have as councillors. I don’t have children of my own, but I’m legally a parent to around 280 of them. The costs involved and the amount of compassion required to support them and other vulnerable people, and making sure that those who do those jobs are paid properly, are enormous. People don’t always talk about that as a priority, but I’m increasingly minded to do that.
Then it’s about making sure residents enjoy a great quality of life and that the borough is an attractive place to live, including for people on lower incomes. You want people to invest in the area but then provide development that ensures you get good levels of social and other affordable housing. There’s uncertainty at the moment around local government finance, because national government said they were going to make us entirely reliant on council tax and business rates that we generate ourselves. We know where we are with council tax, but there’s nothing in any Bill for business rate retention. That’s quite a boring local government point, but it means there’s this enormous question about our finances as we address the future.
Q: You’re really illustrating how your budgets depend heavily on land in the borough being made best use of, aren’t you? More people and more business mean more income.
A: It’s hugely important. Key sites that we own oursleves and can hopefully bring forward sensibly for development are in Walthamstow Town Centre, Leyton Town Centre and, most importantly and excitingly of all, at Lea Bridge, where we already have a new station, which is fantastic. The area itself is larger than the King’s Cross redevelopment area. It’s absolutely enormous.
We’re keen to become the first London Borough of Culture and that’s partly because so many artists – and I mean specifically artists, rather than this broader category of “creatives” – have been displaced out of Central London and other boroughs. It’s about how you can work with developers to have a layer cake of floors that are affordable for artists, not just now but in perpetuity. The night time economy is a huge priority for us too. It’s one of the things that makes London a great place to live – pubs, club and venues, those exciting areas of a city. You could convert it all to residential and make a load of money out of it, but it would be hugely boring and no one would want to live there any more. A good example of where we’ve achieved this already is The Standard, which was quite a famous music venue by Blackhorse Road station. It got seedier and seedier and eventually it was sold. We worked incredibly hard with the owners to get a music venue back there. I see that as a massive opportunity. So many places are closing in Central London. Waltham Forest is served by two Tube lines [Central and Victoria] that are 24- hour at the weekend. So if you live near, say, King’s Cross, why not come out to Blackhorse Road and see an amazing band?
Q: Just to really spell it out then, a London borough that wants to look after its most vulnerable and wants to build schools for its growing population and run services efficiently and make sure they are properly funded and so on has to increase its income, which means increasing its council tax base and its business rates take, and that means encouraging development and economic activity?
A: Yes, is the short answer to that.
Q: And all that brings you into classic areas of conflict, usually problems with change people don’t like, arguments about affordable housing and so on.
A: A good example for me is the Blackhorse Road area.
Q: Blackhorse Village, surely?
A: Ha ha! Which some residents love it being called and some aren’t so keen on!
Q: Sorry, I interrupted.
A: We’ve had new buildings for the Willowfield school put there, and one reason it’s been successful, including for the wider area, is that we sent a very clear message in advance to residents that we had the infrastructure sorted. It’s right by the station and they know they wouldn’t have to scrap for places in a run-down school.
Q: Is the Blackhorse area getting too posh and expensive?
A: I think the challenge we face is that most of the change you are referring to results from the private sale of street properties. Someone wants to sell their house. Someone else wants to buy it. I have no control over that. And unless I stand in the way of making areas look better and having better amenities there is an ever-greater likelihood that those types of transactions will happen between ever-richer people.
It’s also worth remembering that a lot of our street properties are actually social rented ones. There’s a lot of tenure blindness because of that. We’re lucky, because when house values were very low, particularly in the Sixties and Seventies, the council bought up loads of that stuff. If you look down a handsome street in Walthamstow there will actually be plenty of social housing there. Even a road perceived to be highly gentrified may not be quite what it seems. It means you’ve got far more mixed communities of children in our schools, and that can only be a good thing.
Q: You might say that gentrification begins when bicycle-riding Guardian readers decide to settle your neighbourhood. They get very particular about the coffee they buy and then start complaining about gentrification. I live just across the Hackney border in Clapton, so I know about these things. How do you as the leader of a gentrifying borough’s local authority, manage gentrification?
A: As I’ve already said, you can’t stop people from buying each other’s houses. You just can’t. And you can see that you’ve now got people living here who’ve got more money, who’ve been able to purchase their own home. So it’s about how you transfer the new human resources that you have in your community to benefit others. Rather than seeing each new wave of people as rivals – we came here when it was cheap and now this lot are pushing up prices – you have to look at how you can turn that into something better. And how does it help the child growing up in poverty if your attitude is “Let’s leave the area where you’re growing up as poor and as rough as possible so that your opportunities are exactly what they’ve always been – not very good”? I don’t think that’s a valid position.
There’s a lot of work to be done through school governorships, engaging people through primary schools and so on. And it is things like street parties. It costs you about 300 quid to have a street party. We had one down my street the other day. It was totally reflective of the people who live down my road, because my neighbours who’d organised it had gone to a lot of effort to make sure that everybody was included. There is an elderly lady who hadn’t left her house for a long time, who came out to enjoy it. It’s that sort of community leadership that the council should be doing, the really granular stuff. Even things like the Walthamstow Garden Party – when you go to an event like that, you stand and look around and ask, “Does the demographic of that event look like my borough?” It’s about not feeling closed out of your own area, isn’t it? I’m constantly, relentlessly coming back to that point.
Q: I got into trouble with some cycling activists for a report I wrote about objectors to your mini-Holland scheme. But there was no escaping that its opponents saw it as a regeneration project for a new, incoming middle-class, and not for them.
A: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Some people see upward mobility as expressed by owning a motor vehicle and some people see upward mobility as expressed through not owning a motor vehicle and perhaps owning a Brompton. Not a BMW but a Brompton. For me it’s super, super simple. Environmental issues are one of the things that motivated me to get involved in politics in the first place – environmentalism and feminism. If we are serious about London not killing ever greater numbers of people every year through air pollution, then we’ve got to do something about it.
I don’t think anybody in the Town Hall would suggest that the consultation process around mini-Holland couldn’t have been better. That was one of the things that wound people up. We’ve definitely learned from that and in future we will be much, much better at how we engage with people and seek their opinions. I think we’ve all accepted that. But I had a conversation with a resident who said, while pointing at a map: “But I drive from there to there a couple of times a day and now I won’t be able to.” It was about 200 yards. And this was a physically fit bloke in his mid-thirties. So it’s about persuading people not to do unnecessary car journeys.
What I found astounding is the extremes around that debate, at both ends. It lowered the standard considerably. But I was out door knocking recently and a lady I knew answered who’d had a mini-Holland intervention right outside her house. She said she’d thought it was a stupid idea, but now she sees her neighbours’ children playing out. She remembered that that’s what she did when she was little, and she thought, “Well, why shouldn’t they have what I had?” And that’s why we did it.
Q: There have been concerns expressed the Lea Bridge area is going to be overdeveloped, certainly with regard to the old industrial site at 97 Lea Bridge Road. Are you quite sure it isn’t going to be too built-up?
A: If we are serious about meeting existing London Plan targets, which were set out by the previous London Mayor [Boris Johnson], we have to build more densely than we did in the 1920s. And if we’re going to meet what we think will be the current Mayor’s targets in the next London Plan [the first draft of which is expected by the end of the year], then that’s all the more relevant.
The council’s planning committee agreed the 97 Lea Bridge scheme. It’s a significant scheme, covering a large footprint, which will deliver the right kind of housing units and makes a statement about the future of Lea Bridge and what it can deliver. We’ve got the brand new station, we’ve also got excellent primary schools and an excellent secondary school. We’ve invested heavily in Leyton Jubilee Park, which is an extraordinary green space with a café and an enormous pirate ship for children to play on. So we’ve said to the community: you’re not going to have problems getting your kids into school, you haven’t got just rubbish little pocket parks. We need to make people feel they’re not being hemmed in and squashed by new development.
Q: Aren’t the market priced homes there inevitably going to be beyond the reach of most first-time buyers, though?
A: I think no, depending on the size of the unit. The part of the development sector that is looking very closely at Waltham Forest is thinking about people that are probably in a couple and probably further down the line in terms of their careers than first time buyers used to be. So rather than twentysomethings, its thirty and fortysomethings. That’s my sense of it.
Q: Two quite well established schoolteachers, for example?
A: They might be people who are already living in Waltham Forest, or already living across the border in Hackney, who have already put down some roots in the community and have decided that they want to stay longer term. I do think that for many young people working in London today, there isn’t necessarily an expectation that they will purchase in London. I think each generation faces different problems, and each one needs to find the energy and ingenuity to work through that, and make it work for them.
I met a firm of architects the other day that deals with really nasty, difficult sites. They belong to the demographic we’re talking about. They are looking at designing places where people can make the transition from university: a bedroom and maybe a shared balcony and a big, flexible, shared space downstairs. Do we want to keep on providing what we’ve always provided that’s going to be unaffordable, or do we decide there’s a different way of doing it that would be infinitely more affordable and that a lot of young people actually want?
Q: Waltham Forest is often thought of as a borough of two halves. Do you recognise that view?
A: The A406 [North Circular] is the artificial barrier that separates us, but the Overground railway is the link. People have moved from Clapton to St James Street, to Walthamstow Central, to Wood Street and now to Highams Park. So, Highams Park has already got its own identity and it’s starting to feel more separate from Chingford. People who were there many, many years ago thought of it as its own little place with its own identity. They get very sensitive when you refer to it as Chingford. The new people who’ve arrived, perhaps from Walthamstow, who don’t want to be associated with the perceived politics of Chingford, share this view. So you’ve got twentysomethings and sixtysomethings both saying, “Don’t call us Chingford!”, but for quite different reasons.
We’ve done some shopfronts work in Highams Park. It’s not about displacing the traditional buildings there. We’re not standing by and letting the market do that, which it would. We’re saying, we quite like the greasy spoon that’s here, we quite like the launderette that’s here, but we just think we could make them look prettier and give them a boost. And then you’ve got Chingford itself. We’ve restored a very beautiful frontage there. It’s called Albert Crescent – very striking 1920s twin buildings. So we’ve restored all that and done the shopfronts there too. The town centre has been very, very strong for some time, but it’s quite interesting as the demographic, even in the very north of the borough, starts to change and new shop owners arrive.
Q: You are a Labour politician, of course. How do you get on with Iain Duncan Smith [the Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green]?
A: Um. I’ve had very little contact with him. As an authority, we talk to him, of course. He’s an elected member of parliament and we totally respect that, though our wonderful Labour candidate got his majority down to less than 3,000 in June, so there’s all to play for at the next election.
Q: Where does Momentum come into the Waltham Forest picture picture? Obviously there has been quite a lot of tension between them and Stella Creasy [Labour MP for Walthamstow].
A: Stella Creasy is a wonderful MP. She is one of the hardest-working people you will ever meet and for there to be any talk of deselecting her is appalling. And what a waste of time. The Labour Party needs to gain 60 more seats to win a general election, and to have a positive working majority without having to go into coalition with anybody we really need to gain 100. If we are serious about doing that and taking seats off the Conservatives in the south of England, the south-east, the Midlands and the North and Scotland, there is no time to be wasted deselecting hugely successful MPs.
Q: Is that really a possibility?
A: There are people here who have certainly talked about deselecting her in the past, and who remain active members of the Labour Party.
Q: What about the selection process for borough election candidates for next year?
A: We haven’t done it yet and, as with lots of other boroughs, it was all put on hold during the general election.
Q: Should sitting Labour councillors be worried about the re-selection process?
A: We should all be worried about re-selection because you should never take it for granted. You go into every selection meeting with nothing, other than your own track record.
Q: Does the Hard Left have plans to reselect sitting Labour councillors?
A: If they do, I’m not aware of them. They may do, they may not.
Q: Finally, it’s five years since the London Olympics. Waltham Forest was an Olympic borough. What have the Olympics done for you?
A: I bloody love the Olympics. I’ve always loved it. I remember where I was when we won the bid, and I cried. I had lived in Tower Hamlets, and used the DLR a lot. When you go on it now you look out over a stretch of Newham that is now so spectacular and used to look like a Mad Max wasteland. To know that that investment in infrastructure alone was going to go into a bit of East London that really desperately needed it was just absolutely stunning.
And this borough has absolutely benefitted from it. We received resources – budget made available by the government – to help these areas look as good as they possibly could, that we were able to put it into improvement schemes in Leyton that have transformed it and breathed life into its night time economy. All this was so successful that we began to put some of our own money into it as well. And we have the Eton Manor facility, which people don’t realise is in our borough because it’s so close to Newham. That’s now a major hockey facility and has the potential to do loads more.
Another benefit of the Olympics is that it really encouraged East London boroughs and their leaders to come together. That’s so important and so exciting for the future of this part of the city.