You might have thought that the example of Haringey, where massive opposition to the unpopular “Haringey Development Vehicle” has led to several demonstrations and the deselection of most councillors supporting the project, would act as a salutary warning to Labour councils not to ignore their supporters by promoting socially regressive and divisive development plans, reflects Roger Benjamin. Not, it seems, in neighbouring Waltham Forest, whose Labour council seems bent on compounding a series of unpopular decisions by pushing through a scheme to destroy the heart of the town.
The council already has repeatedly faced criticism for controversial planning decisions, which have been described as “social cleansing” in a process of gentrification designed to attract young professionals to the area. In both Walthamstow and Leytonstone, the council is planning the destruction of existing housing, and its replacement by privately-owned developments offering less social or affordable housing and with no guarantee to rehouse current residents. A poorly-explained traffic-calming project in parts of the borough has been attacked as part of this process, even though it involves no loss of housing and has improved the lives of many current residents. An attempt by a housing charity to sell its low-rent properties to a private developer, who would then evict the residents and sell the properties for huge profits, was recently defeated following determined resistance by the residents and supporters.
But the latest grandiose scheme goes far beyond any of these. At the end of December, the council’s planning committee voted to approve a plan which would cover the only open space in the centre of Walthamstow with unaffordable flats in huge towers. The scheme would see the loss of one-third of the Walthamstow Town Square, the destruction of the distinctive lime avenue with the removal of 81 mature trees, and the removal of the children’s playground to a position immediately adjacent to London’s third-busiest bus station. In addition to the expansion of the current shopping mall, the plan includes the construction of four 29-storey tower blocks.
These blocks would be built over the Victoria Line tube tunnels, requiring massive, and extremely expensive, engineering work. Due to the high cost, the council has agreed that the proportion of “affordable housing” in the proposed 500 flats be reduced from the already inadequate 35% London target to just 20%. None of this will be social or low-rent property; all of the flats will be offered on a shared ownership basis, and it is estimated that a prospective buyer of a one bedroom flat would need an annual income of £50k, twice the average for the area. The blocks will form a gated community in the heart of Walthamstow, with no guarantee of any public access to the promised playground and gardens.
While local residents, and particularly young families, are being priced out of the area, the council apparently wants to attract single young professionals, in the bizarre belief that this will stimulate the local economy. Experience elsewhere suggests that many of these flats will be bought by overseas speculators, and either lie empty as a tax deduction, or be rented to city types keen to make use of the frequent twenty-minute train journey to Liverpool Street.
The council does not seem to have commissioned an independent environmental impact assessment of the proposed buildings, which would cast a shadow over much of the town centre and would create a potential wind tunnel effect. Nor has there been any consideration of the impact on already overstretched local schools and doctors’ surgeries, or of the transport needs of the new residents.
Due to the great public interest, the meeting of the planning committee was moved to a larger venue, and opened to public participation. Hundreds of residents attended this meeting, which also noted thousands of written objections and just a handful of letters in support. Of twelve speakers from the floor, ten objected to the scheme, including Saima Mahmud, former Mayor and Labour Councillor for the central Hoe Street ward, who noted that “Dozens of people have written to me. Not a single one was in favour of this application. They don’t want high-rise blocks. This open space is used by thousands every day. We are losing not just the land beneath our feet but the sky above our heads.” Despite this display of apparent openness, the committee then voted by four (Labour) votes to one (Tory) to approve the proposals.
A subsequent meeting called by the Trades Council to plan opposition to the scheme was attended by about 200 people. Several working groups were set up, and it was agreed to organise an occupation of the threatened square on 24 February. Although a couple of Tory councillors and Lib Dem activists tried to turn this into an anti-Labour gathering, the overwhelming view was that the background to this decision was the failure of the Labour Council to stand up to government cuts.
The subsequent meeting of the Walthamstow Labour Party General Committee unanimously agreed a resolution opposing the proposal, calling on councillors to vote against granting planning permission and to develop and fight for a needs-based budget for the borough. However, the dominance of the right in the local party means that most Corbyn supporters were excluded from the panel for council candidates. This means that Labour Party members in Waltham Forest now have the unenviable task of canvassing for the May local elections and explaining to voters that the Labour Party opposes the scheme, which is why we are urging them to vote for candidates who support it.
Campaigners and residents in Walthamstow have been watching closely the developments in Haringey and elsewhere. They have seen that a concerted resistance by residents, unions and some Labour councillors can defeat unpopular and damaging development plans. The next important event will be the 24 February occupation, and the hope now is that Waltham Forest council leader Claire Coghill will be forced to follow the example of her neighbour in Haringey, Claire Kober, and resign so that a leader responsive to the wishes of the local party and the local residents can take her place.