A local plan is a plan for the future development of the local area, drawn up by the Local Planning Authority. It guides decisions on whether or not planning applications can be granted. It is, in other words, the thing that the Council and developers refer to when deciding what to build and where to built it in Waltham Forest. Nipping bad ideas in the bud before they become part of the local plan will mean we have fewer battles against individual planning applications in the future. Well, that’s the theory anyway! The Council has put their ‘direction of travel’ for the new local plan out to consultation and I have just had a look.
The plan seems to suggest that the development of ‘affordable housing’ will help to ensure that all residents have ‘a decent roof over their head’. I completely endorse the Council’s desire to ensure that every resident in Waltham Forest has a safe and secure place to live, but selling off Council-owned land to developers to build so-called ‘affordable housing’ is not the answer. Developers consistently wriggle out of their commitments to the community. If Council-owned land is sold, it should only be sold for social housing; housing that people on the Council’s housing list will be able to move into.
Many residents are opposed to tower blocks in the borough because they are fundamentally changing what so many of us value: the low-rise Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods of family houses. To some extent, concentrating blocks of flats around transport hubs makes sense, theoretically reducing carbon emissions by reducing car ownership and – if built to high environmental standards – limiting water, electricity and gas usage through shared services. However, it is the height of these tower blocks that is causing so much anxiety. While a building of five or six storeys can, if well designed, blend into its surroundings, a 27 storey block is nothing more than a priapic reminder that local people have very little say in what happens to the places they call home. I also question whether developers after a quick buck are thinking about the long-term environmental sustainability of the homes they are building and I am saddened that, to date, the Council does not seem to have set high standards and insisted that developers making money out of our home meet these standards.
If, as many suspect, the drive to build expensive homes in the borough is the Council’s attempt to increase its revenue by increasing the number of people paying Council Tax, then let’s be honest about this. Let’s not pretend we are place making when, in fact, we are selling off our future to fund essential services now.
When I first moved to the borough in 2001, the different town centres – Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Chingford – all had distinct identities but seemed to be equal. The Council acknowledges that Walthamstow has received significant investment over the last few years and people living in other parts of the borough are becoming more and more aggrieved. It is wrong to focus on making Walthamstow the major town centre in the borough. It would be far better to spread investment across the borough, or the Council risks setting one community against another. It would also be wise for the Council to remember that creativity emerges in edgelands; places where people can experiment and explore boundaries. There has been much creativity in the borough over the years, which the Council rightly celebrates, but the Council’s strategy risks destroying the very thing that nurtured this creativity. Tidy place-made places are rarely, by their very nature, creative.
Where the Council should be directing their energies is into making sure that the buildings that are built in the borough are well-designed. Good design is, of course, subjective but there is a strong desire amongst residents for buildings that integrate with the Victorian and Edwardian character of the borough. The concept of designing out crime is also challenging. Resilient communities, where people know their neighbours and collectively take responsibility for each other, work together to prevent crime. Until recently I lived in a block of flats in Walthamstow and young people used to hang out in our communal garden. They left litter and made noise and, when they disturbed me, I went out to chat with them. They were unfailingly polite, often not realising the impact they were having and just wanting a place to relax and hang out. They often apologised at the inconvenience they were causing. At a local community forum I shared this insight and was told, in no uncertain terms by the Police officers there, that they can never recommend people talk to each other because it can be dangerous. I can categorically say, that over the course of a decade, I never once felt afraid; in fact I felt happier connecting with the people I was living alongside. Encouraging people to call the Police when others, particularly young people, do something irritating, rather than talking to them, is how young people become alienated and criminalised. Far from designing out crime, beginning with the idea that crime is ever present and must be eradicated creates fearful, polarised communities where truly criminal behaviour has the space to flourish.
The Council rightly celebrates the fact that Waltham Forest is one of London’s greenest boroughs. Access to nature is critical for social, emotional and physical well-being and must, therefore, be a priority for the Council. Nature is, as my seven-year-old nephew said to me today, ‘love, peace and unity for all’; that’s not just all people, that’s all living things. So I completely oppose the Council’s plan to bring public wifi to Walthamstow Wetlands. The wetlands should be a place where people can get away from the speed of modern life, where they learn to reconnect with nature and put the needs of birds and other wildlife ahead of their own needs. We should be encouraging people to watch the light play on water or watch the way birds nest and feed, not pollute the atmosphere will tinny music played from mobile phones. The Council must acknowledge the importance of the borough’s green spaces and the role they play in making life worth living, and make a firm, unshakeable commitment to protect all green spaces. Metropolitan Open Land and Green Belt must be protected.
I welcome the Council’s plan to plant 50,000 new trees, but I call on the Council to protect the trees already growing in our borough and do more to prevent developers cutting down or damaging mature trees. It is, after all, mature trees and not saplings that do the most to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The Council must also acknowledge that its drive for efficiency through technology disadvantages those in the community that cannot or will not use computers. Many prefer to talk to a real person who can sympathise and advise them on what to do next when they have a problem. Emails often go unanswered and, when you log an issue through the Council’s portal, you are not sent the text you entered, just a computer generated reference number, so you cannot follow up an issue that is not dealt with because you do not have a written record of the complaint you made. The Council says that it wants to create jobs; perhaps fully trained staff able to liaise with residents to resolve problems is a good place to start.
The Council rightly celebrates the William Morris Gallery, but must not forget that it wanted to close the Gallery and it was a hard-fought campaign by local people that secured its future and helped turn it into what it is now. Just sometimes residents do know best…
You can have a look at the New Local Plan – Direction of Travel document here: http://walthamforest-consult.limehouse.co.uk/portal/pp/newlp/dot.
Comments are required by 5pm on 22 December 2017.