‘Public realm and shop front improvements’ in South Leytonstone: dogs get their dinner, while the area’s real problems are forgotten

Recent posts have looked at LBWF’s plan to spend £40,000 turning the wall of a private property on Cann Hall Rd. into an alleged ‘artwork’, and the subsequent massive backlash.

But as documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, this is by no means the only extraordinary waste of public money that LBWF is foisting on the same area, broadly South Leytonstone’s Cann Hall and Cathall wards.

As has been previously pointed out (see links below), having studiously ignored the subject for the best part of a decade, Cann Hall councillors in particular have suddenly become infatuated with the idea of a local plan, which sounds impressive, though on closer inspection turns out to be little more than a programme of ‘public realm and shop front improvements’.

In its original iteration, this programme was to cost £500,000, itemised as follows:

Entrance to Langthorne Park   £187,000

Café at Harrow Green Wesleyan Church, with glazed extension  £83,000

Improvements to green space  £60,000

Grant scheme for shopfront improvements  £30,000

Pop-up shops  £30,000

Prelims and professional fees  £70,000

Contingency  £40,000

However, recently there has been a degree of re-think, and LBWF summarises what is currently underway thus:

Screen Shot 2019-01-21 at 11.09.15

It is good to see that the Harrow Green Wesleyan Church cafe has been dropped entirely, not only because the adjacent High Rd. is already replete with cafes, but also because the Wesleyan Church seems to be a rather unsuitable partner, believing as it does that ‘sexual relationships outside of marriage and…between persons of the same sex are immoral and sinful’ – views which are controversial in themselves, but become doubly so when buttressed with public money. Indeed, the credit that goes to LBWF for terminating this project is much diminished by the revelations that it long pursued the Wesleyan Church without demure, its hand was eventually forced, and so a significant amount of officer time has been squandered in pursuit of a questionable cause.

The demise of the cafe aside, however, there is little else to celebrate. Taking the most expensive items first, both the Victoria Rd. green space and Langthorne Park/Lime Tree Surgery projects seem to represent poor value for money when the detail of the proposed work is compared to the cost.

It is also legitimate to ask whether either the Langthorne Park entrance or the Lime Tree Surgery building anyway require upgrading, since they were only constructed a few years ago, and though would benefit from sprucing up, true, largely retain their looks.

Turning to the shopfront grant scheme, it is doubtful whether improvement in four out of scores of possible locations will have much impact other than to highlight the surrounding dilapidation, while LBWF’s reluctance to divulge the exact terms on offer to freeholders raises further worrying questions.

That leaves the project referred to as ‘pop-up shopfront improvements’, in reality the fitting out of one property on the High Rd, and its short-term lease, month by month and in sequence, to ‘six local start-up business pop-ups’.

What has emerged so far is that the total budget here is £37,000; LBWF’s managing agent, Meanwhile Space CIC, already has taken one-third of the pot; the average cost of each successive lease is projected to be £4,167, or about £1,000 per week, a nice earner for the freeholder; the goods and services on sale seem squarely to have been aimed at LBWF’s favourites, the ‘rising prosperity’ demographic; and the use of the word ‘local’ in relation to the participating start-ups should be taken with a pinch of salt, with one of those involved, for example, coming from as far away as Ilford.

Unsurprisingly, Meanwhile Space CIC has posted a very upbeat end of term report on its activities, noting ‘For 5 out of 6 participants, the pop up shop was their first ever space and it gave them the confidence to take the next step for their business’; ‘3 out of 6 participants took further spaces within Waltham Forest as move on spaces’; ‘100% of surveyed shop customers said they would like to see more projects like this in the area’; and ‘100% of surveyed shop customers said the project helped improve their perception of the area’.

It is, no doubt, good to help start-ups, wherever they come from. Moreover, positive customer satisfaction is not to be sniffed at, even if Meanwhile Space CIC’s coyness about the numbers participating in its survey somewhat undermines the point being made. But the real issue here is value for money. Some £37,000 has been committed, but this has made minimal difference to the High Rd., and today, the property used is once again empty. Strip away the opinions of those who had a financial interest or made purchases, and there is little left but frippery.

Taken as a whole, therefore, the programme of ‘public realm and shop front improvements’ is a dog’s dinner, and a very expensive one at that. How on earth has this situation come about?

It is pertinent to start with wider policy agenda.

As previous posts describe, from 2015-16 onwards LBWF and a coalition of big property developers and professional advisers have sought to redevelop the borough’s housing stock and built environment in a way that will attract the better off, and thus hopefully boost both Town Hall coffers (through increased council tax) and corporate profits.

Their initial focus was on the centre of the borough, but over time they have become aware that places like Cann Hall and Cathall, right up against Westfield and the Olympic Park, are equally ripe for change.

Fortuitously, LBWF has also found itself with access to a fund that could be used for regeneration projects of the type envisaged, namely the News Homes Bonus (NHB). This is designed to reward local councils for new-build homes, conversions, and long-term empty homes brought back into use, and takes the form of an annual government grant equivalent to the extra council tax raised.  And handily, it can be spent as councils and ‘communities’ wish, whether council tax discounts for residents, boosting frontline services like rubbish collection, or providing facilities like swimming pools and leisure centres.

Against this background, redevelopment in general has proceeded apace. But in South Leytonstone, progress continues to be sluggish. For a start, freeholders and businesses remain loath to engage. Thus, while LBWF’s original intention was to fund three pop-up shops and 12 shopfront improvements, the actual numbers as of today are one and three, a shortfall of 75 per cent.

To make matters worse, and despite the efforts of local councillors, it also has proved difficult to generate any popular enthusiasm for either planning itself or the particular menu of ‘improvements’ that LBWF is intent on pursuing. Attendances at community ward forums and consultation events are tiny. Moreover, when explicitly consulted about ward priorities in the context of constructing a neighbourhood plan, those few who responded anyway opted – as previously noted – for ‘fundamental requirements such as Clean Streets, tackling Fly Tipping & Dog Fouling’ over anything else.

As a result, LBWF has ended up working against the grain, more and more desperate to spend the allotted budget, whatever the outcome.

In a last ditch attempt to rescue the situation and provide reassurance, LBWF has recently drafted in Portfolio Lead Member for Economic Growth and High Streets, Cllr. Simon Miller, to address meetings in the area, with one of his perorations reported as follows:

‘He started off with an acknowledgment that has come through from the residents. People feel that this part of the borough gets a bad deal compared to Walthamstow….[He] apologised for anything the council has directly or indirectly done to make anyone feel like this and let everyone know this area will get invested in….3 years ago, money was allocated to start works on and around the high street. This wasn’t done and the money does still exist’.

However, Cllr. Miller’s credibility has been somewhat undermined by his unsure grasp of detail (in early 2018, he claimed that ‘£140,000 is to be spent on a cafe at Harrow Green Church’, nearly £60,000 more than ever previously stated) and his tendency to unilaterally inflate the likely total programme expenditure.

Everything considered, it’s all very Waltham Forest, a story of shifting targets, incontinent expenditure, and narrow political expediency trumping reason.

What’s heartbreaking, needless to say, is that in other circumstances the £500,000 (or whatever sum Cllr. Miller alights upon) could have made a real difference.

NHB, to repeat, comes virtually free of strings.

Both wards in South Leytonstone have serious, longstanding, and well known social problems.

Currently, to give two examples, Cann Hall has the one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the borough, while houses in multiple occupation constitute a third of its total housing stock, with all the misery of overcrowding which follows.

That ‘public realm and shop front improvements’ have become the overriding priority says everything that needs to be said about the values that dominate in the ruling Waltham Forest Labour Party.

Related Posts

Redeveloping Waltham Forest: some experiences from the periphery

LBWF’s Making Places programme and the strange case of the Cann Hall side-wall: four residents speak and £40,000 of public money goes west UPDATED

LBWF’s Making Places programme and the Cann Hall side-wall fiasco: good news and bad

London Borough of Waltham Forest:  ‘a property empire with a sideline in local government’?*