Popular children’s charity forced out of home

Walthamstow Toy Library has been supporting local families since 1975
Walthamstow Toy Library has been supporting local families since 1975

Walthamstow Toy Library set to leave its long-time base following huge rent hike, reports James Cracknell

A long-established charity providing support services for young families is set to leave its home of 35 years after being asked to pay nearly £100,000 a year in rent.

Walthamstow Toy Library has been based at Comely Bank in Ravenswood Road since 1986 and currently shares a building with Waltham Forest Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), to whom it pays a peppercorn rent, but has been asked to shell out £8,000 every month if it wants to stay.

The charity runs play sessions, toy loaning, and other support services for babies, young children, and their parents and carers. This includes services for maternal mental health, breastfeeding and healthy eating. During the pandemic it sent out 750 children’s craft packs to local families on low incomes, before partially reopening in September.

Director Helen Crockford told the Echo: “The CCG have supported us in the past but now they say they will no longer support us. When we petitioned them they responded to say ‘our services are replicated elsewhere’ – but we are the only toy library in the borough.

“Our remit is health and education. We are more than a play group. It is like social prescribing, for parents to meet other parents and get support from the staff.”

Comely Bank Clinic is run by Waltham Forest CCG and houses various NHS services, including a GP practice. It was built in 2005 in place of the original Walthamstow Toy Library building, but the charity was allowed to stay on similar terms to its previous tenancy. This deal expired in 2014 and the charity has since been negotiating short-term leases with the CCG. The situation is complicated by the 2013 Health and Social Care Act, which transferred NHS property assets to separate organisations – in this case to Community Health Partnerships (CHP) Ltd, a government-owned company set up to “improve the NHS estate through public private partnerships”.

Helen said: “I understand the CCG cannot continue to subsidise us, but CHP want to charge us this ridiculous rent. The building was built under PFI [private finance initiative] and I guess they are trying to get their return on investment. I told them we could pay £200 per month but they want to charge us £8,000.

“We used to have a purpose-built space funded by the [former] Greater London Council. We have been at Comely Bank since 1986 and the toy library itself was established in 1975. It will be a real shame if we have to leave, but the CCG and CHP have made up their minds and want their rent.

“What is great about the location is that it is so central. We have got members all over the borough and there are more and more families moving here, but it feels like there is less and less space for them to take their children.”

Waltham Forest Council recently offered the toy library a new space at Langthorne Park, Leytonstone, but this was intended as an expansion site to accommodate the charity’s growing membership, which numbered 1,000 before the pandemic. In a joint statement, the charity’s trustees said: “As a small charity, we cannot afford to pay a rent of nearly £100,000 per year. This is an eviction in all but name. The strength of feeling about this issue only demonstrates how valued we are by our local community and how much our services are needed.”

CHP Ltd and Waltham Forest CCG issued a joint statement which said: “The toy library has occupied space in the Comely Bank Clinic since 2005. For the first ten years, the organisation paid a nominal ‘peppercorn’ rent. From 2015, the rental costs have represented a fair market value, the cost of which has been paid by Waltham Forest CCG, from funds intended for patient healthcare.

“The time that subsidy has been provided has been extended a number of times by the CCG on the proviso that the charity found alternative accommodation so the NHS can use the space and funds to improve much needed health services for local people.”

Waltham Forest CCG also posted more information on its website, which stated: “The latest agreement comes to an end in June 2021 and the CCG can no longer justify providing this level of financial support to a single charity. The subsidy is worth £50,000 per annum of taxpayers’ money.

“The CCG proposes using the space in Comely Bank to provide much-needed health services to the local community. The CCG is aware of the services offered by the toy library and comparable services are provided by the local authority. Public health is under the remit of the local authority.

“The CCG will not revisit the decision to use the Comely Bank building for the provision of NHS primary care services. However, the toy library will be supported to find alternate premises.”