The first of our series of interviews with party leaders in the run-up to the election By Local Democracy Reporter Josh Mellor
While large new developments are rarely greeted with delight, Labour leader Grace Williams insists they are key to the council’s ability to balance its books and maintain services despite decades of government funding cuts.
“We have to work with what we got and we do a very good job of that,” she said, “Some residents want to stay in a permanent position, but we can’t just sit and wait for the government [to help].”
New developments create new homes, bring in money for upgraded public spaces and, most crucially, grow the council tax revenue stream. “Look at Walthamstow town centre,” she said, “We’ve been able to build a new cinema, restaurants and a new theatre: that’s been the result of developments.”
Soho Theatre Walthamstow, due to open early next year
The party’s 2022 manifesto – titled ‘A Fairer Future for Waltham Forest’ – now promises a new set of facilities to come, including a lido, four youth hubs, a health centre in every neighbourhood and a new university campus, thanks to a deal with the University of Portsmouth. After dramatic flooding last summer, it also commits to “creating more surface water drainage systems” like rain gardens, alongside other green promises like introducing weekly food waste collections.
One goal that Cllr Williams is keen to emphasise is building 1,000 new social rent homes – the cheapest affordable housing, generally reserved for those on the housing waiting list – in the next four years. Since 2014, the number of social rent homes has grown by less than a hundred a year, doing little to chip away at the approximately 10,000 households on the waiting list. However, of the 3,300 homes currently in the pipeline of council-owned developer Sixy Bricks, only a fifth are social rent.
“It’s the best we can do now, given that we don’t have any national government support,” said Grace, “In London we have a city where people cannot afford to live, it’s a national crisis.”
Nadia, one of many single mothers struggling to stay in the borough (credit: Penny Dampier)
This crisis has forced the council into one of its most controversial measures: moving households in temporary accommodation hundreds of miles away, to cheaper areas like Stoke-On-Trent. Grace explained: “We have a policy of housing people where they can afford it and it’s a scandal that this means not in London. We could place a family in the borough but they wouldn’t be able to eat, to heat their house, to clothe their children. The benefit cap means families can’t afford to live here.
“We’re particularly affected in Waltham Forest because we are on the edge of London and a small borough: we have less land and less social housing.”
About 50 families every week come to the council facing eviction or struggling to buy food, which has led to an £1.3million overspend this year in discretionary housing allowances.
Grace asked: “The question is: how can we provide a safety net that’s sustainable for them? Because we do not have it in our gift to get them more benefits, what employment support can we offer?”
To this end, the council recently created a £2million fund for struggling families, although details of how it will be used are, as yet, unconfirmed.
However, arguments about the housing crisis do little to comfort residents angry about the encroachment of huge new flat blocks, such as those recently approved in Lea Bridge Road. “The thing is we live in a city and space is very much an asset… we need to use the land we have got to the best effect we can,” Grace said, “Lea Bridge is one example of a place where we can really deliver on our affordable housing target, we’ve been able to have 45% affordable homes there.”
There was however, a tacit acceptance that residents are feeling powerless over how fast the borough is growing. “I do think one thing we need to do more as a matter of priority is work with hyper local communities,” Grace said, adding: “[For example, we should] work with the residents of Lea Bridge, so they can get involved.”