Comment Features

What Waltham Forest’s ‘new normal’ needs

Supported by Civic Futures, we asked what the borough needs to recover from the pandemic
By Victoria Munro

Members of the borough's Streetbase team spoke to the Echo about what young people need
Members of the borough’s Streetbase team spoke to the Echo about what young people need

In our September edition, we reported on how local organisations spent tens of thousands of pounds helping the borough bounce back after the pandemic.

The funding was provided by the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) London Recovery Board, co-chaired by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

However, there is still work to do when it comes to two groups worst affected by the lockdown itself: the borough’s youngest and oldest residents.

The Echo spoke to six members of Waltham Forest Council’s Streetbase team, a youth-led engagement programme, who largely reported feeling disillusioned about their education after so long out of the classroom.

Tori Allison-Powell, 18, from Walthamstow, said: “As soon as the lockdown happened, my grades went downhill. I’m just the type of person who learns better in front of a teacher than online.

“I sort of gave up and eventually dropped out of college, I didn’t think I had it in me to catch up on what I had missed.

“I feel like Covid changed people’s mindset about university. Before, a lot of people I know wanted to go but, after hearing about the experience of people who went during Covid, they just want to go straight into work.”

James Serieux, a 22-year-old also from Walthamstow, agreed, noting one of his friends left university feeling it was “a rip-off” and “all just for the piece of paper”.

Like half of more than 250 young people surveyed by the Streetbase team, he felt mental health was a major concern, noting one of his friends said he would “wake up and start crying for no reason” during lockdown.

For 20-year-old Gulcin Sariyildiz, one of the main ways the GLA could help is by funding free “or at least largely discounted” tutoring, particularly for primary school students. She added: “It would be a huge help to kids that have missed out, which is basically every kid.”

After seeing their physical health deteriorate while stuck inside, many in the group wanted the GLA to make it less expensive to make healthy choices, lowering the price of healthy food and funding more activities in parks aimed at teenagers, like basketball and football courts.

Tori said: “I’ve tried to diet so many times but I just don’t have the money to pay for the gym and make sure I’ve got healthy meals throughout the day.

“I also think student discounts shouldn’t just be for people that go to university because not everyone will, it should just be for all young people up to 20 or 25.”

This story is published by Waltham Forest Echo, Waltham Forest's free monthly newspaper and free news website. We are a not-for-profit publication, published by a small social enterprise. We have no rich backers and rely on the support of our readers. Donate or become a supporter.

A lack of places for young people to hang out inside was another major concern, particularly for those living in the more rural north of the borough, like Chingford 17-year-old Kristian Lee.

He said: “Years ago, the most popular thing for young people to do in Chingford was hang out in Poundland but then it burned down five years ago and hasn’t been touched since.

“A lot of the time it seems like really good things get taken away from us and then nothing replaces them.”

However, even those based in Walthamstow complained of a lack of places to congregate, particularly mourning the loss of Burger King and KFC in the Mall.

Gulcin said: “Young people just want safe places to chill so they’re not outside. They’d still be doing exactly the same thing, just not on the street.

“There needs to be more shops in the High Street and youth clubs in more areas because a lot of young people don’t feel comfortable travelling. If you want to reach them, do not expect them to come to you.”

While local young people are eager for ways to fill their time, those supporting the borough’s elderly population fear many of them “almost lost the will to socialise” during lockdown.

Terry Day from the Waltham Forest branch of Age UK, told the Echo their centre used to be “buzzing” but they are now having to “work really hard” to draw older people out of the house.

She said: “Before we could just stick leaflets through someone’s door but now we have to phone them up or send a volunteer round to encourage them.

“Lockdown was horrible for many of us but we turned to things online to have some kind of substitute; many older people are not online so they had nothing like that.

“What we are now seeing is that it has been such a long period of being so isolated that many older people who potentially could go out have kind of lost the habit.”

Asked if the GLA should focus more on encouraging old people out or getting them online, Terry said the two are “not mutually exclusive”.

She said: “It’s a problem that so many systems these days are only online because a significant group of old people never will be, you need an email address to apply for sheltered housing or an over-60s parking permit.

“However, there’s a significant group of older people who desperately want to be online but need help. Quite a lot of people come to our IT classes holding a new tablet or smartphone a relative gave them for Christmas and they’ve been shown how to use it but forgot.”

Age UK has had great success with their classes, which provide one-on-one or one-on-two support, but Terry stressed: “There’s so much that can be done but it does take resources.

“We can go an awfully long way with just a little but it still takes funding and there are just not that many funds for charities. The GLA’s powers are limited in a way but one thing they can do is give money out.”

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