Councillors back proposal for taller towers and new tube station entrance, reports Victoria Munro, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell
Two enormous new towers – 34 and 26 storeys high – are set to be added to the East London skyline after revised plans to redevelop a Walthamstow shopping centre were approved.
Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee approved the latest plans to demolish part of The Mall in the centre of Walthamstow and build 538 new homes at a meeting on Thursday 27th January.
The £200million redevelopment was first granted approval by councillors in December 2017 but, last October, owner Capital & Regional submitted updated plans to add 36 more flats in fewer, but taller, high-rise blocks.
Residents again urged the committee to reject the plans, arguing the huge towers posed a fire risk and that the flats were not truly affordable for local people. However, committee members felt the need for more good quality private-rented homes and a revamp of the “miserable” shopping centre outweighed these concerns.
Plans to build a new entrance for Walthamstow Central Underground Station, providing step-free access, were also approved, although this is still dependent on millions of pounds in funding from Transort for London (TfL).
Speaking at the meeting, Walthamstow primary school worker Rachel Lyon called the plans “a mockery and an eyesore”. She said: “These flats will tower over all surrounding buildings and dominate the local area. You want to optimise the view for these new private tenants… at the cost of our [town] square.”
Of the 538 flats set to be built, 99 will be available at “discount market rent” up to 80% of the market rate. Rachael argued even this was beyond her own means and that the towers would act as a “reminder of what we can’t afford” for many local people.
Although within the scheme itself the share of ‘affordable’ housing will be just 18%, the developer has committed to spend £7.3m on creating discounted homes elsewhere in Waltham Forest, bringing its total provision to 27.7%. At least two councillors questioned whether this was enough.
Three years ago Mayor of London Sadiq Khan intervened to help raise the affordable housing level on the previous plans for The Mall from 20% to 30%. He may still reject the new plans under City Hall’s ‘call in’ powers.
A long-time opponent of the plans, Adrian Stannard, said the scheme was “designed to solve the council and Capital & Regional’s financial problem” and would not help the 9,000 borough residents waiting for social housing. He told the committee: “This will take at least five years to construct and the noise and pollution will result in significant damage to the town centre as it will drive away existing shoppers.
“This is not fit for purpose, especially in a post-Covid world with online shopping, and after the Grenfell tragedy. How to build safe tower blocks is not clearly understood.”
Like many, Adrian was angry that the new development will reduce open space in Walthamstow Town Square by almost a third, arguing this will make it “unviable for open air events”.
The committee also heard from the chief executive of Capital & Regional, Lawrence Hutchings, who said the company was “deeply invested in the local community”. He said: “We have owned the mall for over 20 years and plan to own it for at least another 20. Our commitment is to create a better Walthamstow, a better town square and a better mall.”
He said the scheme would be built “in accordance with the most up-to-date” fire safety laws, with no combustible materials and with sprinklers included.
The council’s deputy planning manager, Stanley Lau, responded to concerns about whether it was wise to invest in shopping centres post-Covid by asking members to take a “long-term strategic approach”. He said: “There has been a change in retail patterns but we will not be in this pandemic position forever. It’s actually in this council’s interest to revitalise the commercial element in the town centre.”
Committee member Marie Pye told officers she was “incredibly disappointed” they did not push “those couple inches further” to get cheaper rents but said The Mall did need rebuilding.
She said: “I do not know how many of you have visited The Mall lately but it’s a sad and, I’m afraid to say, horrible place. If it is not redeveloped then it has no hope at all.
“My inbox is full of residents living in poor quality and incredibly expensive accommodation, many of whom would bite your arm off to get into this scheme.
“People are paying £2,000 a month to live somewhere you would not want a dog to live. This is going to be good quality housing.”
Committee chair Jenny Gray said the council needed to provide homes for those “not eligible to be on the housing waiting list”. The Labour councillor said: “We can’t build council houses unless we have money to do so and it’s only through enabling schemes like this that we can draw in money to build much-need social housing.
“It’s also important to have a town centre that we can be proud of, instead of what we have got at the moment. The [current] square is a bit disjointed and not very pleasant, with not many places to sit down.”
The plans were approved by a vote of four to one, with only Conservative group leader Alan Siggers voting against, as he did previously in 2017. Two new conditions were added, however, to ensure homes for wheelchair users were marketed first to people that need them, and that all fire doors have 60-minute fire resistance.
A second planning application, for the new tube station entrance, was approved by all councillors on the committee, although Labour member Keith Rayner expressed concern that the council had no guarantee it would go ahead.
The new entrance with step-free access requires an estimated £15million in funding from TfL, which last year received a £1.8billion bailout from the government after its finances were hit by the pandemic. Cllr Gray conceded that the committee “can’t control the finances, now or in the future, of TfL” but said the new entrance “certainly will not ever get built” if refused planning permission.