These buildings must serve our community

Peter Sigrist comments on the plans to build 500 homes in Walthamstow town centre

The Mall redevelopment

Plans by Capital & Regional for an extension to The Mall in Walthamstow, which includes hundreds of new homes

William Morris once asked: “What kind of building is worth protecting?”

His answer to this question was vague enough to leave room for lively debate. He said: “Anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial; any work, in short, over which educated, artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue at all.”

So here we are, arguing about The Mall in Walthamstow. Morris wrote his words in his manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This was a cause he felt passionately about, not because he believed all ancient buildings were worth preserving, but because he was appalled at what too often went for ‘conservation’ in the 1870s.

Of many conservators of the day, he wrote acerbically: “The very nature of their task compels them to destroy something and to supply the gap by imagining what the earlier builders should or might have done.”

You see, Morris believed a building should stand before a conservationist on its merits as it was designed by the architect, not as it is interpreted by later defenders. And if a building “has become inconvenient for its present use,” well, instructed Morris: “Raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one.”

What would this William Morris have made of the dilapidated town square at the top of Selborne Walk, so unlovingly designed in the 1980s and now struggling to meet the needs of today’s families, children and teens? This is a square designed for leaving, not arriving.

To Morris, the answer would have been clear: “Raise another building!”

This is the spirit of renewal that has characterised Walthamstow since Morris’s day and before. This little corner of London has changed constantly since my grandfather was born and lived here (in Essex) before the Second World War, and will continue to shape-shift as it attracts new migrants from further down the Victoria Line, as well as from the wider world.

The town square development currently proposed for this space needs to demonstrate it meets the needs of local people. It must incorporate the demands that trees are protected. It is absolutely essential that the developers do not shirk their duty to meet targets set by the current Mayor of London, that 35 percent of new homes are “genuinely affordable”. If developers Capital and Regional shy away from that commitment, given the obvious gains they stand to make on private and commercial rent, local people should protest, and loudly.

But if the plans meet the needs of the local community, the scheme should be embraced, not lamented. The development must meet the needs of local people, but this includes those people who have not yet moved here. These are people who will join our wonderful and diverse Walthamstow family when they move into the new homes built on the site. People from all walks of life should be welcome here, to live, work, shop, and play together.

That’s the welcoming spirit of Walthamstow. It’s a spirit I feel confident would have been applauded by William Morris and it’s this spirit, not the dirty old town square, that deserves conserving.

The public consultation on plans for The Mall in Walthamstow town centre has been extended until October. To take part quote reference number 171355: