A plea from Sonia McKenzie and Saima Hussain, the chair and vice chair of Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers Tenants and Residents Association
Imagine two tower blocks with more than 200 flats. They are nothing fancy but the rooms are mostly a decent size and it is ‘home’ for hundreds of people.
Like most places in London, some people have moved in recently, while others have lived there for several years or maybe decades. You have fixed your flat, the way you want it. It is much higher density than the surrounding streets but you enjoy knowing lots of people.
Along comes the landlord. They want to do major works. You know that some things need to be done. The landlord hosts a couple of exhibitions. You go along. There is facepainting for the kids and smiling people show glossy ‘artists’ impressions’ of what the street could be like. There is very little detail. You later learn that the landlord has hired a firm to draw up some options. Their report is kept secret, but you manage to get hold of a copy.
One option is called ‘transformation’. It involves demolishing all the rooms in everyone’s homes, leaving just the the outside walls. Everyone would have to move out for at least three years, but five seems more realistic. It is a very expensive job, so some of the homes would be sold off to fund the work. Once complete, there would be about two rented homes for every three that exist now. It would mean fewer homes for the landlord to help provide a permanent address for those currently in temporary housing. The total number of homes, including those for private sale, would increase by about 120. The street is already more than twice as dense as the surrounding streets, but would become four times as dense. Already there are parking problems in the street. The landlord calls this ‘improving the neighbourhood’.
Another option is much more modest. It would do all the essential renovation works outside and inside the houses. People would not have to move away. The works would last for around 18 months and be much less disruptive. The cost is a small fraction of the ‘transformation’ option. It would not reduce the number of rented homes for people from temporary housing to move into. It would not worsen local parking problems.
You suggest that maybe the more modest option sounds better for you and your neighbours. The smile fades from the landlord’s face. You ask for copies of reports to see what exactly is proposed for your home. Nope, that’s ‘not possible’ because the report is ‘commercially sensitive’.
A week before the meeting which will decide between these options, you finally get to see what they are. Still no detail, just sketchy outlines. The landlord calls a meeting for people on the street to explain why ‘transformation’ would be good for them. People are far from convinced. They ask to be allowed to say what option they prefer, but the landlord says ‘no vote’. But people organise a vote anyway, at the public meeting called by the landlord. Among more than 100 people there, two-thirds vote for the more modest renovation option. The landlord ignores the views of these people and approves the ‘transformation’ regardless.
The people are a bit stunned that their homes are going to be demolished in the name of ‘improvement’. They ask an outside agency to hold a ballot for everyone who lives there. Most people vote and the result is three to one in favour of ‘modest improvement’. Again, the landlord ignores the result.
More than three years later, the landlord is still keeping quiet. The plans seem to have changed from three years ago, but for worse. They still include demolishing people’s homes. The landlord has not held a public meeting for almost three years, nor any meeting for other local residents facing years of disruption and pollution from building works.
Information leaks out about the costs. The share to be met by the landlord is £38million, more than three times the alternative option of ‘modest improvement’. If the alternative option were chosen the savings could fund 200 homes for rent more than what is proposed under the ‘transformation’ option. Moving that number of homeless people out of expensive temporary accommodation could save another £30m.
In case you hadn’t yet guessed, the landlord is Waltham Forest Council. The homes in question are the Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers, the tallest buildings in Leytonstone, where there are currently 234 council homes for social rent.
Despite the concerns and the costs listed here, the council is rushing on and planning to decide in February which of the developers’ (still secret) bids it most likes. This is before the changes in building regulations for high-rise blocks, following last year’s Grenfell Tower disaster, are known. The whole situation is reminiscent of what happened with Kensington and Chelsea Council before the disaster, when they ignored the views of people actually living in the tower block regarding the proposals for ‘improvements’ which ended up making their homes less safe and, ultimately, lethal.
Now we are calling on Waltham Forest Council to meet the following demands from tower residents:
- Scrap the extravagant and anti-social ‘transformation’ plan;
- Respect tenants’ views and put the option for ‘modest improvement’ back on the table;
- Wait to hear the outcome of the Grenfell Inquiry and the new building regulations before deciding on any plan;
- Make the process open and transparent, organising public meetings to consider the progress made.
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