Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers

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Located in leafy Leytonstone only a few minutes walk from the Central Line station on the edge of Zone 3, the Montague Road estate consists of two 17-storey towers named (after two local councillors) Fred Wigg and John Walsh. The estate provides 234 homes, 225 of which are council flats for social rent, and 9 leasehold. 160 residents have secure tenancies, 65 residents are homeless families in temporary accommodation, and the remaining 9 are either leaseholders or, as with 40 per cent of Right to Buy properties, private tenants renting from them.

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Having been identified by Waltham Forest Labour Council as a ‘high priority’ estate in 2010, three options were put forward for the Montague Road estate:

Option 1. Refurbishment of the existing estate, costing £10 million;

Option 2. Complete demolition and redevelopment, which was deemed not to be financially viable;

Option 3. Transformational refurbishment, gutting the towers and redeveloping them, costing £44 million.

In November 2014 the Council voted to go ahead with Option 3. The plan is to build a new block, 6 storeys high, containing 40 new flats for social rent, making a total of 274 flats, then strip the 117 homes in each of the existing two towers and refurbish them, with one tower being reserved for homes for social rent for the existing tenants, and the other being turned into luxury apartments for sale on the private market. Two-thirds of the cost of this ‘transformational refurbishment’ are earmarked to be paid through the sale of all the flats in this private tower, 20 per cent of which will be for shared ownership. The rest will be council ― which is to say, public ― money. This Option represents roughly a 30 per cent reduction in homes for social rent on the estate; and at 1000 habitable rooms per acre (HRA), the resulting housing density will be far above the normally allowed figure for a location with a Public Transport Accessibility Level of around 2, which suggest a density of around 300-400 HRA.

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However, these proportions are all dependent on future viability assessments, and the current viability assessment, which was conducted by real estate firm Savills in 2014, has been kept private from residents. At the moment, leaseholders are being offered the Right to Return, and around 117 of the existing residents on secure tenancies will be re-housed in one of the refurbished towers and the new 6-storey block. The remaining 43 residents on secure tenancies are to be offered new tenancies elsewhere, either in the borough or outside, with many residents having already taken the option to be decanted. However, following legislation in the Housing and Planning Act, these new tenancies are likely to be fixed-term tenancies that are reviewed by the council every 2-5 years. Even more seriously, the 65 homeless residents will be re-housed in temporary accommodation, most likely in hostels, most likely outside the borough. Waltham Forest currently has 2,200 families in temporary accommodation, a number that has increased by 700 in the last two years alone; and nearly half (49 per cent) of homeless families have been rehoused outside the borough, the second worse example of this practice in London.

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Having vaguely referred to ‘current issues’, although without saying what these are beyond listing them as ‘social and environmental’ and ‘health and safety’, the Council has said that Option 3, for ‘transformational refurbishment’, will improve the condition of the existing tower blocks, although they do not say for whom, as well as the surrounding area, through ‘very high quality’ design (and presumably equally high cost). They specifically refer to the Council’s discussions with Network Rail to improve the quality of the properties and bring in ‘new tenants’ who will achieve what they call a ‘more balanced community’.

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The Council has repeatedly refused to hold a ballot of residents; but in an independent ballot held by Waltham Forest Trades Council in May 2015, on a 60 per cent turnout residents voted 3-1 against Option 3 and in favour of Option 1, for the refurbishment of their long neglected homes.

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At a resident meeting on 20 July to which ASH was invited, Jonathan Speed, a former surveyor with PRP Architects and member of the Woodberry Down Regeneration Team, and now Waltham Forest Council’s Housing Delivery Programme Manager, spoke for 45 minutes. Even we, however, had trouble understanding him, because of the unnecessarily obscure and technical jargon he employed. What the residents, many of whom have English as a second language, made of his presentation is anyone’s guess, but several walked out in disgust. As anyone who has attended more than a handful of these types of meetings knows, this is a tactic consistently used by Labour Councils in their dealings with residents in order to misinform and demoralise them.

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When he finished his presentation, such as it was, we asked Jonathan Speed what the estimated price of the new properties is. He said that he didn’t know, but that the Council is committed to building high-quality homes for middle-income buyers. We asked if that meant apartments for around £450,000, and he agreed that was a reasonable estimate. We then asked him where the 2,200 families in temporary accommodation (2,265 when the 65 on Montague Road estate are evicted) came in the Council’s properties. He didn’t respond.

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Jonathan Speed had spoken throughout as if the deal is already done, and Option 3 was going ahead, so we pointed out several times that residents still haven’t been asked for their opinion or balloted, and we suggested they write to Sadiq Khan to remind him that he made resident support a condition of any estate regeneration scheme. Most of our presentation was about the unlikelihood of residents being re-housed in the newly refurbished towers following further viability assessments, and told them about how the same company, Savills, managed to reduce the Heygate estate’s 1,100 council homes to 79 for social rent. We also pointed out that, given the decanting sequence the Council is suggesting ― in which the building of the additional block must precede the decanting and gutting of the first tower, which will then be followed by the decanting and gutting of the second tower ― residents and neighbours will experience at least 10 years of living on or next to a building site that will do untold damage to their health. Given that a children’s playground sits directly opposite the towers, and the playing fields on Wanstead Flats behind are used by local sports groups, we suggested families in the area, not least in the terraced houses on Montague Road, should be alerted to what the Council is proposing.

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We then indicated that far from exhausting all options in the 3 they have considered, the Council has ignored the most obvious solution. This was that rather than just a 6-storey block, several additional developments on the large amount of estate land currently being used as car parking space (which could be moved underground), would not only increase the housing capacity on the estate, but generate sufficient funds to refurbish the existing towers without reducing the number of homes for social rent or evicting the existing residents. On the contrary, we could increase the number of homes for social rent. In a borough with 2,200 families in temporary accommodation and 20,000 households on the waiting list for housing, we suggested this should be a higher priority for the Council than building ‘high quality’ homes that no-one in the neighbourhood, and certainly no-one on the Montague Road estate, can afford to buy or rent.

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Jonathan Speed admitted that Walthamstow Labour Council had not considered this option. However, he did not stay around to discuss our suggestion afterwards, but got up and quickly left.

Architects for Social Housing

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