Opponents of plans to redevelop a famous north London greyhound racing arena are looking to the law and the communities secretary for help
When I last wrote about the row between the Labour-run borough of Waltham Forest and the various opponents of the plan it backs to have the famous Walthamstow greyhound racing stadium redeveloped by the housing association London and Quadrant (L&Q), the area’s two MPs Stella Creasy (Labour) and Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative) were due to meet communities secretary Eric Pickles to ask him to intervene. Duncan Smith, who is also the work and pensions secretary, had told protesters outside the stadium, “This is not over.”
Both he and Creasy believe that an alternative plan, which envisages reviving the stadium as a greyhound racing and social venue and also supplying new homes on the site which, though smaller in quantity than those planned by L&Q, would almost all be more affordable. The alternative plan, proposed by a consortium led by millionaire businessman and dog-racing enthusiast Bob Morton, is also strongly backed by a campaign group Save Our Stow.
Here’s what happened next.
The day before Creasy and Duncan Smith met Eric Pickles, Waltham Forest’s leader Chris Robbins wrote to him saying he would “welcome the opportunity” to discuss any questions he might have about the L&Q application the council had approved and asserting that, “there have been no viable alternative schemes put forward.” The letter was obtained by Save Our Stow (SoS) through a Freedom of Information request. It has annoyed them a great deal.
One reason for this is the letter’s somewhat disparaging reference to “a small but vocal group of people,” lobbying against the L&Q scheme. That group includes not only SoS and the two local MPs who, being from different parties, aren’t often on the same side, but also the local residents’ and community association, which objects to the density and height of the buildings in L&Q’s application.
The other reason, more fundamental, is Robbins’s indirect dismissal of Morton proposals. His claim that no viable alternative exists echoes what Boris Johnson had written in a letter to the borough on 30 October informing it that he would not use his mayoral powers to direct refusal of the application or to determine it himself.
What makes the Labour council leader and the Conservative London mayor so sure the Morton plan isn’t viable? Part of the answer is a document compiled for the mayor by a department of the French banking group BNP Paribas, which has a global headquarters in London. Dated 25 October, it is self-described as “a review” of an assessment of the Morton proposals conducted on behalf of L&Q by the real estate service specialists Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). This assessment had concluded that Morton’s plans did not stack up financially. BNP Paribas’s review of JLL’s work concluded that it was “reasonable and appropriate” and concluded:
On the basis of the very limited information that has been provided, we concur with JLL’s assessment that the Morton Proposals do not constitute an economically viable proposition for the site.
This does not impress SoS at all. They complain that the mayor’s view of the viability or otherwise of the Morton proposals – which they they say have, in any case, been revised since the JLL assessment – should have been based on the proposals themselves rather than a review of an assessment that had been commissioned by L&Q, which has firmly rebuffed all attempts by Morton to purchase the site from them over a four-year period. Duncan Smith and Creasy too insist that Morton could bring the stadium back to profitable life.
Duncan Smith has been scathing about L&Q’s refusal to sell to the Morton consortium, calling it, “Outrageous that a social housing provider thinks it can just sit here and carry on with this when nobody wants it.” He has cast doubt on the housing association’s commitment to the scheme and claimed that it is on course to make a loss of up to £24m, something he considers particularly unacceptable in an organisation that receives public funds. L&Q, of course, takes a very different view and says it is “confident” it will eventually be able to fund the community improvements written in to its plans.
Duncan Smith has also been highly critical of Boris Johnson, saying, rather pointedly, that his inaction betrayed a lack of leadership qualities. He, Creasy and Save Our Stow emphasise that L&Q’s own plans have been separately assessed as loss-making by JLL even when the £18m the housing association paid for the site in 2008 is excluded from the calculations, although Johnson has said, to Duncan Smith’s disbelief, that the scheme will probably break even in the end.
All parts of the opposition are furious that Waltham Forest moved with striking speed to complete its approval of the L&Q application following Johnson’s decision not to intervene. This effectively prevented any formal appeal to Pickles to step in where Johnson had declined to. Pickles had previously indicated to the Waltham Forest Guardian that he was unlikely to step in, yet his department too seemed unimpressed by Waltham Forest’s actions, describing the borough as having moved “unusually and unreasonably swiftly.”
What next? In a joint statement issued after their meeting with Pickles, Creasy and Duncan Smith said that, “The Secretary of State listened and understood our situation and has asked officials to look into how the Council handled the case. We felt positive after the meeting and we remain determined that the fight is not over.” However, they’ve heard nothing since. Meanwhile, the residents and community association is taking steps towards making a legal challenge.
The whole saga highlights important questions about the workings of local authorities, the powers and responsibilities of the London mayor, the principles that ought to guide urban development decisions and the role of housing associations in London (and elsewhere). More on all of this in the New Year.