Why is everybody moving to Waltham Forest?

It has the fastest-rising house prices in the UK, but it isn't easy to love Waltham Forest. Rhodri Marsden ponders the approaching cupcake revolution on his doorstep

Rhodri Marsden@rhodri
Wednesday 16 July 2014 12:42
End of the rainbow: the best thing about E17 is no longer ‘that you can leave it quickly’
End of the rainbow: the best thing about E17 is no longer ‘that you can leave it quickly’

As the Tour de France peloton careered down the hill from Epping Forest in the direction of the Olympic Park in Stratford, the borough of Waltham Forest was treated to a display of community cohesion that it hadn't seen in years.

People emerged from their homes with deckchairs, setting them up by the side of the road, sitting patiently, chatting among themselves and offering passing strangers a biscuit, or a plastic cup of fizzy pop. I'd never seen anything like it along the rather nondescript stretch of Lea Bridge Road where I've lived for just over a year. It was wonderful for as long as it lasted – which, given the almighty speed of the participating cyclists, wasn't that long. But shortly afterwards, we were back in our homes, living our own lives, unwilling and perhaps unable to celebrate the area in which we live, an urban sprawl with somewhat arbitrary borders, overseen by elected MPs and councillors.

But despite that lack of allure – or certainly an allure that's kept very well hidden – Waltham Forest is seeing an influx of people desperate to buy property. Across Leyton, Leytonstone, Chingford and Walthamstow, prices have seen the highest annual increase in the UK, of more than 26 per cent, driven up by huge demand.

> London house prices: Land Registry figures reveal the average cost of buying now tops £439,000

Market forces: more affordable properties, not a sense of local identity, are bringing buyers to E17

More by luck than by judgement I managed to beat that rush by a few months, but my reason for moving here was simple; it was cheaper than everywhere else. Nothing else mattered to me. In the maelstrom of madness that is the property market of the South-east, price is everything and extraneous factors are meaningless. The available properties in my price range were all clustered in Waltham Forest, so Waltham Forest it was. And here I am, happy to have somewhere to live, but feeling curiously detached from my surroundings. That's hardly an atypical feeling in a city as big as London, but I'd certainly be interested in developing some civic pride, if only I knew what the hell I should be proud of.

Waltham Forest Council has identified this as an issue, and as a result it has been working hard on creating a "Place Brand" to make residents feel that they're in an area of value, of high cultural worth. That is by no means an easy task.

At a launch event at the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park this week, they assembled a disparate collection of artwork and photography, creative artists and zealous entrepreneurs, intended to give a flavour of the mysterious East (London). Local artist Anna Alcock is demonstrating screen printing, the Wild Card Brewery is handing out free ale, there's hula-hooping, boxercising, a jazz band, an exhibition featuring a painting of Damon Albarn (who lived in Leytonstone for a brief period in the early 1970s) and much else besides.

Many of these things are good, verging on excellent, but they stop short of making me want to pull on a shirt emblazoned with Waltham Forest colours, whatever they may be, if indeed they exist at all. How on earth do you stamp a cultural identity on a place that merely exists for administrative purposes?

Are the residents even that bothered?

Not yet, it seems. It doesn't help that Waltham Forest is more of an artificial construct than most boroughs. "It was formed in 1965 when it was decided that the individual boroughs of Walthamstow, Leyton and Chingford were too expensive and couldn't exist any more," says Labour councillor Clare Coghill, the driving force behind the branding.

> Walthamstow: property area guide

That merger created some ferocious arguments over the borough's new name; while a Westminster edict stated that "complex names and artificial hybrids will not... commend themselves to public opinion nor attract loyalties", the first and somewhat hippyish suggestion was "Forestlea". That was turned down by the local government minister, while "Borough of Walthamstow" was vetoed by fiercely partisan Chingfordites and Leytonites.

The minister eventually chose Waltham Forest. "It's never really made sense to anybody," says Coghill. "People don't think that they live in Waltham Forest – they think of themselves as being in Leyton, Leytonstone, Chingford or Walthamstow – and we don't really want to spend the next 15 years trying to make them believe that."

So, in a spirit of diplomacy, the council has given each of the four areas equal weight on a natty lapel badge in the shape of a signpost as part of its branding exercise – but it still leaves the question of what I should be celebrating. If I think about it hard for a minute or two, I find myself repeatedly suppressing thoughts of 1990s boy-band East 17. Once I've managed that, I can't really come up with anything other than good transport links. That plus-point is certainly recognised by council leader Chris Robbins. "I've lived in the borough for nearly 40 years," he says, "and there was a time when people said that the best thing about Waltham Forest was that you could get out of it quickly. But over recent years, we've changed that. People want to come to us."

A street scene in Chingford

It's clear that people are arriving here in droves, but all the evidence points to that being for economic reasons, for reasons of affordability, rather than anything else. The problem that Robbins and his fellow councillors are wrestling with is how can they get these people to stay here, spend money here, put down roots here. To show a bit of pride.

"We recognise that there's a big influx to the area," says a council spokesperson, "but we want people to do more than just sleep here. Most people work outside the borough, and there isn't much of a night-time economy."

This is changing, albeit slowly; a development with the rather dubious name of The Scene (and the even more dubious tagline "Walthamstow's new lifestyle destination") is due to open in November, with a nine-screen cinema, a Pizza Express and a Nando's. At the mention of the ubiquitous chicken outlet, my automatic reaction is to snigger slightly. "Yes, but attracting big chains is a massive thing for us," I'm told, curtly. "And, finally, there'll be a cinema back in the borough! People will actually spend their evenings here, instead of heading into Central London."

According to Nick Bason, co-chair of local music event the Stow Festival, "That may be the case, but while there are big, spangly announcements about Pizza Express, there are empty units in the local shopping malls."

Bason's beef is how the council, and to some extent local estate agents, push a narrative about the borough as a desirable place to live, which then gets packaged up as marketing. "The cultural life of the borough is not created by estate agents," he says, "and the council can't rely on attracting people who are a bit groovy and have some disposable income and then hope that some great cultural infrastructure will pop up. It needs proper support. I remember back in 2010, the council identified The Standard [a local pub] as a key venue, a key part of the future of music life in the area. Today, it's boarded up."

Bason believes that pride in the borough will stem from the activities of its residents rather than its elected representatives, and he's been waving a flag on their behalf for a number of years. "I started a blog back in 2010 that focused on local cultural activities," he says, "trying to create an essential hub for listings, and I soon realised that there were a number of people who were passionate about the area. A narrative built up on social media about its identity, thanks to independent businesses, artists and our MP, Stella Creasy."

Creasy herself is, perhaps unsurprisingly, evangelical about her Walthamstow constituency and the borough in which it sits. "I don't know anywhere else in London where you'd have the E17 Art Trail," she says, of an annual exhibition of local artists' work. "That's an entirely grass roots-led project. Ten years ago, it was a couple of afternoons in people's houses; today it's 16 days long and has thousands of exhibiting artists."

I'm slowly warming to my borough, although the term "Awesomestow", regularly bandied about online in an annoyingly cute fashion by local residents, is one that I've developed a visceral reaction towards.

Bason, laughing, informs me that he's the one who coined it. "I agree, it's excruciating," he says. "But at the same time, it's been useful on a practical level – it's a good term to search for online to find out about interesting stuff that's going on." I perform a Twitter search and immediately find out about capoeira classes, ethical dressmaking, handmade greetings cards and a silent disco. As a sickeningly middle-class bloke, I think, "fantastic!" – while at the same time recognising that it screams "gentrification!" I worry that I scream gentrification. That this whole article screams gentrification.

"The impact of the housing market on a local area can't be overestimated," says Dr Emma Jackson, research fellow at Urban Studies, Glasgow University. "That, coupled with incredibly insecure renting conditions, means that there's a constant churn of people being priced out of areas adjacent to Waltham Forest. When this gets discussed, people tend to focus on shops suddenly selling cupcakes and how bad that is, but they forget the bigger structural things that drive the movement of people."

The cupcake frontier has certainly reached Waltham Forest; indeed, you could say that the council's initiative is almost driven by the appearance of said cupcakes, a realisation that the demographic is changing and that action needs to be taken as a result. "Gentrification is both a good and bad thing," says Stella Creasy. "Yes, I want money moving to the area, because there's a lack of local jobs and a high level of young unemployment – but I want that to be inclusive."

Jackson also stresses how important this is. "Existing local residents might like the new coffee shops, the new cinema or the theatre, but they might not be able to afford to use them. They also need to know that rents aren't going to go up because all this stuff is arriving."

It's hard to bond with a city. Often impersonal, frequently annoying, occasionally violent, it constantly challenges any daydreams you might have of a friendly, caring neighbourhood where people sit outside their houses and share biscuits with passers-by. Whether branding exercises, multinational pizza joints or silent discos manage to engender that spirit is far from guaranteed, but I'm buoyed by the fact that I managed to experience a brief moment of shared excitement with my fellow Waltham Forest residents. It may have been down to a few cyclists in gaudy tops – but it's a start.

> London house prices: Land Registry figures reveal the average cost of buying now tops £439,000

> Search for homes for sale in the borough of Waltham Forest

> Search for homes to rent in the borough of Waltham Forest

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