So, here we go again.

AE17 was to a large extent born off the back of the approval of the Travelodge tower at Walthamstow Central almost six years ago.  As architects and others working in the built environment, we naturally get excited about new things and well considered, rigorously designed buildings and infrastructure, and so it wasn’t so much the idea of a tall building at this location per se that got us down, it was just the mediocrity, the lack of vision and apparent disregard for the views of the local community in having it pushed through, seemingly as development for development sake.  It was boring and uninspiring, and if you’re going to have a new focal point at a town centre and city nodal point, it is here more than any place that it should be trailblazing and setting the standard for the future development and regeneration it was touted to encourage.
On Wednesday this week, the Waltham Forest Planning committee will consider the application for increased retail space and residential uses at The Mall, and, yes, we are here again.
We’ve posted previously our comments to the applicant after a discussion about the proposals in February 2017, and our response to the formal application in July.   It is clear that there is similar discontent about the proposals in all parts of the community.  This is not unusual with large development schemes, and as practicing professionals we are used to this, even like here where it can be established that there is decent scope for improvement on the existing condition.  However what grates fundamentally is a loss of opportunity to achieve something really special, given a private investor who wants to spend money and the not over-stated need to provide housing and improved town centre facilities.
A number of concerns linger, and once again these are generally concerning due process rather than the detail.  The idea of building at height here is not necessarily a problem, and good tall buildings going up both in central and outer London show that it can be acceptable if done well, and the implications carefully considered. Whilst not to everybody’s taste, Croydon is successfully delivering a cluster of tall buildings that has been thoroughly tested through urban capacity studies. Sutton, not too dissimilar to Walthamstow in terms of scale has devised its own Tall Building Strategy that is being carefully scrutinised through the Local Plan process as we speak. Brent has been through a similar process in Wembley. No need in Walthamstow. We just put them up and decide how they look afterwards.
We have fundamental issues about the idea of an outline application for the residential towers. Outline means just that. A concept without detail. The developers have submitted a “design code” but a development of this scale should undoubtedly include the most intricate level of detail for its impact to be properly discussed and understood. What cornerns us equally is that this is funadentally about delivering new housing. However the outline element is effectively a second phase that may never get delivered if it is fraught with viability issues associated with developing over a busy operational shopping centre, which itself sits over the Victoria line. So what are we left with? About a third of our public square eaten away by multi-national chain retailers?
We followed The Mall public consultation events, staged by the applicant’s skilled team.  There did seem to be some genuine space for input into the design of the public space, but to questions about the legitimacy of such a loss of public space to retail use, and strategic proposal of residential high rise?  Nothing.  That the only thing stopping the towers going higher are technical servicing and structural practicalities, and that therefore there is no contextual analysis leading what the height and massing might be, and this determining the design?  Nope.
Of course, this decision is already made by the time such consultation is carried out, and as far as these kind of consultation exercises is concerned, can only be merely tinkering at the edges.  It was hard for us to tell what exactly was significantly changed as a result of the consultation; surface materials of the public space, design of the landscaping?  Maybe, but this hardly makes this proper consultation with the community about how they think their urban environment might develop.  Ask around and many are sympathetic with the need to increase housing supply, but not at the expense of a loss of what local residents understand as being important about the place they live in.
Sadly, it is the same apparent disregard for process when it comes to the council’s CABE run Design Review Panel.  It was with some interest and hope that we were happy to see the council set this up, with CABE last year.  It is a concept that we as individual professionals in the group have lots of experience in other boroughs and understand how effective they can be, both on panels and the other side of the table.  A team of architects, landscape and urban designers, working most often on a pro-bono basis (although not CABE run panels), advise applicants from an independent perspective on behalf of the council, addressing general design, strategic moves, and probably most importantly, questioning developers briefs to their design team.  When used most effectively the panel is an asset to a council, and often a planning department is not prepared to put a project to the planning committee until the review panel gives its approval, often after multiple reviews over months of design development.
At the Mall development the last DRP review took place in March 2017.  The report clearly shows that they still have considerable misgivings about the design, but the planners seem to be content to accept minor to modest changes to proposals as a result of the process, and the applicant’s response to the panel. CABE review comments are carefully considered, and this report is seriously damning, make no mistake.  It is not just asking for a few changes around the edges, it is suspect about major aspects of the design; they do not believe the design to be exemplorary and request a fresh start with  more response to the existing context, have issues with loss of public space, over-devlopment, and nature of the outline application.  It’s a back-to-the-drawing-board response, and no doubt sits frustratingly after three review panel sessions where their comments have not been taken seriously.  In other boroughs a developer and his team would be sent away to think again before further design reviews.
With some fanfare and laudable if very broad objectives, Waltham Forest launched a “Design Charter” in 2016. Surely the method of enforcing this is via their own DRP?  Here then, the set-up unfortunately seems to be a bit of sham.  Some advice, where possible to integrate easily, has been taken on board, but the role of a DRP, on behalf of the council, should be able to fundamentally question very basic strategy, not comment on the choice of wallpaper, colour of paint, or twiddly bits on roofs.  Sadly, this might be what WF think ‘architecture’ is.
And so we come to the planning committee meeting, where the poor planning committee, at the end of several years of discussion and negotiation between the applicant and team, and the planing and regeneration departments, are supposed to understand the full extent of the proposals sufficiently to agree to their planning officer’s recommendation to approve them.  With public interest high, no doubt the hall will be busy, rightly, with very vocal aggrieved residents and voters.  Whatever the decision made, here is the knife-edge summit of the process that works for no-one; input from the community is too late for the council to process, and too late for the applicant, who, having been guided by the council officers over years of development, and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants guided by their collaboration, might have it all turned on its head by the councillors whose very leaders direct their officers.  What a mess.
It seems to be a numbers game only unfortunately; it’s about getting housing built, without any real masterplanning or the council, as representatives of their community, taking the upper hand directing private investment in strategic, joined-up, sustainable and contextual development.  This week is about getting a decision made as far in advance of next year’s local elections as possible, and pleasing the developers the council are dancing with.
Towers could be ok, the whole of the Mall could be rebuilt with housing above to a modest 5/6 storeys with some accented height, the public space could be designed with properly considered perimeter buildings, even a design destination and something of local pride.  It could be a public space integrated into the existing context, somewhere really ‘Walthamstow’, whilst still appreciating the need to intensify London’s outer centres and developed idea of what public spaces in these locations might be.    At least there could have been something tall and beautiful that might make take your eye off the Travelodge.

A few links that might be of interest:

Details about the committee meeting.
Committee and officer’s report and recommendation to the committee.
Review of the proposals by OpenDalston.
Report in the WF Echo about affordable allocation.

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