After a 15-year battle, our campaign in north London has rescued a vital community hub from the hands of developers
Last modified on Wed 11 Aug 2021 07.31 EDT
How we rebuild our high streets and town centres after the pandemic is one of the most urgent questions facing communities across Britain. The answer has often come in the form of corporate-led regeneration schemes that prioritise demolition, dispossess local communities, and provide scant “affordable” housing. To build a sustainable and inclusive economy, we need to move away from this model. In Tottenham, north London, a pioneering solution is under way that could provide an alternative.
After struggling for 15 years against a widely criticised regeneration plan, traders and residents in Tottenham have won the opportunity to restore a listed historic building and celebrated market for the benefit of the community. The Wards building opened in 1901 as one of London’s “grand department stores” and for decades formed an iconic gateway into Tottenham. Yet the construction of the Victoria line saw their compulsory purchase by Transport for London (TfL). They were derelict until 1985, when a market serving migrant communities opened on the ground floor. Years of underinvestment by TfL left the buildings dilapidated and in 2002, Haringey council designated the site for regeneration, with Grainger – one of Britain’s biggest build-to-rent developer – selected in 2004 as their preferred partner and awarded significant public funds to design proposals for the site.
Grainger’s plans would have demolished the entire Wards Corner block, including the locally listed Edwardian Wards building and Seven Sisters Indoor Market. Known locally as the Latin Village or Pueblito Paisa, the market is an important retail and cultural hub for London’s Latin American communities. A 2011 report by Trust for London found that 85% of London’s Latinx diaspora rely on the clusters of businesses at Seven Sisters and Elephant and Castle to directly experience their culture – with both areas threatened by intensive regeneration. This threat was underscored in 2017, when United Nations human rights experts warned Grainger’s plan would have “a disproportionate impact on people belonging to minorities and their right to equal participation in economic, social and cultural rights”.
Not a single affordable or social-rent home would have been provided at Wards Corner as part of Grainger’s scheme. Instead, it would have built 190 private flats and provided space for several chain stores, encouraged by planning policy that sought to gentrify the area, placing existing residents at risk of displacement. This outdated scheme was conceived in another era, before the pandemic accelerated the high street crisis that had been instigated by the shift to online retail, which has seen a 20% decline in high street visitors and 50,000 shops across the UK close in the past decade. Citing viability concerns and the changed economic landscape, Grainger’s withdrawal is a major victory for all those who want to see urban development for people, not profit.
The community plan to save the market and restore the Wards buildings, first developed by El Pueblito Paisa Ltd in 2007, evolved over several iterations through public meetings, workshops, and events before gaining planning permission in 2014 and again in 2019, when it received hundreds of letters of support. The fourth iteration of the plan, co-designed by the architectural cooperative Unit 38, would sustainably restore the existing buildings and provide over 3,000 sq metres of retail space and cafe space with an enhanced market at its heart, alongside 650 sq metres of affordable workspaces and new community facilities, including a childcare centre. On the wider site, there is the potential for social housing development in collaboration with the council and the community.
The buildings will be democratically owned and operated by a community benefit society led by local people on a one member, one vote basis. Grant funding, community shares and ethical investment will meet the estimated £12.9m cost of the refurbishment. Instead of extracting profits for remote shareholders, the surplus generated from the restored building will be reinvested in further community wealth-building initiatives in Tottenham: financial modelling commissioned by the West Green Road/Seven Sisters Development Trust suggests this could total as much as £84m over 60 years. The community plan represents more than the restoration of a neglected market and heritage building: it is a new, democratic model of urban development that benefits the people who live in an area, rather than distant corporate interests.
Now all efforts must turn to delivering the community plan as soon as possible. Since the compulsory purchase process began, the urban block earmarked for development has sharply deteriorated, with vacant or dilapidated units becoming magnets for fly-tipping and antisocial behaviour, market tenants victimised and existing residents evicted and left destitute. After the most recent market operator declared insolvency in 2020, TfL were forced to step in as operator as a last resort. It uncovered serious health and safety breaches – including fire safety, electrical and gas risks – which it said left the market too unsafe to open. The market remains closed, nearly 18 months later, leaving traders without access to their livelihoods, and the community without crucial support throughout the pandemic. It is therefore imperative that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, extends his financial hardship scheme for traders until a temporary or permanent market is in place, and for that market to be provided by the end of 2021.
We now call on Khan to join Haringey council in offering his full support for the community plan and ensuring that the future development of Wards Corner delivers the maximum benefit for local people. As we emerge from the pandemic to face the stark reality of the climate crisis, how – and for whom – we undertake urban development will be critical to building a sustainable and just economy. The Wards Corner Community Plan is a viable and coherent answer to this question, which could offer a model for communities across the country seeking to rethink urban change. The late David Graeber – a friend of the campaign – once wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in our cities.
Carlos Burgos, Victoria Alvarez and Myfanwy Taylor are trustees of the West Green Road/Seven Sisters Development Trust
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