Forest Gate developers Obsidian defend regeneration plans
PUBLISHED: 10:08 03 February 2012 | UPDATED: 10:19 03 February 2012
»The Forest Gate community have been fired up in recent months by regeneration plans that promise to entirely transform their surroundings.
Few people disagree with the need for regeneration when some parts of the area are in the top 10 per cent for poverty nationally and criminal offences are 20 per cent higher than in the rest of Newham but current plans have proved contentious.
The Recorder put residents’ suspicions to the developers Obsidian during a meeting at Newham Council’s Dockside offices, where Richard Cutler, development director, and Paul Dimoldenberg, public consultation manager, defended their proposals.
Ever since Obsidian’s plan surfaced, the company has faced public opposition from campaigns such as the Save Forest Gate Action Group, the most controversial aspect being a blueprint for a 27-storey tower block next to the proposed Crossrail station.
Mr Cutler says the tower block and other high-rise buildings are needed to generate revenue to fund the regeneration project.
He says: “Without the tall building, the scheme doesn’t work. We could have done something of a lower scale, two or three-storey houses, but it couldn’t have worked for viability.”
The team insist they have responded to concerns that high-rise structures would destroy the area’s Victorian heritage by hiring renowned heritage architect Robert Adams to work on the designs.
Residents can also expect a “community street” including a new doctor’s surgery, dental practice and funding for extra school classrooms to serve the needs of 775 new homes, about 100 of which be will be family houses.
A makeover of Woodgrange Road and Earlham Grove, parts of which are conservation areas, is also planned, with the Obsidian team declaring war on a surplus of chicken takeaways and betting shops.
Mr Cutler expresses sympathy for fast-food businesses angered by regeneration but emphasises that a weeding-out process is vital to rejuenvate the local economy.
He said: “I’d feel the same way [but] when you’re talking about regeneration and building towards the future, you have to accept that they are not an appropriate retail frontage. There are four betting shops in one stretch.”
Residents must not fear for all their local businesses, as Obsidian want to “keep the best of the existing fabric” including the popular Barry’s Meat Market.
Concerned Forest Gaters have argued that bringing in approved businesses would be just another step towards gentrification accompanying the arrival of Crossrail, excluding a large section of the existing community.
Insisting that the plans are based on current statistics, Mr Cutler responded: “What we are proposing will double the retail spend on Woodgrange Road. That assumption is not based on an increase in salaries either.
“We’re not bringing in a load of City workers to shop on Woodgrange Road. It’s based on the same people living in the same area and having the right offers locally.”
Mr Dimoldenberg, who has been deeply involved in the consultation process, said that people in Forest Gate constantly say they need “a high street that we can use”.
He continues: “The Forest Gate residents have told us what they think by leaving. The ultimate judgment by residents is in the fact they choose to shop elsewhere.”
Mr Cutler agreed, saying: “Everyone we speak to on the street tell us that they want somewhere to go on a Sunday afternoon, where they can walk their children to a coffee shop for a hot chocolate or whatever, and just enjoy urban village life.”
Obsidian also seeks to address crime and antisocial behaviour by holding meetings with Cllr Kay Scoresby, community groups and the police every six weeks to discuss the possibility of concierges and CCTV.
Criticism came from the Greater London Authority last month, arguing that various aspects need more discussion and claiming that the site was not “suitable for a tall building of this scale.”
In response, Mr Cutler says: “It’s clearly a finely balanced judgement by the GLA and we think when they publish stage two of the report in a week’s time, they’re going to say, ‘You’ve just about convinced us, well done’.”
Mr Dimoldenberg adds: “It’s a purely local issue which the mayor may have a view on but he shouldn’t need to step in because it doesn’t affect the rest of London, not even the rest of Newham.”
Mentions of “secret meetings” and the need for a “public-led” regeneration plan raise bemused expressions, prompting Mr Cutler to comment: “No one ever writes to say they love something. We have had a few positive letters from the people of Forest Gate but most people want to object and point out what’s wrong with something.
“In the consultations we’ve had, most people have come in angry and they’ve left understanding the issues.”
Mr Dimoldenberg insists: “Whatever people say, however they say it, we’re listening. There are some things we can change and revise and we will endeavour to do that wherever possible. But if someone is against it in principle, it’s very difficult to respond positively to that.”
Ultimately, Obsidian see the huge project as the only hope to transform Forest Gate to tackle the underlying causes of deprivation.
If granted planning approval on February 21, the developers will start constructing this year, starting with the high street.
Mr Cutler said: “Something needs to be done. We’ve just come out of a major growth period and nothing has happened to Forest Gate – it’s just gone backwards.
“Equally, no other scheme has come forward, or any other developer. If this doesn’t happen, nothing else will work for Forest Gate.”
They do not dare predict the council’s planning decision but stress: “If the people of Forest Gate want a change, then the offer is there.”