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Brexit Walthamstow: The Smell of Property Developers' Fear

13/07/2016 10:52

For a few fleeting seconds last week, I thought something good had actually happened as a result of the Leave vote. A private message on Facebook came through from a neighbour; "Just to give you the heads up..." it said, "...they've cancelled/suspended the Marlowe scheme. One word. Brexit." As I gawped at my phone and made a noise only audible to dogs, our surveyor's number flashed up; calling me with the same news. A hand-delivered letter confirming it arrived shortly after from Ken Jones, Director of Housing at the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

If you've read my blog previously you'll know that "the Marlowe scheme" has been looming ominously over my community in Walthamstow for a couple of years now. Bafflingly described by local MP Stella Creasy as "community-led regeneration", it spells the death knell for dozens of privately-owned homes (including my own), community space, thriving local businesses and three children's play areas, which supposedly must be sacrificed in order for the London Borough of Waltham Forest's "development partner" Countryside to knock down some council homes and build significantly less council homes in their place.

Many of us fought the development tooth and nail but our numbers dwindled as time went on; compulsory purchase orders are frighteningly expensive and complex to challenge. We were one of the last families to agree a price - we had to go to the wire with that CPO to get close to what our house is worth. It shouldn't have been so stressful, or so hard.

Agreeing the price is only the start of a new, fresh hell - as most people who have ever bought property in England will know. Even the simplest transaction means months of conveyancing, a process akin to firing banknotes indiscriminately out of a blunderbuss at various mansplaining shits in shiny suits, hoping - often vainly - that there will be something tangible to show for it at the end. First, however, there's the house hunt. Even I, nosy parker that I am, was quite looking forward to that bit.

The first house knocked that tiny sliver of optimism out of me. Cramped, dilapidated and nicotine-stained, it stank overwhelmingly of hair. One bedroom was entirely filled with dozens of sinister porcelain dolls; another with a fully decorated nine-foot Christmas tree (it was the end of January). Far more deserving of demolition than our bright, spacious family home, it was on with Foxtons for the same price as we'd been offered for ours.

After that, the near-misses and disappointments came thick and fast. The compact yet beautifully decorated home with around forty different incense burners and reed diffusers, clearly masking the stench of death. The big, shabby ex-rental house that we pulled out of after our offer was accepted, ostensibly because it once had subsidence but in actuality because I belatedly realised that buying a house on a 40 mph main road when you own two exceptionally stupid cats is a really, really bad idea. The stunning huge Victorian terrace that was too good to be true for that price (Chimney of Damocles).

When we saw The One, the one that felt like home, the one we liked even more than what we have, I sat in my car on the driveway of the current Casa Briggs for a long time afterwards, tearfully and silently apologising to the lovely home we were giving up on. And then I pulled myself together, berated myself for saying sorry to bricks and started the tedious process of buying the new house.

So it was five months later - and days away from the exchange of contracts - when we got the news that Countryside were "unable to commence development" as a result of the "current national situation." To say my feelings were mixed is an understatement. Initially euphoric at the thought of our house, our local playground, being spared demolition, I then felt anger about the people who had already been forced out of the community; the decent homes that have sat boarded up for months. Latterly, it hit me that this could mean for us many more years of limbo, stuck in a home we would ultimately once again be required to vacate once the economy picked back up. And what about the thousands of pounds we'd already spent on the purchase of the new place, money we would only get back from the council in the event of a completion?

Naively, it never crossed my mind that the developer would pull out of the scheme. We heard so many times from the council and Stella that the regeneration was all about building social housing - not profit. But Countryside isn't a non-profit organisation.

Yet forty-eight hours after the shock announcement, Countryside were back on board and, bizarrely, quoted as claiming that they had always been. A spokesperson from the developers told the Waltham Forest Echo that, "A junior member of the project team incorrectly briefed Waltham Forest Council. Unfortunately, by the time this error was spotted, letters to residents had already been issued. A new letter with correct information is being sent out this week."

The "correct information" is that the bulldozers will arrive in September. Sorry about that, everyone! Bit of an admin error. But when you're the Director of Housing for a London Borough, of course you're going to believe an office junior when they tell you your £180 million partnership is on hold possibly forever because, you know, Brexit. No need to check with anyone more accountable before you ring the lawyers and mailshot an entire community.

Of course I'm being sarcastic. Something stinks here and no amount of Airwick diffusers and joss sticks can disguise that waft. At the time of writing, a week later, no new letter has materialised. Most of my remaining neighbours still think their homes are safe. Many of them are temporarily-housed social tenants who now think they can stay on Marlowe Road.

I need to blog about this, I told my husband a few days ago in the pub. But I don't know how, I said. It's just a rambling stream of angry consciousness, what's the overriding message? He paused, sipped his gentrified Walthamstow pint and replied: contempt. Disrespect. The utter lack of empathy that's been a consistent theme throughout this whole experience, especially from those we elected to represent us.

Yesterday we exchanged. I guess that makes us the "lucky" ones. We finally get closure. I dread to think how it will be for others affected by CPO now; what risible price will they be offered in today's economy? And how many affordable and social rent homes will be sacrificed to keep development partners sweet across the UK?

The property game was a ruthless one before the EU referendum. It might be about to become immeasurably worse.

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