After housing / homelessness, and of course the dreaded parking, one of the most common things that people contact Seyi and me about in our roles as councillors is about the physical appearance of Forest Gate. Whether that is about litter and fly tipping, or asking for more planting, or letting us know when pavements and roads need repairs, or often talking about the high street and what we might do to improve it.
I should start by saying that I love Woodgrange Road. Obviously that’s a politician’s line, but it is genuine. When I lived elsewhere I found the lack of choice in local shops very frustrating, and I love being able to buy cheap fruit and vegetables, I love the range of different things for sale, I find the local Co Op to be something of a tardis; though small, it sells almost everything I ever need. I love the new cafes and eateries that are opening (I am in fact writing this from CoffeE7 which functions as my unofficial local office). I love the market. Ok. You get the picture.
But even I will admit, in my fervour, that there are a few things that could be improved. Though my knowledge here is small and still growing, I am sure I could already write a short novel on high streets and the potential for and the limits of local government influence, and I will come back to some other common issues and blog again – I promise. What I want to focus on today is the appearance of buildings, particularly shop fronts.
Last year I did a ‘walkabout’ with an officer from Regeneration and we were discussing some areas of potential for improvements. One thing that she pointed out to me was that many shop fronts were not complying with local bye-laws. For example, they had advertising in their windows that took up more than 20% of the space, they had over-sized signage, they had stickers and advertising on the pilasters between the shops. I have to admit I had no idea that there were restrictions on this kind of thing, but once she’d opened my eyes to it I realised that the cumulative effect of these things was that they cluttered up the high street, did not look attractive, and generally, to use planning parlance, had a detrimental impact on how things looked. And that’s without the obvious things like crumbling upper storeys, and buddleia growing out of window ledges etc.
I already knew that there was a project on Romford Road which was part of what is termed the ‘Linear Gateway’ project, to improve the main routes into the borough. So we asked Planning Enforcement whether there was any scope to do something similar on Woodgrange Road. I have to admit to being really pleased and more than a bit surprised when the answer was – yes.
So officers are now working on a project, which extends from Wanstead Flats down over the Romford Road, into Upton Lane. The first stage was an initial survey done in person, accompanied by an information letter and leaflet to the properties. The next is a detailed letter, with photographs, which is sent to every property that needs attention. All affected properties have now been written to outlining what actions need to be taken. (If you have received one of these and have any questions, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org )
Obviously this comes at a cost, not only from the time spent by Planning Enforcement Officers, which is considerable. There is also a cost to our small businesses in bringing their buildings up to the required standard, and I know some businesses will not welcome an additional expense. However, I am reassured that in most cases the work required can be undertaken cheaply (removing offending advertising stickers, for example, is free) and weighing it up, it seems to officers and to me that not only does the benefit outweigh the cost, but also that there a is as positive benefit to Forest Gate as an area for local businesses if the street is smarter and better cared for. When added to the physical work that will take place around the station, and the road resurfacing that will take place as part of Keep Newham Moving, this should make a real difference.
So we are really hoping that this is going to be really positive, and have a visible impact on Forest Gate. (Please let us know if you notice this… or indeed if you disagree!)