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Stewart Murray: 'Regeneration shouldn't be a dirty word'

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Terms like regeneration and gentrification have gained negative connotations in some circles in recent years, especially in London.

Existing residents are not against improvements per se, but anger and opposition can rear its head depending on how the process takes place.

“I’m not sure regeneration is a swear word in our borough,” says Stewart Murray, Waltham Forest LBC’s new strategic director of regeneration. “I know that it’s got a negative connotation in some other locations and maybe that’s reverberated.

“It’s semantics really because it’s about investment, renewal and improvement in our place and infrastructure - it’s about investment in our people, neighbourhoods and businesses.”

Mr Murray started working for Waltham Forest on 1 May, just two days before elections were held across London and other parts of the country. For Mr Murray regeneration is a “broad-ranging” and “ambitious” term that aims to make a “substantial economic impact” on the lives of residents and their future opportunities.

Waltham Forest has already come a long way in a short space of time - the number of creative businesses in the borough has doubled in the last five years, accounting for 16% of all its businesses - but Mr Murray has even bigger plans. Under current projections, the north-east London borough with a population of 275,000 aims to deliver 17,000 homes in 10 years with additional urban renewal projects looking to regenerate the borough’s cultural sector.

“We want to be the leading growth and regeneration borough, [the] place of choice for investment,” says Mr Murray.

To this end, the council received a £1m grant from London mayor Sadiq Khan (Lab) when it was named 2019 London Borough of Culture in February. Writing for LGC at the time, the council’s chief executive Martin Esom said: “Culture has the ability to create identity, community cohesion and a sense of place which is why even during these stringent times for local authority finances we have increased investment in our events programme as well as in our cultural infrastructure.”

Mr Murray says: “We want to become the most cultural destination in the country. This grant will also give a boost to our cultural investment, creating millions of pounds worth of investment in work-space, artists, and jobs in the creative sector.”

For Mr Murray, previously assistant director of planning for the Greater London Authority between 2012 and 2016, this vision will be delivered through a redesign of the borough’s public spaces. These spaces, intermittently referred to by Mr Murray as “vibrant investment areas” and “creative enterprise zones” throughout his interview with LGC, are essentially publicly created areas that businesses want to work in and criminals will want to avoid.

By way of example, Mr Murray describes how the council acquired a “semi-derilict” cinema in Walthamstow - “it wasn’t the most favourable place to walk past at night”, which the council will restore to “liven up that part of the town”.

“The off-shoot of that is more than a cultural investment, because it addresses core problems [such as crime] while also adding a cultural dimension to the town in an integrated and creative way,” says Mr Murray.

Outlining these ambitions is one thing, delivering is another. 

As a manager, Mr Murray describes himself as an “entrepreneurial and collaborative leader”, emphasising the need to “build alliances, create partnerships and lead by positivism”.

“I like to think I’m an innovative person who tries out new things, hence we’re setting up our own development company which will work much closer in intervening in the marketplace. We want to create opportunity and choice for everyone, not just the few,” he says.

Waltham Forest’s overall policy target is to ensure that 50% of all new homes built across the borough are affordable although he warns: “That’s not on every site, it doesn’t work in every site.”

So far, Mr Murray says, the council has been “broadly getting close” to that affordable housing target and is trying its “damnedest” to hit it in the future.

Yet according to local residents’ group Waltham Forest Citizens, even that affordable target doesn’t go far enough for local residents, with affordable housing prices “well out of the reach” of the average resident.

Mr Murray remains adamant his vision for regeneration must work for every resident in the borough.

“If anyone challenges me that regeneration is a dirty word, I think as long as it’s inclusive, takes our people with us, and offers opportunities for all our people then it’s not a dirty word - it’s inclusive investment in our people, borough, and our communities,” he says.

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