Over the past five years, Waltham Forest has made dramatic progress on the Vibrant Economy Index, moving up from 286 to 162 in this year’s ranking. We want to make sure everyone shares in the borough’s growing vibrancy and prosperity – long-time residents and newcomers alike.
Enabling everyone to benefit
Ultimately, without people you don’t have a place. They’re what makes it vibrant. As the borough increases in prosperity, we’re working hard to promote equality and inclusion. An important part of this is encouraging people to work. Our adult learning service supports those whose first language is not English so they can access employment. We also work with Job Centre Plus, making sure people get the benefits they’re entitled to, but also helping them develop the skills they need to gain employment and avoid staying on benefits long-term. We’ve used our public health resource to keep our children's centres open and this Early Years investment is paying off. We aim to provide holistic support to parents and children, providing health, speech and language and early learning development services, with the majority of parents telling us they had become more confident as a result.
Investment in education
We also recognise the role of education in promoting dynamism and opportunity. Since 2012, £1 million has been invested in education to support existing schools and diversity in schools across gender and faith has been encouraged. Since then, education results have improved steadily. Today, the borough has no schools requiring improvement – and OFSTED rates them all as either good or outstanding.
A borough in flux
Waltham Forest is home to an ethnically diverse community. Many people have lived here for years and have deep roots in the community. But we’re also a borough in flux with a more affluent generation moving in. House prices are rising as a result and that makes it hard for the children of people who’ve lived here for years to buy property.
As a result, the council is largely supportive of planning applications for housing development but will always seek to maximise the number of affordable homes. We consider this the only way to bring forward new homes and associated infrastructure. But it’s become a huge political challenge.
As well as providing homes, we’re focused on improving the quality of the environment for residents. We are committed to planting more trees and now have more than 50,000 trees throughout the borough, and are investing in ‘mini Holland’ schemes to make our streets safer for walking and cycling. This commitment to develop sustainable transport is part of the Olympic legacy in Waltham Forest. As a host borough for London 2012, we had to encourage people to get to Olympic venues without driving. This helped residents see that it really is possible to get about without using their cars.
Growing the local economy
We have a four-year growth strategy in place to develop the borough’s economy through to 2020. It incorporates many of the recommendations made by the Waltham Forest Growth Commission, a group of independent experts led by Professor Tony Travers, which we established in 2014. We’ve already implemented many of the ideas for supporting business, developing skills and jobs, investing in the borough’s high streets and forging an identify for Waltham Forest.
Our current approach to supporting business is called "keep, seed and grow". We have a strong team dedicated not just to helping new businesses start in the borough, but to making sure existing businesses have the workers and infrastructure they need. The borough’s big food and drink sector is one of our successes, with a flourishing craft beer scene helping to put Waltham Forest’s name on the map.
Significant cuts in funding from central government have been a huge challenge in recent years for all councils, and Waltham Forest is no exception. We’ve been able to make efficiencies, but are now almost completely dependent on revenues from council tax and business rates. We’re currently piloting outcomes-based budgeting to make sure that our limited resources are prioritised on achieving the right outcomes for Waltham Forest.
A place to empower people
Like all local authorities, we’ve had to rethink our role. Instead of handing out money, we’ve had to become much more about empowering people and getting them involved through volunteering or new cooperative models. The Mill1is a great example. This is the old Walthamstow Library, which was closed in 2007. In 2010, we managed to secure NESTA funding for £150,000, which was enough to employ someone to get the doors open and re-launch the space as a community hub. Today, The Mill is a place where local people can connect with each other, learn new things and make their ideas happen. The centre receives no council funding (although it does benefit from a heavily discounted rent). It depends on people giving their time and expertise, and hundreds help out every month.
The Mill underscore the point that, in the end, people are what gives a place its vibrancy. Take away the people and there’s nothing there.