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Leadership Spotlight: Waltham Forest Council’s Stewart Murray

Stewart Murray is a man on a mission – to move the London borough of Waltham Forest into the top league of regeneration.

With a career in the public sector spanning 30 years, he recently joined the council as strategic director of economic growth.

He has advised three different Mayors of London on the city’s growth, housing and regeneration strategies and has successfully delivered some of the most complex and largest development and transport projects in the capital.

He spoke to New Start about his plans for Waltham Forest, cultural-led economic growth and why regeneration must be inclusive.

You recently joined the London borough of Waltham Forest. What do you see as the key economic issues then for the area?

Firstly, we are part of the dynamic, successful global city of London. I think what’s important for Waltham Forest, as well as having the benefit of the post-Olympics bounce, is that it has really developed its own local economy now.

We also have one of the longest street markets in Europe and successful town centres that have regenerated since the 2012 Olympics, like Leytonstone and Leyton. We also have big housing zones areas supported by the mayor of London, which are bringing forward lots of economic opportunities.

In Waltham Forest, what’s really important is tapping into the cultural dimensions of our growth. We were awarded the 2019 London Borough of Culture title by the mayor. We have rebranded the borough and the title is embedded into everything we do around the economy, regeneration and new job creation. It’s about creating a real legacy and cultural development, which will set us apart from other boroughs and take us into a different league of cultural regeneration.

What are the projects that you will be most excited to be working on at Waltham Forest?

A big exciting one is our town hall campus project. As well as our responsibility for regeneration and planning, we are using our own assets, like the town hall to create a whole campus by bringing in all our activities on to one site. It will bring new jobs and workspaces to the borough. We’ve also looked at all our other accommodation across the borough – the offices that are no longer fit for purpose – and we are moving people and services out of those and onto the town hall campus. We will then use those sites to bring forward housing and regeneration in their own right. The council is taking real leadership, intervening in the marketplace and using its own assets to create a fantastic campus and more housing, regeneration and jobs.

The other project is in the south of the borough. We have a big regeneration plan for Leyton and Lea Bridge Road. We’re going to be creating a whole new neighbourhood. We have been investing in transport and new stations, as well as new housing. We’re hoping to create thousands of new homes and bring more affordable homes to Waltham Forest and Londoners.

And then closer to home in the Blackhorse Lane area we have a housing zone, where we have real development coming out of the ground. It will transform the area, which has been run done for many years. We already have student accommodation there. We’re going to have a music venue there and new workspaces, which will add to the local economy and the wider economy.

Can you tell me a bit more about the concept of cultural-led regeneration?

We’re preparing for our 2019 Borough of Culture plan and we’re also establishing a legacy strategy, so we can maximise the benefits of investment. It will brand us as a place to invest, bring creative industries and bring your creative industries. It’s not just about workspaces. It’s about the people. It’s about giving our residents the opportunities to access cultural-led careers.

One of my areas of responsibility is the employment, skills and learning offer, so our local people can bring their talents into local workspaces. We are supporting cinema, comedy and music venues in the borough. The council has actually acquired a former Victorian cinema in Walthamstow called EMD. We are going to bring back and restore the cinema as a culture venue to lead the regeneration in that part of Walthamstow.

How important is it for local authorities to drive economic growth?

It’s vital, because place making will only come if there is strong civic leadership. One of the attractions for me coming here is there is a very clear leadership in where the council wants to take the borough, residents and businesses and move us into another league.

It’s not just about bricks and mortar. It is the whole economic offer of harnessing all the talents in Waltham Forest and bringing them forward in a coherent way. I think only local politicians and authorities can do that, supported by the Government and the mayor of London to make some of the bigger decisions. The local authority is key to investment-led regeneration. We have integrated that with our property and land agenda, to make sure the council uses its wider powers to drive forward place-led and cultural regeneration. We are not sitting on assets that are not doing anything. We are changing places and also bringing opportunities to the marketplace to unlock more investment in the borough.

Will property become a key area for local authorities in the future?

The Government has always promoted the idea of using local authority assets and property. Local authorities are often cash-strapped after years of austerity savings, but we may also be sitting on assets. Waltham Forest has been very creative in using its assets in unlock investment and income potential. We’re not just responding and granting planning permission for big developers, we have now set up our own housing development company. We are using the council’s existing property to bring forward affordable housing into the marketplace, as well as supporting other collaborations.  Again, the council is using its property side as a lever for inward investment.

Do you see councils as uniquely placed to make economies more inclusive?

There’s a quite a lot of discussion about this. Economic growth has to benefit all our residents, local businesses and our communities. Inclusive growth has come in for a lot of criticism in other parts of London, where it may appear there has been huge economic growth, but investment and development have gone right under the noses of local people. Waltham Forest wants to be in a different place. It is embedded in local people and exploring their talents, making sure they. It’s about creating options and choices and making sure residents are delivering the new housing and regeneration.

We are working with the schools and colleges to make sure there are pathways for people to come in and access those opportunities. We are working closely with the mayor of London to push for half of our housing over the next 10 years to be affordable housing. It means our residents can sustain living and working in Waltham Forest. One of the areas we have a real division between the price of housing and people’s local incomes. We are still low down the income and salary scale, so a big focus will be to raise people’s incomes and give them more opportunities.

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