Ilford high street: regeneration that goes beyond the physical

High streets are often seen as the centre of communities. They contribute to placemaking and provide vital amenities and public space. However, due to our rapidly changing shopping habits, many of London’s high streets are having to adapt quickly to survive.

As part of their course, Future London Leaders 23 have been visiting high streets across London to contribute to their own Proposals for London on the theme of high streets and markets. With each destination providing more food for thought, candidates’ third and final destination was Ilford.

SPACE Studios, Ilford, high streets and markets
SPACE Studios, Ilford, LB Redbridge

In Ilford, enthusiasm for community engagement and a shared vision for change meant that the regeneration team at LB Redbridge kept asking ‘Why not?’, pushing the boundaries of what some would call traditional regeneration schemes.

Sharon Strutt, Head of Regeneration and a Future of London’s Alumna, shared with Future London Leaders candidates how the borough is working to change Ilford’s image. With funding secured from the Mayor’s Good Growth Fund, phase 1 of redevelopment is now complete. The focus of the work is not only on the physical revitalisation of the high street, but also how residents, workers and visitors experience Ilford. For example, a partnership with Living Streets introduced a walk and talk set of consultations to encourage more meaningful community engagement.

Overall, social and sustainability programmes underpin the changes. Mark Clark, Regeneration Programme Manager, LB Redbridge highlighted how one of their new initiatives – Project Malachi – showed that the council was prepared to be bold. The project, run in partnership with the Salvation Army, converted shipping containers into a temporary hostel for rough sleepers, accommodating 42 people, 15 of whom have no recourse to public funds.

Putting people and place, rather than profit, at the forefront of the regeneration programme is now paying dividends. For example, the most financially viable option for the meanwhile use of the Town Hall’s available space was storage, but such a use would not lift the look or feel of the area. Therefore, the Council invited bids from organisations that needed the space and could offer benefits for the community. SPACE won the bid and has now opened 35 studios for artists, makers and creative businesses. Jane Leighton, SPACE’s Programme Development Manager, shared with the group how the studios brought a new community of local and regional artists to the high street, sitting alongside the existing library, theatre and cinema.

Soon, London’s third Mercato Metropolitano (MM) – a community-focused food hall – will complement Ilford’s cultural quarter. Vicki Exall, MM’s Head of Partnerships, believes that the transformation of Redbridge Town Hall car park into a covered food market, promoting fresh food from local growers, will encourage social enterprise with start-up food and beverage businesses. MM, will dedicate 25% of stalls to local vendors and provide a community space with a wide engagement programme offering cooking classes, food growing, health and fitness classes, and music and dance.

All these new initiatives are supported by Ilford Business Improvement District (BID). Cyril Bekoe, Ilford BID Manager, provided an overview of the BID, which captures just under 400 businesses in the town centre. The BID has invested in a range of projects, including a website and social media channels, a state of the art digital radio security system and a dedicated town centre security team.

For much of the twentieth century, Ilford was a regional centre with multiple department stores, but by the 1980s, its retail was in decline and local investment went to building roads, resulting in high levels of severance and pollution.

Today, Ilford is turning once more towards London, attracting creative industries, small businesses and new housing developments (with an aim of 6,000 new homes by 2030). The regeneration team is working hard with colleagues in the transport department to re-direct some of the main roads that cut through the town centre. With the imminent arrival of the Elizabeth Line, their aim is to turn roads back into streets, reducing pollution and providing more space for people to walk and cycle safely.

Having a shared vision for how Ilford can reinvent itself makes it a leader in tackling the issues that our high streets face today. The field trip to Ilford High Road, was the third and last visit for Future London Leaders 23. Join candidates on 18 March as they present their innovative Proposals for London before they complete the course – register here to attend.