Council property investments must have both commercial and social returns

Waltham Forest Council’s multi-million-pound investments in property in the borough must also have a “social return” for residents, a senior council officer has said.

Strategic director of resources at Waltham Forest Council, Rob Manning, said that any property investments the council makes “must have a social return” for residents as well as a commercial return.

A “social return” accounts for the social, economic, and environmental value created by an investment.

Property that the East London council has bought since 2017 includes a Walthamstow office building, two units rented to GP surgeries and a set of commercial spaces next to Soho theatre.

The properties were financed using government-backed loans that are available to local authorities at cheaper interest rates than are available commercially.

Examples of this include the council’s purchase of two units at Sutherland Road and South Grove – developments led by its house building company, Sixty Bricks – which are rented at favourable rates to NHS GP surgeries.

Speaking to a budget and performance scrutiny committee last week (29th June), Manning said: “We will buy or make spaces in new buildings and will then fit it out for [the NHS] for specifications needed for a complete GP service and rent it to them.

“It’s a bit of a no-brainer for us – it’s a good return for residents and is also giving them a return on investment.”

Manning added that the council has been “very sensible” with its investments and has not made risky decisions comparable to councils such as Thurrock, which has debts from failed investments totalling about £1.3billion.

In total, the council’s property investment team has only bought four of the 22 properties that it has considered properties since 2019.

The first large investment the council made was in 2017 when it bought the Tramworks, in Hatherley Mews, Walthamstow, which is a converted stables containing 54 “warehouse-style” commercial units and residential flats.

Empty units at the Tramworks, which is undergoing refurbishment to fix water supply issues, mean the council has only made about £80,000 in overall income since purchasing it.

Other commercial investments the council has made include Central House, in Hoe Street, Walthamstow, which was recently sold to the University of Portsmouth. The council bought the building for £5million in January 2021.

Both buildings are in line with Waltham Forest’s vision of fostering a “creative corridor” along Hoe Street, centred around Soho Theatre Walthamstow, which the council is also refurbishing and hopes to open in 2024.

Other council-owned properties on the corridor include The Scene, on the corner of Hoe Street and the High Street and Central Parade, both of which have ground-floor commercial units.

Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter