Ten years on, what happened to Ilford’s ambitious Unity Square project, and was it needed?
PUBLISHED: 15:15 09 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:09 10 June 2013
Ten years ago, plans for an impressive multi-million pound project which was set to transform Ilford Town Centre and mark the “rebirth” of the area, were revealed to residents.
The four-year project would see Unity Square built in Clements Road, with £4.5million spent on affordable housing and more than £1m on remodelling the rear of Redbridge Town Hall and the construction of a new civic suite.
Speaking to the Recorder in 2003 after plans were drawn up, then council leader Cllr Allan Burgess said: “If we don’t modernise, if we don’t come up into the 21st century, we will indeed be going backwards because everybody else is doing just that.”
However the massive redesign, which saw Ilford voted as one of London’s towns of the future, never happened and the “future heart of Ilford” failed to materialise due to rising land prices.
Despite the deal being heralded as the biggest capital project ever launched in Ilford, and supporters claiming it could have massive benefits on investment, transport and infrastructure, Unity Square never even got off the ground.
Ilford North MP Lee Scott, who was cabinet member for regeneration when the plans were first unveiled, said this week: “Unity Square was a great idea but very, very ambitious. It was going to encompass such a large area of Ilford and I was sceptical that the large amount of retail space was needed. However extra housing would have been great.
“Unfortunately developers just dried up and the plans hit difficulties in 2007. However, I think Ilford has modernised and we continue to attract shoppers and leading firms into the town.”
One of the main priorities of the redevelopment of the town centre was to provide “high quality homes” for residents.
The Unity Square complex was expected to involve the construction of 488 apartments, and the pedestrianisation of Clements Road.
To accompany the new homes, there would be a major anti-crime initiative, involving £50,000 of CCTV cameras while new public facilities, such as bus shelters, would be constructed.
Speaking in 2006, council leader Cllr Alan Weinberg said: “We’ve got big plans for Ilford Town Centre and I want the first stage to be a cafe society emerging from the Unity Square development.”
However many residents were worried about the impact of the plans, and called for improvements to “critical infrastructure” such as schools and health services before the development was built.
Although the proposed apartment blocks were not built, a large number of new homes were created when the nearby Pioneer Point was completed last year.
Chairman of the Unity Square working group, Cllr Ruth Clark, speaking this week, said: “I wasn’t happy with the number of dwellings that were going to be created with this project and I felt there weren’t enough amenities to support this.”
The Kenneth More, the borough’s only theatre, was to be torn down and a new theatre and entertainment complex was to be built nearby, as part of the Unity Square plans.
Iain Varah, chief officer for culture, sport and community learning, speaking in 2006, said: “The new theatre will provide the existing facilities of the Kenneth More and a whole lot more besides.
“The 120-seat studio theatre with flexible seating will allow for a whole range of art forms, experimental theatre and dance performances.”
As well as a 320-seat traditional theatre, the site was to house a performance space with up to 650 seats, which would have been linked to the town hall.
Former theatre manager Vivyan Ellacott said: “At the very beginning it was very exciting. The top class consultants were promising a much bigger and better theatre. Everyone involved was very enthusiastic for the work to start.
“But gradually the plans just kept getting cut back and back, and soon it seemed pointless to knock down a perfectly good theatre and replace it with something almost exactly the same.”
Mr Ellacott added: “It became fairly clear things weren’t going well so it wasn’t a shock when we were told it wasn’t happening. It was nice while it lasted.
“The theatre now needs modernising and investment is needed.”
Unity Square was “badly timed” and is a big loss for Ilford Town Centre, but the focus should now be on attracting people after 5pm with new restaurants and cafes, key figures in the borough have said.
With opinion split on whether the plans would have been a success, leader of the council, Cllr Keith Prince, does not believe it would have offered all that was hoped.
He said: “I think this was an interesting concept 10 years ago but I don’t think the scheme would have worked. There was an over reliance on residential properties in helping the businesses to work.
“Some would say Ilford has suffered because the plans weren’t implemented, whereas others think the town centre works as it is.
“The problem we must look at in the future is providing a night-time economy, which is desperately needed.”
Former council leader Cllr Alan Weinberg said: “I think Unity Square was a big loss for Ilford but it was badly timed; everything seemed to conspire against it.
“We hoped it would bring people into the area, making a market for the shops. But, of course, we can’t factor in the impact the recession would have had.
“What I liked was an idea of a town centre which was alive after 5pm. The town centre will be regenerated.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ilford Recorder. Click the link in the orange box above for details.