Five years ago I joined forces with some local worthies to object to the opening of a strip joint on Acton High Street. We weren’t successful, but the owner of the club decided to invite us all to the opening night. He claimed we’d got the wrong end of the stick. It wasn’t a sleazy lap-dancing club — oh no — but a ‘burlesque’ club. What this meant in practice is that the dancers had glued feathers to their micro bikinis. Apart from that it was business as usual.
The upshot was that I spent a couple of hours standing in the middle of a strip club trying to make small talk with about 20 middle-aged ladies, most of them Lib Dem activists, as a succession of topless women gyrated on stage. It took every ounce of willpower to maintain eye contact with these bluestockings and not let my gaze drift in the direction of the ‘burlesque’ performers.
Actually, to be fair, they soon got on to a topic that I found even more fascinating than the lap-dancers — the prospect of a Waitrose opening in East Acton. For residents of this corner of London, this is topic number one at dinner parties. Quite apart from Waitrose’s symbolic value as a sign of gentrification, it’s long overdue, because the first ever branch of Waite, Rose and Taylor opened on Acton Hill in 1904. For the local middle classes, this wouldn’t just be another supermarket opening, but the return of the prodigal son.
Fast-forward five years and the good burghers of Acton are up in arms again, this time about the proposed redevelopment of the Oaks, a shopping centre that connects Acton High Street to Churchfield Road. Now the Oaks is no great shakes. It’s full of pound shops and discount stores, the sort of retail substrata you’d expect to find in a depressed part of the north-east rather than in west London. But it has the virtue of being underground and therefore invisible to the local residents.
Not so the new scheme, which will be a hideous tower block built on top of the pound shops. ‘Absolutely ghastly, like a 1960s development landing in your back garden,’ is the verdict of former Conservative councillor Vlod Barchuk, and it’s hard to find a single local who disagrees. Churchfield Road, with its Cupcake Café and Angela Malik Cook School, has the potential to become the Marylebone High Street of Acton, and this monstrous carbuncle will kill it stone dead.
Local opposition has been building, exacerbated by the fact that the scheme is being backed by the Labour group that controls Ealing Council. But then the developers came up with a cunning plan — they’d invite Waitrose to open a branch in the basement. That would buy off the local nimbys! So late last month, just before the development was due to go before the planning committee, this ‘good news’ was announced. Thanks to the Acton Regeneration Company — yes, that’s the name of the developer — Waitrose would be coming home.
My first reaction was one of disbelief. Is Waitrose really going to open a branch in the Oaks, alongside Poundstretcher and 99p Stores? There’s already a Sainsbury’s Local on Churchfield Road and that struggles to stay afloat. What hope would a posher supermarket have? But I called the Waitrose head office and, sure enough, they confirmed it.
Now, as you can imagine, I was conflicted about this, not least because I don’t live that close to the new concrete eyesore. But I’m pleased to say that my sense of civic responsibility triumphed over my petit bourgeois aspirations — a reaction I have in common with almost the entire local community. Yes, we’d love to see a Waitrose in East Acton, but not if it means erecting another Trellick Tower in the middle of our prettiest shopping street. The Waitrose in the basement won’t last six months — and neither will the Cupcake Café and Angela Malik’s Cook School after the area has been so brutally disfigured.
Needless to say, the ruthless Labour councillors railroaded the scheme through the planning process, and our only hope now is if Boris calls it in, forcing the developers to go back to the drawing board. I don’t think any of us object to a bit of urban ‘regeneration’, we’d just prefer something that didn’t look like a Russian nuclear power station. Come on, Mr Mayor. It’s time to do your knight in shining armour routine and save us from these rapacious capitalists.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.