A prison break from the housing crisis

Glyn Robbins
Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The government announced the closure of Holloway women’s prison in 2015. The 10-acre site now stands empty in the borough of Islington which, despite the media stereotypes, is the tenth most deprived in England.

There are 20,000 households on the housing waiting list and 880 families in temporary accommodation. Building hundreds of genuinely affordable homes on the Holloway site seems so obvious it’s amazing the cranes aren’t already there.

Instead, the government has appointed a property agent with a view to selling-off this valuable public asset to private developers.

Addressing the housing crisis

This case has implications beyond north London. The government has embarked on a programme of closing inner-city prisons, freeing-up land where thousands of homes could be built. But once that land is privatised, the chances of it being used for public benefit evaporate.

An opportunity to reduce housing need could be missed at Holloway, as happened at another publicly-owned Islignton site (Mount Pleasant). This danger has galvanised a campaign, supported by local MP Jeremy Corbyn, to develop a community plan to include the maximum possible number of social rented homes, alongside social facilities and a women’s building to honour the history of the place where the suffragettes were imprisoned.  

Using public land to address the housing crisis goes beyond former prisons. The New Economics Foundation has identified ten plots around the UK where 4,631 homes could be built. But the NEF has also found that when public land is developed, only 20 per cent of the homes are genuinely affordable. This gets to the heart of the housing crisis.

Public land for house building

The upcoming election is the most important election in a generation. As I have argued elsewhere, the next government must protect renters from exploitative landlords and developers. The current government recognises the importance of public land for house building, but is blind to the failures of current policy.

The recent housing White Paper and One Public Estate initiative ignore the practice of developers stretching the word ‘affordable’ to breaking point to get planning permission from supine authorities.

Housing provision has become detached from economic reality because of the over-provision of market homes at a time when, by the government’s own admission, the market is broken. 

Change can start at Holloway

Changing that pattern can start at Holloway. Islington council wants to do things differently and is consulting local people about possible uses for the site. The Mayor of London also wants to ‘fast track’ building genuinely affordable homes on public land.  He needs to use his influence to ensure all the former prison sites in London remain in public ownership so they aren’t developed for private profit.

The price of land drives up the price of housing. But public land can be insulated from market volatility.

Building council homes locks in the value for generations to come – and there’s a chance to do something more at Holloway. New energy-efficient homes and services on the site can be designed, built and maintained by local people, including some of those trapped in the penal system.

Decent homes and decent jobs are what sustain communities and reduce our need for prisons. This virtuous circle can start at Holloway, but mustn’t end there.

Glyn Robbins has been a housing worker and campaigner for more than 20 years and is a member of Unite (Housing workers branch).

To contribute to the Community Plan for Holloway initiative, visit the website here and complete the online survey about what the priorities should be for the former prison site in North London.