What does the community in Islington think should happen to the land on the former Holloway prison site?
Last week the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies held a meeting at a community hall just down the road from the former prison as a first step towards finding out. Despite it being a very cold and dark Friday night, well over one hundred people came to share their ideas.
A vibrant discussion took place demonstrating both real local interest and a diversity of views about how the land might be developed.
On the platform opening the meeting, local Constituency MP Jeremy Corbyn and Kat Fletcher a local councillor and Mayor of Islington, were joined by Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of Women in Prison and Eileen Short a long-standing campaigner on housing issues.
From the floor, there was a clear sense the Holloway site is public land and it should be used in the public interest. There were lots of ideas suggested by local residents and a range of themes emerged.
The powers of Islington Council and Sadiq Khan
The first focus of attention was the powers of the local council and the London Mayor. Islington Council will have a big role to play in granting planning consent for the site.
Executive Member for Housing and Development, councillor Diarmaid Ward said, that as part of its borough-wide plan, the Council wanted to ensure that any site of over ten units of housing had to have 50 per cent of genuinely affordable housing for the local community. He pointed out that the Council would be drawing up a planning brief in Spring 2017, known technically as the ‘Supplementary Planning Document’ (SPD), and encouraged everyone to make a submission to it. In his view ‘The Holloway site is a blank canvass … and there are no excuses for a decent development not taking place.’
Eileen Short suggested that all key aspects of the planning process should be made public, in particular, the viability assessments.
Some hope was vested in the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who had placed housing at the top of his election campaign and appointed James Murray, formerly Executive Member for Housing and Development in Islington, as London’s Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development.
The Mayor could have a big influence over what happens to the Holloway land as he has the power to call in any proposed development because of its size and London-wide significance.
Public land as community land
It was generally thought that while the land is still owned by the Ministry of Justice it is public land and this offers a greater opportunity for the public to have a say and to engage with the government about how it should be developed. It was felt important that the local community move quickly to own the argument and frame the debate in terms of the community interest.
As local councillor Gary Heather said ‘All ideas will come to nothing if we do not put a marker down – this is public land and we want community use of it. Whoever buys it needs to know this community has a big campaign behind it. We need to involve people and get leaflets into every house.’
Another theme that emerged was the broader development of the area. Parkhurst Road, the major thoroughfare that the land sits alongside, is being redeveloped with a local pub and Territorial Army site set for building work, and new flats and a library currently being built right next to the prison site. Less than one mile down the road is HMP Pentonville, viewed by many as being the next on the block for closure as part of the government’s prison closure and building programme.
As one resident said ‘We do have a least two things colliding - local interest and the fact this is a London-wide site. We don’t want just another set of tower blocks, we need something distinct. It needs an area plan…a distinct but collective plan.’ Whatever is built, the need for an infrastructure of GPs, schools and other essential services as part of this development was self-evident to everyone in the meeting.
A mixed use development?
As the discussion developed suggestions were made regarding different uses for the site. There were a number of voices supportive of a mixed-use development summed up by one local resident who said ‘there is a chronic housing shortage, a chronic shortage of open space, and a chronic shortage of employment and infrastructure.’
Some wanted council house building, some a co-operative housing project, and others the creation of a Community Land Trust. Another voice called for community and advice centres to be included in the plans.
A police officer in civvies at the meeting pointed out that many of his colleagues lived in Essex because they could not afford housing in London, the situation was the same for teachers and nurses, all of whom are key workers for the capital.
A local resident who works in probation said ‘I see the tragedy of people coming out of prison, who served sentences because they were poor and the only option is a hostel because there is nowhere for them to live. We need council housing and local facilities.’
When the closure of the prison was first announced some from the prison reform sector argued that the current visitors centre, which is outside the walls of the main site, should be turned into a women’s centre. This idea has been recently rebuffed by the government but many argued that it should still form part of any new development.
Some suggested that there should be a 'family centre' and others a facility specifically for BME women. It was argued that many of the women who end up prison do so ‘because of a legacy of unmet need’.
Vivienne Hayes, Chief Executive of the Women’s Resource Centre described Holloway prison as ‘a site of pain and suffering, death and incarceration of poor and black women and we have to bear that in mind. We want to urge that women are a priority on this piece of land.’
Maureen Mansfield, from the Reclaim Justice Network, wanted to know why the visitor's centre could not be used now - it was a community resource now sitting idle occupied only by a security guard.
A community plan for Holloway
Whatever the different ideas and views expressed in this first meeting, all were agreed that a community plan was urgently needed to stake a claim to the land on both Holloway and Pentonville.
In his concluding comments, Jeremy Corbyn said
This is the biggest opportunity in my memory of being an Islington North MP to alleviate the chronic housing crisis in this area of London… together we can come up with something good: people living in decent housing that’s affordable, dry, energy efficient and secure to live in.
Kate Paradine thought, in what had been a difficult week in prison reform, she had found the meeting cheering, ‘there was a lot of power in the room’ and quoted Alice Walker, ‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any’.
Councilllor Kat Fletcher argued that we must reach those who are not normally heard in consultation processes and that ‘deeds, not words’ was the key to making sure that the community won the day.