Could a notorious prison offer an escape route from London’s housing crisis?

HMP Holloway, Islington, London. Image: Getty.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan ponders the task of making a heaven of hell. In Islington, local activists have set themselves a similar challenge.

HMP Holloway, once the largest prisons in Western Europe, was the home of notorious killers such as Myra Hindley and Rose West. The prison was also infamous for the widespread abuse of inmates, including political prisoners such as the suffragettes, who were force-fed within its walls. The last execution of a female prisoner in Britain was carried out in Holloway.  

The prison was closed in 2016 and put up for sale as the government sought to cash in on 10 acres of prime inner-city real estate. Inmates were controversially decanted to Surrey, a move that charity Women in Prison said caused “anxiety and distress for women in prison, and continues to have a negative impact as women are imprisoned further from their families and home communities.” 

The Ministry of Justice intends to secure maximum value for the land and will announce a preferred bidder in the coming months. This has raised fears of a similar outcome as previous sales of public land in the borough: sales which resulted in luxury apartment blocks with minimal affordable housing. 

A coalition of local campaign groups has formed to prevent that happening and stake its own claim to the prison. Community Plan for Holloway (CPH), an umbrella group comprising residents, NGOs, trade unions, faith groups and politicians, has outlined a vision for the site to serve the greatest needs of local people.  

This includes green spaces in a part of London that is sorely lacking in it, facilities for skills training to improve employment prospects, and mental health services in a borough where 16 per cent of adults suffer from depression.   

Another demand is for a women’s building, in recognition of the horrors inflicted on female inmates over the prison’s 166-year history. The building would offer dedicated support to women who have suffered through incarceration, as well as social spaces for the wider community including a feminist library, crèche and rooftop café.     

“We want the building to right some of the wrongs of the criminal justice system, and help women get what they need; from support with addiction to having a sense of community,” says Harriet Vickers of Reclaim Holloway, part of the CPH coalition.   

But the coalition’s top priority is affordable housing, at social rents rather than the government’s contentious definition of affordable, set at 80 per cent of market rates. Islington’s housing crisis belies its trendy reputation, with around 20,000 households on the waiting list for social housing and 900 in temporary accommodation. Local homeless shelters say they are taking in people in full-time employment due to unaffordable rents.  

Islington council is broadly supportive of this agenda, and it has produced its own set of demands based on the “biggest-ever response to a community consultation of this kind”. The documentco-signed by London’s deputy mayor for housing James Murray, calls for a minimum of 50 per cent “genuinely affordable” homes with 70 per cent at social rents, as well as green spaces and a women’s building. The council estimates the site could have capacity for up to 900 homes.

 Diarmaid Ward, head of housing at Islington council, says that social is housing is the “top priority” and his team will fight for “as much social housing as possible”. Ward laments that previous unpopular developments such as Mount Pleasant were forced through by former mayor Boris Johnson, but he is confident that, with Sadiq Khan in City Hall, there will be “no call-ins, no backroom deals”.  

But the council’s plans do not go far enough for some members of the coalition. They argue that, given the scale of Islington’s housing shortage, 100 per cent of homes should be genuinely affordable. As such an outcome is unlikely with a private developer, many feel that the land must remain in public hands.   

Activists are petitioning Sadiq Khan to buy the site and use it to build social housing, but the mayor has so far resisted. Alternative models are also being considered: an investor or philanthropist could provide funds for the site, but allow the council and CPH to shape the development. A similar arrangement gave rise to the Turner Prize-winning Granby project in Liverpool.   

“We know from experience that you cannot control what you don’t own,” said housing campaigner Glyn Robbins at a recent CPH forum. “We must retain ownership to build decent and secure homes for the people of Islington.”   

Campaigners are taking heart from recent victories of grassroots activists against unpopular developments in Haringey and Southwark, as well as the progress of community-led housing schemes such as START in Haringey, and hope to build on those gains with another landmark success.   “We are absolutely part of a movement,” says Will McMahon, a campaigner and deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.  

 The next steps include intensive lobbying of every candidate at the upcoming local elections to extract commitments to the CPH vision. There will also be direct actions if the MoJ appears to disregarding the community’s wishes, as demonstrated when Sisters Uncut occupied part of the prison in May 2017.  

Activists are also looking beyond Islington to propose scalable solutions to the wider housing crisis in London. One core doctrine is to fight the sale of public land that could make a contribution to public housing. The government has committed to massive sell-offs to deliver 160,000 homes by 2020 – but research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) shows that developers are far behind schedule to meet this target and just 6 per cent of new homes on formerly public land are at social rents. The NEF further claims to have identified 10 public sites that could deliver 4,631 homes, and make a net contribution to the treasury by reducing the need for housing benefit payments.  

The campaign and its wider objectives have a powerful ally in the local MP for Islington North. Jeremy Corbyn has supported CPH since its launch in 2016 and suggested the community plan represented the change in housing policy he would pursue as Prime Minister.   

At the most recent CPH forum, the Labour leader voiced his support for the principle of community-led regeneration and his opposition to unaffordable housing developments that cause “social cleansing”. Corbyn added that he intended to reintroduce laws that would require public land to be offered to councils before private developers.   

“Until 1980, it would have been impossible for the prison site to be sold unless it had been offered to the local authority first,” he told the meeting. “I want to bring back that power. That is very important to me.” 

 Corbyn also pledged to empower councils to build homes, a prominent feature of the party’s 2017 manifesto, which commits to lifting restrictions on councils borrowing to build. Local authorities would be expected to deliver many of the 100,000 affordable homes a year the party has promised.  

 The fate of HMP Holloway will have lasting consequences for the people of Islington. The prison may also offer a window into the future of Corbynite housing policy – and tell us whether Labour has genuine solutions to the housing crisis.  


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.