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 document, co-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.