NIMBYs near Canary Wharf just blocked 2,000 homes to protect a petrol station

At least nothing will spoil this view. Image: Getty.

Whenever I’ve suggested – sometimes gently, sometimes not – that London might soon need to build housing on its green belt, someone has almost instantly replied, “What about brownfield?”

Brownfield, you see, is the label for any site which has already been built on: its redevelopment is thus seen as the cost free option, which won’t necessitate any hard choices about which fields we’re going to brick over. Never mind that no one seriously thinks there’s enough of this stuff to meet housing need: so long as there’s a square inch of brownfield left, the NIMBY lobby will say, we shouldn’t even think about looking at reviewing the green belt.

Which is a problem. Because now it turns out that the NIMBYs don’t want to build on brownfield either.

The Isle of Dogs is a peninsula in east London, surrounded by a loop of the River Thames. At its northern edge sits Canary Wharf, a rapidly growing forest of commercial and residential skyscrapers. To its south is the island proper, a mixture of Victorian terraces and new residential developments, surrounding a grid of docks and a city farm.

This is not an area filled with listed buildings, or where sites of great historic interest require protection from the ravages of greedy developers: over the last 40 years, indeed, Docklands as a whole has been London’s biggest re-development zone, radically transformed from a collection of bomb sites and derelict low rises to a second financial centre.

Nor is it a place where concerns about transport links should slow us up too much. As well as half a dozen stops on the DLR, the Isle of Dogs has a tube station, and will soon be getting a Crossrail one, too. When people say we should build on brownfield – when they suggest we should densify the city around its existing transport links – this is exactly the sort of place they’re talking about.

Unfortunately, however, nobody has told the residents group which has been campaigning against plans to build 2,000 homes on what is currently a car park; ultimately, the developer, Ashbourne Beech, withdrew the application. (In an earlier version of this article I said the plan had been “blocked”, which was a slightly misleading way of putting it.)

From the East London Advertiser yesterday:

Second Tower Hamlets ‘people victory’ as Asda scraps Isle of Dogs development

“It’s down to ‘people’ power through sheer weight of objections,” a delighted councillor Peter Golds told the East London Advertiser.

“We fought this for years and have managed to engage the community—so the developers can’t claim they’re representing anybody with this crass example of over-development.”

What, you are wondering, have those campaigners managed to save? A children’s play area, perhaps? A lovely park? A site of outsanding natural beauty? An over-crowded and under-funded orphanage?

Nope: a branch of Asda and its massive car park.

An aerial view of the site. Image: developers Ashbourne Beech.

Among many objections was condemnation of the Asda petrol station closing without being replaced—leaving no fill-up for car-owners anywhere on ‘the island’.

This is a serious concern: without that petrol station, after all, residents would have to drive a whole 1.7km up the road to fill up their tanks, meaning that there is a very real risk of civilisation breaking down entirely like at the end of JG Ballard’s High Rise.

Image: Google Maps.

Alternatively – just a thought – they could take the DLR. In fact that might be a better idea because, while London has a housing crisis, it does not, to my knowledge, have a petrol station crisis.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps there genuinely are concerns about the danger of adding another 2,000 homes to the Isle of Dogs. Extra residents, after all, need extra services: schools, doctors, shops (no, not petrol stations, sod off). And the mess of the British planning system means it’s all too possible to build homes without ensuring the facilities that should go along side them.

But nonetheless, this story gives the lie to the idea that everything would be fine if we just focused our effort on brownfield – because it’s hard to think of anywhere more ripe for development than a supermarket car park on the Isle of Dogs. As things stand, it’s ugly, it’s well-connected, it’s an area that’s already used to high-density housing... it’s as appropriate a site as you’re likely to find to build significant new numbers of homes as anywhere in this city.


And yet, the NIMBYs have beaten it back, on the grounds that it might overshadow the local city farm. And when they did, the local paper described it as a victory for “people power”.

For the people who already have homes, perhaps. Those who are priced out, by contrast, are losing, as they always do.

We can’t build skyscrapers. We can’t extend the footprint of the city. And now, it turns out, we can’t build on car parks either, in case it upsets a pony.

I'm just saying, I think we seriously need to consider the possibility of prison sentences for NIMBYs, that’s all I’m saying.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL