Chrisp Street Market shows that London is finally fighting back against gentrification

Chrisp Street Market from above. Image: Loopzilla/Flickr/creative commons.

Gentrification started as a concept in a small sub-section of urban studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, it’s a major issue touching the lives of people in cities around the world.

It tends to be the residents of large, global hubs who are suffering the worst effects of gentrification, including displacement. But locals are quickly learning how to resist proposals they don’t agree to – and reclaim the city they call home.

In London, the tide of gentrification is moving rapidly eastwards. Canary Wharf has become the city’s – and indeed, the nation’s – financial engine, making billions for the traders that operate there. Shoreditch has moved beyond “edgy” and become pretentious. And the 2012 Olympic Games transformed Stratford into a playground for the wealthy, attracting institutions as diverse as Westfield, University College London and the V&A to the area.

This massive influx of wealth is radically changing the demographic of these areas – and campaigns such as Focus E15 and the Balfron Social Club have sprung up to defend the rights of East London natives. These campaigns, and many more across the capital, argue that local councils and housing associations have switched priorities, from providing housing for working-class communities, to allowing developers to “beautify” neighbourhoods and build more private homes to attract wealthier residents.

East End oasis

The Grade II–listed Chrisp Street Market Clock Tower, designed by Frederick Gibberd as part the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. Image: author’s own.

Chrisp Street Market, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, is the latest outpost of the struggle against gentrification. As the UK’s oldest purpose-built market, it’s a site of historical significance and a major hub for the local community. The market has a cluster of traditional East End amenities such as community pubs, hardware stores, independent retailers and pie shops, and a multi-cultural demographic. It’s an oasis of authentic London culture, against a growing skyline of new build, luxury towers.

In July 2016, the site’s owners – housing association Poplar Harca – put forward plans to redevelop the market into high-end retail outlets, with added housing and leisure facilities. According to the plan, existing traders would be moved out while construction took place, but have a right to return with stepped increases in rent after 12 months “based on affordability” – an approach which Londoners have learned to regard with suspicion.

When I spoke to traders on the site as part of my current research, they said they had not been told what the new rate would be – even though some had leases up for renewal. Others were informed that they needed to find new ways of making money, so as to afford to stay.

The new plans didn’t replace the car park, a blow for those who come to the market to buy a week’s worth of goods. And the new development offered a meagre increase in the number of social housing units at the site – from 124 to 129. An unspecified amount of the 649 new builds would be “affordable”, which actually means 80 per cent of market rates.

A small number of traders supported the plans outright – mostly those who had moved into the market recently. Those who resisted were not pushing back against the idea of redevelopment – many agreed that the area was overdue some improvements. It was the widespread confusion, and the perceived lack of transparency from Poplar Harca, which seemed problematic – especially in light of other development projects, such as Robin Hood Gardens and the Balfron Tower, which had brought about large-scale displacement of existing residents.

In the shadow of Balfron Tower. Image: m-lodious/Flickr/creative commons.

At a planning consultation meeting in February 2018, these points were put to Poplar Harca – and many local residents felt they hadn’t received satisfactory answers. Local councillors voted to put the project “on hold”, while Poplar Harca revised its proposal. Neal Hunt, the director of development at Poplar Harca, was disappointed:

We are at a loss to understand the council’s Strategic Development Committee deferring its decision regarding the desperately needed homes, shops and jobs that this project would provide. Especially as it means the potential loss of grant funding for affordable homes. We have been working closely with local traders, residents, shoppers and the council for over eight years. Everything we’ve been told is reflected in the proposals: indeed, the council’s officers strongly recommended approval. Our discussions continue.

Taking a stand

It’s a small victory to the traders – and one that I don’t think would have been possible a few years ago. They won the day by coming together as a united body and soliciting the help of other groups and activists in East London. They mobilised early on in the planning process, to share information, legal advice and tactics for navigating confusing consultation exercises.

The market contains a mix of independent retail outlets and housing. Image: author’s own.

This kind of strategic engagement has also brought other large-scale development projects in the capital to a halt. Earlier this year, the Haringey Development Vehicle was stopped because of local collective action. And the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was ”deferred“, not least because of the intense campaigning by local community groups, and the student occupation of the London College of Communication – a key stakeholder in the development proposals.

The ConversationTales of development in London – and other major cities – can have a happier ending. When it comes to Chrisp Street, the story has certainly changed. Strategic mobilisation and collective will have protected this pocket of social and cultural activity in the Poplar area. These efforts, and others like them, prove that East End, working-class culture is as much a part of London’s future as its past.

Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.