In the heart of Hackney in East London is 55 Morning Lane, currently the site of a large and popular Tesco supermarket and car park and a prime target for a redevelopment. In Autumn 2019, we came together as local residents to demand that the developer and the council engage with Hackney residents and create something on the site that meets local needs.
In 2017, Hackney’s Labour Council bought the land from Tesco using £60 million of public money and entered into an option agreement with developers Hackney Walk Ltd giving them a 999-year lease in exchange for undisclosed fees. Hackney Walk Ltd has a terrible track record in Hackney, being responsible for the so-called Fashion Hub for which they took £1.5 million of public funding. This unfinished development now resembles a ‘ghost town’ with all but one of its units empty and very few of the promised jobs materialising. In Summer 2019 Hackney Walk Ltd employed a PR company to carry out a consultation about 55 Morning Lane which involved only 138 people and revealed very little about their plans.
In response, we set up Morning Lane People’s Space and began to ask people what they want to see on the site. When Covid hit we adapted to the new constraints and, in place of public meetings, we set up a survey which we shared online and via socially-distanced street stalls outside Tesco. The 1384 responses we got are very different from those shared by Hackney Walk Ltd’s PR company and show how people’s ideas about housing are manipulated by developers to hide the need and demand for council homes.
When we asked people to identify the three most important local issues, housing topped the list (ahead of environment and pollution, mental health, physical health, poverty, racial inequality, unemployment and violence). We also asked people ‘What would you really like to see on the Tesco site on Morning Lane?’ and ‘What would you NOT like to see on the Tesco site on Morning Lane?’ Again, housing concerns featured more often than any other issues in replies to both.
However, 72 people told us that they don’t want to see ‘housing’, ‘flats’, ‘more housing’ or ‘more flats’ on the site without any further explanation. This appears to contradict the large number who identify housing as an important issue for Hackney which included many of these 72 individuals. Those who chose to expand on such answers usually linked housing to feelings of displacement or exclusion, in other words to gentrification and social polarisation with oppositions between ‘ordinary people’ and ‘rich people’ and between ‘the needs of Hackney’ and ‘big corporations’ . For example, a working-class British Muslim woman explained that she doesn’t want to see ‘housing – they don’t give us housing so there’s no point’. There is desperation and anger in many such responses that we know resonate widely from our conversations outside Tesco and online, and that is articulated well in this comment: ‘WHY must profit and commercial always come first? … CARE about the less privileged in this Borough for ONCE! STOP the social and racist CLEANSING’.
In contrast to this, the findings from the consultation carried out for the developers list only three points related to housing: ‘there is a need for a mix of homes including affordable homes for young people, homes for young professionals and families’; ‘young people, low paid workers in Hackney need more housing options to give them the opportunity to remain in the borough’ and ‘how the design and heights of the emerging buildings will respond to the existing buildings in the local area’. The visceral pain of exclusion has disappeared, transformed into a need for ‘more housing options’ to give people ‘the opportunity to remain’ in Hackney. And there is no mention of council and social housing.
In our survey, council and social housing came top of what people want to see on the site with about 1 in 3 volunteering this. Of the 229 respondents who talk about wanting affordable housing, just 22 seem to use this term in the way policymakers do to refer to a range of tenancies including shared ownership and properties at up to 80% of market rent. All of these also mention social housing in their replies. The top responses to what people do not want on the site were expensive housing (37% of all respondents objected to this) and private housing (23%). Many signal the term ‘affordable housing’ is problematic by specifying the need for ‘genuinely affordable’ or ‘truly affordable’ housing. Others use it to reinforce the need for socially-rented homes explaining only these are affordable – ‘none of this “affordable rent” nonsense because it’s not affordable to those of us who are on low incomes’ and ‘no more private developments with flats which pretend to offer affordable housing to locals i.e. shared ownership’. Such nuanced comments are missing from the developer’s consultation findings that report only a need for ‘a mix of homes including affordable homes for young people’.
Consultations by developers are designed to produce the answers they want in order to justify plans designed to maximise profit and create the illusion that these are in the interests of local residents. Why else employ a PR company to do a piece of research? During Covid, our small campaign with very limited resources managed to consult more than ten times as many people as this professional PR company. You have to try very hard to run a consultation about a well-used site in a densely-populated area and only talk to 138 people.
Our consultation is enabling us to build a stronger campaign in opposition to the developer’s plans and to advocate for there to be beautiful council housing on this public land in the centre of Hackney.