Speeches from Community Plan for Holloway night, Friday 2nd March

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Alexandra Lilley, St George’s Church

Thank you very much Will and good evening to everyone here. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to St George’s church this evening for this very important meeting about the site of Holloway Prison.

St George’s is the parish church for what was Holloway Prison.  Now this vacated plot of land and together with St Luke’s of West Holloway which is just across the road from the prison, what we represent tonight is the people who live right in the streets surrounding the prison. Hyperlocal residents, if you like, of this area whose concerns are very real and very rooted as to what happens on this very significant eight or so acres of land.

It has been so good to be involved in the process of hearing from the people in our neighbourhoods, and we wholly endorse the priorities that have emerged from the consultation exercise run by Community Plan for Holloway.

So firstly, in response to the burgeoning housing crisis in Islington with over 18,000 people in our borough on the waiting list for housing, it has to be a priority that accommodation is built on this site, that homes are built here for those who are currently in need and not for those who already have.

As a Christian sharing values with I’m sure many in this room, the priority is to provide for those without, for those who are poor and not for those who are privileged.

With housing as a key priority for Islington council, with Sadiq Khan’s pledge to build 19,000 affordable homes in London by 2021, it would be absolutely crazy if this site does not become place to at least fulfil a fraction of that number of homes.  I think this is truly a unique opportunity for all the people of Islington.

Secondly, the need will be for sustainable amenities and services for this new community.  For example, a community centre, provision and facilities for children and for young people, and this needs to include green space as well, of which our borough is so in deficit. Green space makes a vital contribution towards well‑being and, again, that is so in need in Islington where mental health issues run off the charts, something that we personally experience on a regular basis with those that we interact with through the work of our churches.  This site has the potential for being place of healing and of wholeness.

And thirdly, we really support the hopes of the Reclaim Holloway Coalition in seeking to maintain a legacy for the prison by supporting a centre for supporting and empowering women, acknowledging the injustices that many of the women incarcerated here were up against.  To use a spiritual word, we are seeking for there to be a redemptive element, a place that deems a hope for the future for women suffering similar hardships and injustices in their lives.

In addition to all of this, or rather to expand on those points, our collective vision for this space is that it becomes a site where genuine community can grow and thrive.  Where people can become fully alive in relationship with one another, rather than siloed off behind gates, separated and isolated.

Our hope is that the people who end up living over there are integrated with our wider community here and that mutual flourishing is generated.  And so, we urge all those with any power or stake in this site to use their imagination and to picture something that I think is not impossible, simply an affordable, green and thriving community of homes where residents can experience, together, life in all its fullness.  I hope and pray that we can work together towards realising this vision.  Thank you.

Niki Gibbs, Reclaim Holloway

Thank you, good evening, I’m here on behalf of Reclaim Holloway and as a long‑time local resident.

Reclaim Holloway is a coalition of groups and individuals fighting for the prison site to be used for public good and not private profit.  I’m going to focus on one aspect of our campaign for a women’s building to be constructed on the site.  That is not to say we aren’t interested in other objectives, far from it.  Reclaim Holloway demands that decent, genuinely affordable housing be built on the site.

We believe that Islington council must not only adhere to their policy of 50% affordable housing on any new development but to exceed it.  We believe there should be an outreach plan for Holloway as well as implementation. The community wants affordable housing, green space, work spaces, kids’ spaces and community spaces and pool.  We need to listen and implement these views.

We oppose any money from the site of the sale of Holloway being used to build more prisons. If the Ministry of Justice wants to use the proceeds from the sale, the money should be invested in the community and alternative justice programmes, not more oppressive, soul‑destroying prisons.  We are adamant that the legacy of Holloway Prison is not whitewashed or forgotten, and this means working with, listening to and never forgetting the women that lived and died here and their families and the women that are still imprisoned.

We believe that a women’s building is an appropriate commemoration of Holloway’s legacy.  The women’s building should be community‑owned and dedicated to providing support for women and their families.  A women’s building, not a women’s centre, a women’s building, community‑owned and dedicated to providing support for women and their families, a destination for tourists, businesses and the local community as a whole.

In recent months we have done some research with many women who have had direct experience of HMP Holloway in a variety of capacities.  We discussed what they would want from a women’s building and from this I would like to present a vision of what a women’s building might look like.  And I’m afraid it is not that high, but the shape of the building from overhead would represent the form of a female gender symbol, the facade would have curvy lines reflecting nature, the female form and spirit.  The circular part of the building would be mainly just inviting the women to look inside, opposite of the closed secret world of the prison.  The statues that guarded the entrance could be represented in a new entrance and a Phoenix representing a positive new future.  The building could provide employment for a great number of people, it could also provide community services for women in need and a creative confidence‑building safe environment.

The centre should be aimed at helping women stay out of the criminal justice system.  There will be signposting and practical, helpful facilities and activities for women and the community as a whole, especially those dealing with housing, domestic violence and other sensitive issues.  The building could also provide outlets and venture opportunities for organisations that work with those experiencing incarcerations, such as Clinks, and Women in Prison.

The roof area would house a rooftop cafe, restaurant, inside and outside dining areas. There would be a rooftop garden, growing vegetables for sale in the shop and used in the cafe and restaurants, beehives placed at the end of the garden could provide pollination and honey. The whole roof area would be encircled with solar panels to help power the building, there’d also be excellent educational facilities for schools and a flagship approach to commercial community buildings.

The top floor could house an auditorium, a cinema, theatre and presentation offices for the administration of the building.  This floor would also have rooms that would be available to hire as function rooms, conference rooms, meeting rooms and classes such as yoga, Pilates and dance.

The middle floors would operate commercially offering space for office hire to generate income for the building; music, recording and photography studios.

The first floor would be public service areas for signposting help centres for women in difficult situations, a creche, women’s library, therapy and counselling rooms, workshops and studio space, a pottery studio, textile workshop, painting studio and craft centre.

The ground floor would house an open and welcoming entrance area, with a small museum, shop selling branded women’s building merchandise, and products created within the prison system or produced within the building. There would be a cafe open around the public area, and an open exhibition and gallery space.

Finally, in the basement we are proposing a 50 meter swimming pool that would promote health and fitness and a training facility for future competitive swimmers.  There are drawings up on the wall at the back as well, I hope you will take a closer look at them.  Please visit the website for further information and to get involved and thank you very much and thank you guys very much.

Glyn Robbins, Islington Housing Unite

Good evening everybody.  If we are going to be serious about solving the housing crisis, not just in Islington but across the country, then we are going to have to get serious about using public land for public benefit.  [Applause]

The New Aconomics Foundation has identified at least 2,000 publicly‑owned sites around this country capable of accommodating around 600,000 homes.  If we built those homes and they were genuinely affordable homes, by which I mean, council housing, then we would save £25 billion a year, which, coincidentally is how much we currently spend on housing benefit.

So, we need to explode two myths about the housing crisis:

The first, and it is often incidentally a covert racist argument, is that there isn’t enough land. 

And the second, is that we can’t afford it. 

And as a Labour MP said to me only yesterday, building decent homes is not a cost, it’s an investment.  And that’s what we need to do down the road.  But the New Economics Foundation has also found at the moment where we are building on our land, we are not getting the kind of benefits from it that we should.  Only about 20% of the sites that have been developed are in public ownership, only about 20% of the homes built on those sites are called “affordable” and we all know, don’t we, what called “affordable” means, it means it is not affordable.

Of those sites, according to the New Economics Foundation the housing built on them, only about 6% were for social rent, for example, a price that some of the 18,000 people on the waiting list in this borough might have a chance of being able to live in.  And we can illustrate this by an example from the borough.

I manage a council estate in the south of Islington, near Old Street. Opposite the estate is a site that used to have a school on it, some of you may know it, Moor Fields School. It was demolished in 2012, the site. Instead of being retained in public ownership as it should have been, it was acquired by a Housing Association, and I’m going to name and shame them, although they are not the only ones that are guilty of this kind of thing.

Southern Housing Group bought the site and they had it for few years while the waiting list got longer.  They are now nearing completion on what they are calling the Featherstone, marketed by Savills, as the definition of urbanity.

What does that mean?  What it means is that on this site that was publicly‑owned, only 19 of 65 new homes are for social rent. Around 30%, which some might say in this day and age isn’t bad. Well, that may be so, but what is an absolute disgrace and a very real warning, not just about Holloway, but other public land, is that almost as many homes in the Featherstone are on sale for over £1 million.  The top price of a four bedroom home in the Featherstone, being marketing by Savills is £1 million.

This is a social landlord.

There are three lessons from that.

First, we can’t trust private developers to solve the housing crisis that they caused.  [Applause].

Second, and it hurts me to some extent to say this, as someone who used to work for one.  Housing Associations are now virtually indistinguishable from private property developers, so we can’t trust them either.

Thirdly, we cannot rely solely on the planning system to generate the homes we need.  I welcome the document that Islington council has passed. We can argue about the figure, but it is a step in the right direction, but if we just rely on the planning system to deliver the homes we need, the waiting list will continue to get longer.  We need more than that.

And this is what I think we need.  Because from the start of this campaign, we were very clear this is not pie in the sky. This is not about gesture politics and flag waving, this is about real solutions to the housing crisis, using land that we own.

And the person who should be buying the Holloway Prison site is Sadiq Khan.  He has the money.  He has a housing budget of £3 billion.  And we have written to him, and we have demanded that he bids on that site. He hasn’t done it yet, it’s not too late.  As Will said, the site hasn’t been sold.

We need to increase the pressure on Mayor Khan to buy that site for the people of Islington because the final thing I would say is this, and we know this from all of our experience: you cannot control what you do not own.  And we must retain ownership of the Holloway prison site and build decent, secure, energy‑efficient, safe homes for the people of Islington and that means council housing. Thank you very much.  [Applause].

Jeremy Corbyn, MP Islington North

Thank you, I will try to be brief, because I should imagine you are all freezing cold!  First of all, thank you everyone for coming along tonight thank you Alexandra for giving us the use of your church as a community meeting place. You are really good and really supportive of the community and thank you very much for that.  [Applause].

And there are a number of things I want to say, and I will try to be very brief. First of all, all of us coming here together tonight, this isn’t the first time we have met and I’m sure it is not going to be the last.  This is at least the third event I have been to, to do with the site and no doubt there will be many more.  The only way we as people, we as a community are actually going to change the politics of this country and the planning process of this country is by a popular demand that planning works for the good of people and communities and isn’t just a transaction between us and developers as though we are a power of equals. We are not. At the moment they are very powerful, we are less so, it would be nice if things were the other way round in the future.  Just saying, that’s all!

One point I just want to make at the beginning is that I wrote to the Department of Justice about a month ago, perhaps slightly more than that to say that I wasn’t and I was never happy about the closure of the prison but that it has happened, and that we wanted the site to be developed for housing as we do.

I played the point that the visitors’ centre at the moment is not in use. There is a homeless crisis beyond crisis in this country and I asked them to release the building immediately to an appropriate homeless organisation, Shelter from the Storm would be ideal to do it so that it could at least house people that are rough sleeping at the moment.

Until such time as the final development of the site is worked out, Islington Council has told me they were happy with that.  I have had a reply from the Secretary of State for Justice who tells me the building is busy in use for the training of prison officers. If anyone can confirm this, I would be grateful.  If it’s not the case I would also be grateful to know that.  I’m sceptical, shall we say, of this, so I will be getting back onto them on this.

I think at the very least, we can say there is a rough sleeping crisis now, those people are all decent human beings who happen to have fallen foul due to the lack of the affordable housing in this country. They should get somewhere to live immediately.  Can I take back to them that this is a view of this meeting, that this would be an appropriate use of it on a temporary basis?  [Applause].  Thank you.

Secondly, the issue of the overall development of it and the value of the land and I think this is absolutely the crucial point. As far as I’m concerned, we have got to change the whole approach to housing in this country.

We have social cleansing going on a massive scale, in various parts of London, but other parts of the country as well and as an immediate proposal, what I have put forward is that there should be no decanting of people from existing council estates or any other place without them having a vote on the future of their community and their scheme.  I have made that very, very clear.  And indeed, Sadiq Khan and I made that very clear when we were at the West End housing estate which is at the moment subject to huge development.

And there, at that place you see the inequality of power that goes in the situation, where part of the estate has been sold off, a very commodious, luxurious block has been put up, very nice views. Council tenants used to enjoy the same views, they don’t any more.  They have been moved to Luton and other places to make way for this particular building.  That building has all been sold and is largely empty because it has been sold off for speculative development to keep it empty in order to get a 12% return on capital, year on year, by not using the building.  To me that is morally wrong in a city where we have so many people living in desperately overcrowded places and I want to empower local authorities to be able to deal with the housing crisis.

Secondly, the point about made about the value of the land.  The value of the land at the moment is dependent on the planning permission that is likely to be granted or available for it.  I want to thank Islington Council for not only succeeding in building council housing at a time when the government has been very hostile to the building of council housing, but also for consulting on a planning brief which at least gives us a chance of getting a large degree of council housing on that site.

But fundamentally, it is about the question of public assets and what you use them for.  Do you develop public services by the sale of public assets or do you instead develop public services by taxing appropriately to pay for those public services?  Up until 1980 it would have been impossible for the prison site to have been sold without it first being offered around the public sector.  That was how, (I was a councillor in Haringey in the 70s and early 80s) we had a huge housing programme. In 1979 for example, that borough built 1,000 homes itself in one year.  Why?  Because we could get hold of land that was formerly owned by the water board, which was then publicly owned, or by British Rail, which was then publicly owned.  They were not allowed to sell the land on the open market unless it had been offered around, always, to the local authority first.

That surely is something that should come back and something I would want to bring back, so you keep within the public realm and public orbit the land that we already have, and it can be offered to the local authority for housing.  I tried to achieve this on the Territorial Army site down the road just before the last general election, when I thought I got an agreement with the Ministry of Defence that it was going to be offered to Islington council before it was put on the open market. Unfortunately the election intervened, and we lost that chance.  I would want to bring back that power to do that, that to me is very important.

How we now approach the plan for this site is very important.  It was a women’s prison, it was a place where the last woman he was executed in this country, it was a place where many people who frankly should not have been in prison were in prison and many people suffered very grievously there, including the suffragettes, but many others.

I’m really pleased we called the library the Cat and Mouse Library. I do support the idea of a women’s centre on that site, which could become a really attractive building.  I think this is a brilliant way of presenting things. I think the drawings you produced there are really, really good and something that we should work on because the site is the best and biggest opportunity we will probably ever get in this borough and this part of London.

It is an opportunity to build good quality council housing, it is an opportunity for a women’s centre, it is an opportunity to develop something that is open space, that is part of our lives.  It is a possibility for also some possible job creation opportunities as well.  It is a very substantial site.  So, the imagination that has gone into this is amazing and I want to say a big thank you to Will and the Justice Matters Campaign for what you have done and bringing us all together and giving us this chance to do this.

And we are going to win this if we campaign together. We are going to win this if we put enough pressure on, we will win this if we can eventually and I want to be part of this, changing the whole regime surrounding housing.  Because we live in a city that is a wonderful city in many, many ways, but it is a city with enormous pressure and enormous tensions. If we don’t change track on housing policy, this area, like every other part of London and then moving on, Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester and so on, the central areas will be socially cleansed on the altar of free market economics in Housing Associations and development. So you will have more and more workers commuting longer and longer distances and more and more dislocated communities.

You can only retain the social mix that we have got, the social diversity we have got if you have powerful local authorities that can build the council housing that is so necessary. I see social housing as a human right and something we invest in as a country.

We should be morally ashamed that there are many thousands of people sleeping on the streets at night. We should be morally ashamed that there are hundreds of thousands of people living in insecure, overcrowded, very expensive accommodation and we as a society spend £10 billion a year in housing benefit paid entirely into the private rented sector.  It saves money to invest in good‑quality, cheap housing, for the people that need that housing.  Can’t we do that as a society and a community?  I believe we could.

Let’s be the example of what we can do with this site.  Our creativity, our imagination as people, as planners, as architects of what we want on that site can be an example to lots of others.  I see this as a crucial and important campaign, so winning on this argument, winning on this site, winning on that principle of intervention will give us the opportunity to get good quality housing for the people of this area that need it.

If we lose, what do we get?  The site sold off to a big developer, a site sold off and expensive housing put in there which would be completely out of reach of anybody that lives within this area and this community.  Yet more of London socially cleansed as a result of it.  Therefore, all the arguments put tonight, I think are really strong, really powerful.  And I believe that the public argument has turned a corner. People do realise you cannot go on like this with the housing situation and housing record that we have got in this country.  It’s our strength as people to campaign on this site, it is our strength as people to campaign for social justice, for housing for all within our society.

I don’t know when the chance will come to change the law on this.  I hope it is very, very soon.  But in the meantime, we will keep that pressure on, we will of course continue conversations with the Mayor of London, we will support Islington in its consultation and its wish to try to get this site for good quality social housing and we will keep that pressure up.  If we walk away and do nothing, nothing will happen.  If we stay together and campaign together we could well win a massive victory here for social housing, for the people that need it in central London.  Thank you all very much for coming along tonight.  [Applause]