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Expensive luxury housing and shops struggling – is Islington losing its soul?

PUBLISHED: 16:19 11 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:01 11 April 2018

The City North development in Finsbury Park has been criticised for its lack of affordable housing - just 13 per cent. Picture: Polly Hancock

The City North development in Finsbury Park has been criticised for its lack of affordable housing - just 13 per cent. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Is Islington’s working class character being destroyed? As luxury housing blocks spring up and traditional shops are forced out, it feels that way. James Morris spoke to housing and business leaders, asking how they see the borough’s future.

New developments in City Road near Old Street. Picture: Polly HancockNew developments in City Road near Old Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington – 2018. It’s a place where Archway offices are converted into 100 per cent luxury flats. Where a beloved Essex Road grocer’s is forced out after decades. Where vacant Clerkenwell land becomes a budget hotel. Where staff at a posh fish ‘n’ chip shop in Upper Street look like they’ve bitten a lemon when you ask if they serve battered sausage and curry sauce.

Is this place losing its soul?

Glyn Robbins is a social housing campaigner and manages the Quaker Court estate off Old Street. He’s in despair.

“Islington is danger,” he says. “It’s possible to say it’s already lost its identity.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. Its character as a working class community with quite a large proportion of social housing is vanishing before our eyes.

“Old Street is a typical example. I only have to stand on a roof or balcony where I work and see what’s being constructed in front of me.”

The old Post Office site in Old Street is being re-built. It will mainly be occupied by CNN. Picture: Polly HancockThe old Post Office site in Old Street is being re-built. It will mainly be occupied by CNN. Picture: Polly Hancock

He points to the White Collar Factory, a workspace on the roundabout. The clue is very much in the name. The old Post Office site on the junction with Bunhill Row has been replaced by office space which will mainly be occupied by broadcasting giant CNN. Just across the road, a new luxury home development called The Featherstone is currently marketing a three-bedroom apartment for £1.2million.

“This stuff isn’t happening by accident. There are people who do think working class people shouldn’t be living in Islington. That’s the underlying message of government policy recently.”

Islington Labour is committed to delivering 550 council homes by 2022 if re-elected. But there are 18,000 people on the waiting list.

Glyn continues: “The council has said, very directly, that it’s committed to building more council housing. Thirty or 40 new homes per development is to be valued. But you could argue this is tinkering around the edges.”

Even mid-level chain stores in Old Street can no longer afford to trade there.

Glyn adds: “People on my estate use shops like Superdrug and Peacocks – decent quality at affordable prices. But they’ve gone in the past few months. Market forces at work? Maybe. But to me, it indicates shops valued by working class people are going.”

A traditional Islington street scene: Cross Street, in between Essex Road and Upper Street. Picture: Polly HancockA traditional Islington street scene: Cross Street, in between Essex Road and Upper Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

Long-established independents are beginning to fall, too. The most famous example, of course, is Chapel Market pie and mash institution M. Manze.

It announced its closure nine months ago, citing high business rates. It’s still going nine months on, and the closure date hasn’t been announced. But owner Tim Nicholls this week reiterated there’s no chance of staying open.

Hak Huseyin, from Islington Chamber of Commerce, said independents face a struggle in the next few years. “It comes down to three things: rent, rates and roads.

“Landlords are greedy and unfortunately we live in a world where people willing to pay more will get in. Rates are obviously rising – mine were up £4,000 in a year. And the increase in parking charges mean people don’t stop in their cars like they used to, especially with the diesel surcharge.” An extra £2 an hour was imposed by Islington Council last year.

Hak adds: “I don’t like being pessimistic but if things carry on the way they are, it’s going to be difficult. A lot of people don’t realise what a town centre does for communities.”

At least the town hall appreciates the extent of the problem. Cllr Asima Shaikh, Islington’s economic development leader, says: “Ninety per cent of Islington’s firm structure is made up of small businesses. We know we have to intervene.

New developments in City Road. Picture: Polly HancockNew developments in City Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

“We recognise the hardship of small businesses at the moment. On the bleak side, a lot have been impacted by rates imposed by the government. But the council can help – we hold workshops to help businesses appeal if they feel they’ve been assessed incorrectly.”

The council has also taken practical action. For example, it’s investing £2million for affordable workspaces in Finsbury Park, with priority going to start-ups and entrepreneurs from the borough. A dozen disused garages on the Andover Estate will also be converted into workspaces.

So it’s not all bleak. But will it be enough to help Islington’s traditional communities?

As Glyn says: “You have got to wonder: what’s Islington going to be like in five or 10 years’ time?”

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