London has an international reputation for being a cool, cultural city with innovative artistic flair. This usually grows from the ground up. “Cool” doesn’t come from corporations or established outfits, it’s born of small groups and scenes that influence and advance cultural change, which then filters into the mainstream. That is the model followed by Vivienne Westwood, from her original single shop on the King’s Road to the fashion empire she runs today. But if she was launching an haute couture fashion business today, she might well be based at the fringes of Hackney.
A few years ago, an enclave of creative activity grew organically in the forgotten warehouses of Hackney Wick and Fish Island. Lying just across the Lee Canal opposite the Olympic Park, they breathed new life into the neglected space there, filling it with artist quarters, workshops and yes, fashion design studios.
But, as we see all over London, make-and-make-do communities that fill out cheap space are under threat from developers, who want to knock down their workspaces and sweep them out for more profitable businesses that can afford to pay higher rents. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body responsible for the development the Olympic Park area, is doing just that at Hackney Wick and Fish Island – sanctioned by the London Mayor.
The plans would also cause road traffic pollution. Fish Island is currently connected to the Olympic Park by a dedicated cycle and pedestrian bridge. The LLDC want to knock this down and replace it with a road bridge, making a link between the park and the nearby, very busy A12. A new pedestrian bridge would be built a few hundred yards along the riverbank, but doing that requires demolishing part of Vittoria Wharf, where much of the thriving artistic hub was located before tenants were turfed out. The LLDC is offering “affordable” workspaces in the new development, but the word “affordable” has become detached from any real meaning. The protesting artists say that less than 10% of the new space will be within their means.
It was Boris Johnson who gave permission for these changes when he was Mayor, way back in 2011. The plans are now out of date and will displace, if not completely destroy, the delicate ecology of the artistic community across all of Hackney Wick.
The current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has agreed to my suggestion that Transport for London (TfL) reassess the impact new motor traffic will have on the area in light of his own priorities for tackling London’s traffic, and John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets who has responsibility for local highways and sits on the LLDC board, has reportedly given an assurance that the new bridge need not smash a rat-run through Fish Island and destroy a low-traffic neighbourhood.
But new roads always mean more traffic, and building a new road bridge goes against Mayor Khan’s plans for healthy streets and his commitment to cutting traffic and congestion. Of course there is pressure on space and a need for transport links in and out of an area where a new residential neighbourhood is to be built. Yet a road bridge already exists less than 250 metres north of the planned new one, and the danger is that the latter will do more harm than good, increasing traffic and making the streets unpleasant to walk around.
So far, campaigns and petitions against the wrecking ball taking down Vittoria Wharf haven’t had much effect, despite winning cross-party support from London Assembly members and local politicians. I met LLDC chair Sir Peter Hendy earlier this month and challenged him about the proposals for Hackney Wick and Fish Island. Although work on the bridges is suspended pending the outcome of the TfL traffic review, Sir Peter stopped short of evaluating the cultural and economic impact of losing Vittoria Wharf.
There is grassroots support for designating Hackney Wick one of the Mayor’s Creative Enterprise Zones – it boasts the highest concentration of artists in Europe – and inflicting such a damaging blow seems at odds with the Mayor’s priorities for London’s economic development. He should take the bold and imaginative step of intervening to protect this thriving hub, ensuring that its people and industries aren’t swept away and in so doing supporting the type of creative business clusters that keeps London’s economy resilient.
Surely there is room enough in this massive new development for the thriving community that already exists there. Like the shops and restaurants run by the Elephant and Castle’s Latin American communities, it has sprung up spontaneously, adding diversity and stability to the area. Unless existing businesses and enterprises are at the heart of London’s development plans, we risk the “blandification” of our city, choking off its organic growth and losing its cultural soul.
The city’s forgotten corners are magnets for people who use them for doing extraordinary things. All they ask is to be left alone in their surroundings to make something special out of them.