In January 2009 I visited the indoor market next to Seven Sisters station, known as the Latin Village because of its traders and goods hailing from Colombia, Argentina and Brazil. Writing for the Guardian, I described it as “unique” and “irreplaceable”. The reason for my visit was that the market had been earmarked for destruction. Haringey Council believed that proposals it backed for a major redevelopment scheme would enhance the Seven Sisters neighbourhood as a whole. “Perhaps that will eventually turn out to be the case,” I wrote. But I added that the passing of the Latin Village as it was “would be a sad thing indeed.”
Nine years on, the Latin Village is still there and on Monday I visited it again. It doesn’t seem much changed: a small, scruffy, yet busily resilient example of the many cultural clusters that reflect London’s energetic openness. Even so, the redevelopment plan is still in place and big questions about it are much the same. When will it happen? Will it happen at all? If it does, who will gain and who will lose? Will the Latin Village be swept away or might it adapt, survive and even thrive in a south Tottenham neighbourhood transformed in the name of regeneration? What can and should Haringey Council do to make things turn out for the best?
My return visit to the market was prompted by an article about it by the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty, whose job title is “senior economics commentator”. Chakrabortty was a fervent champion of the successful Momentum-led campaign to oust the Labour administration in Haringey that had been led by Claire Kober since 2008 and replace it with a different one dominated by admirers of Jeremy Corbyn. That mission was formally accomplished at the borough elections in May.
The Corbynites won by mobilising local Labour members against Kober’s plan to form a joint venture company – the Haringey Development Vehicle or HDV – with property giant Lendlease which would have redeveloped council-owned offices and housing estates. Kober and her team saw the HDV as a practical and imaginative way to improve the quality and quantity of the borough’s housing stock on a large scale. The Corbynites objected that it was privatisation and would result in “social cleansing”. Subscribers to the “social cleansing” grand narrative about London regard Chakrabortty as a figure of great virtue and authority.
The council is now led by Joseph Ejiofor, who sits on a Momentum national body. So admirers of Chakrabortty might have been surprised and alarmed that his column was extremely critical of the new Corbynite administration he’s helped install. His argument was that the “battle” over saving the Latin Village is a case study for how well the “Corbyn Council” is living up to its nickname – indeed its “first big test” – and that “handling it ought to be simple.” He writes that at a meeting held during the summer, “Labour members across the borough voted to stop any demolition of Latin Village and to save it as a ‘cultural asset’.” Chakrabortty delivers a damning verdict: “Ejiofor’s team has a mandate; it’s just not upholding it.”
How, then, might Ejiofor and his administration go about preventing the indoor market from being knocked down and have the Latin Village saved? The quick answer is that, far from being a simple matter, even trying to prevent it would be extremely difficult with serious consequences for the council and the Haringey residents it has been elected to serve. This inconvenient reality is not even mentioned in Chakrabortty’s column, let alone addressed. Neither is the fact that the Seven Sisters regeneration project as a whole makes provision for the Latin Village to not only survive but, at least in theory, to prosper in a new indoor market space in the same location it occupies now. The article is, in short, an incompetent, misleading, puffed-up bag of hot air, which the Guardian should not have published – and not only for the basic failings mentioned above.
The story of the Seven Sisters regeneration scheme begins at least as far back as January 2004, when the Labour Council of that time adopted a plan for the comprehensive redevelopment of land by Seven Sisters station at the angled junction of the A10 Tottenham High Road and Seven Sisters Road. This included – and still includes – a section known as Wards Corner, named after Wards furniture store, which opened in Edwardian times but closed in 1972. Part of it has become the indoor market’s home and the location for the Latin Village.
The council’s plan involved partnering with Grainger PLC, a major UK residential property firm, which has the skills and financial capacity needed for such a large undertaking. Grainger duly set about buying out the various owners of different parts of the Wards Corner site, acquiring its first property (in Suffield Road) in 2005. This is normal practice with such projects. Only once the “land assembly” process is complete and the entire site owned by Grainger can the redevelopment of Wards Corner begin.
In August 2007, Grainger and the council entered into what is called a “conditional development agreement” for bringing about the redevelopment of Wards Corner. This, in simple terms, is a legal contract defining how they would together pursue their shared goal of redeveloping the area. Written into the deal and approved by the cabinet was a promise by Haringey that if and when Grainger reached a point when it was agreed they could no longer persuade individual property owners on the Wards Corner site to sell, Haringey would use its powers of compulsory purchase to take ownership of the missing bits so that they could then be transferred to Grainger. This too is established practice with such schemes.
People reading Chakrabortty’s article might assume that the chronology above all took place under the leadership of Kober – whom Charkabortty has insulted as a “zombie Blairite” – though in fact, it all preceded it: she wasn’t even a councillor until May 2006 and didn’t take the helm at Haringey until 10 December 2008. Grainger secured planning consent for the Wards Corner scheme later that month, but it was challenged and quashed in June 2010 by the Court of Appeal. Then, Haringey refused a revised application by Grainger. Not until July 2012 did the developer secure planning consent.
Finally, in November 2015, after a legal challenge to the new consent was dismissed, Haringey’s cabinet resolved to issue a compulsory purchase order – a CPO – to acquire the remaining pieces of land within the Ward’s Corner site that Grainger had been unable to buy, or make an agreement to buy, by itself. They submitted it to the government, as the law requires, in September 2016. When CPOs are issued – “made” is the official verb – a public inquiry has to be held. One duly took place in July 2017 and everyone now awaits a (rather overdue) green light or otherwise from the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government.
About 10% of the Wards Corner site is actually owned by the council, and committed to the scheme. A larger part, about 25%, is owned by Transport for London. This includes the Latin Village, whose traders rent space from the separate company that manages it. Chakrabortty describes TfL’s involvement as a “complication”. It isn’t. TfL has an arrangement to transfer its land to Grainger once the CPO is confirmed.
Following publication of Chakrabortty’s article, which led to the columnist also sharing his opinions on the BBC, Ejiofor sent a lengthy email to all Labour members in Haringey to “explain the current situation and clarify certain facts”. A key section says:
We have been asked the question of why we cannot just tear up these agreements that we have signed. Were we to attempt to retain the market in its current form, extracting the council from this project would face (sic) the prospect of the council having to pay many millions in compensation to the developer. Considering the budget cuts imposed by central government, this is simply neither feasible nor practical.
Ejiofor is absolutely right. The development agreement is a legal contract with Grainger. It might be argued that Haringey could try to radically renegotiate it, but that would be a huge, draining and financially costly undertaking. Were the agreement cancelled, compensation to Grainger would be decided by the secretary of state. Haringey says that Grainger reported last year that its costs at that point totalled £10.7 million and would now be “much higher” as it has subsequently acquired further land. Loss of future profits might also be claimed for. For the “Corbyn Council”, undoing the agreement would be an act of great self-harm. This is a borough which has already had to reduce its budget by £160 million since 2010, cutting jobs and selling property in order to make ends meet and keep basic services, such as child and adult social care, from falling apart. Now, some cocksure keyboard class warrior on a tidy salary thinks they should throw away a few million more.
What about the 2012 planning permission? Councils do have the power to revoke or modify consents they have previously granted, but, as a House of Commons briefing paper says, “it is in practice strictly constrained”. There is “no power to withdraw a permission unilaterally without the payment of compensation”. Revocations have to be submitted to the secretary of state. Between 2009 and 2016, only three revoked permissions in the whole of England and Wales were submitted for confirmation and all were uncontroversial. The current secretary of state is James Brokenshire, MP for Bexley & Old Sidcup, who recently said that Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan didn’t have ambitious enough house-building targets. How would Chakrabortty rate the Corbyn Council’s chances of getting Brokenshire onside?
Could Haringey withdraw the CPO, even at this extremely late stage? Perhaps, in principle, they could. But such a move would not come free, as a commitment to using CPO is tied into the development agreement. Haringey confirms that it “has no intention of revoking planning consent or the CPO for this development.” Anyone arguing that the “Corbyn Council” can save the Latin Village by simply pulling the plug on the Wards Corner scheme and washing its hands of it has not even begun doing their homework. Yet a star Guardian columnist, its “senior economics commentator” no less, gives Guardian readers the impression it would be a piece of cake. “A bit of imagination, a dollop of willpower, lashings of principle,” would do the job, he claims. For pity’s sake.
What about that other colossal absence from Chakrabortty’s column – the rather relevant fact that the Seven Sisters regeneration programme includes providing the indoor market traders with a new home on the same site it occupies now? This requires that the market will, at first, be relocated to a new building currently under construction on the opposite side of Seven Sisters Road. This is going up on the site previously occupied by Apex House, a council-owned building that housed Haringey’s customer services centre. Grainger is the developer and the project is a separate part of the overall Seven Sisters regeneration scheme, this one containing 40% “affordable” housing. The plan is that the Latin Village will move into this new building to make way for the Wards Corner demolition and then move back across the road into new Wards Corner premises when they are ready.
As this suggests, the Latin Village has, in fact, already been marked out by the council as having special value. The ground floor of the Wards Corner building it occupies was designated an “asset of community value” in May 2014 – before the “Corbyn Council” came along – following an application by the Wards Corner Community Coalition, a group that has been campaigning against the scheme and to protect the market and its traders for at least ten years. Last year, some of the terms of the plan were amended to give the traders extra protections. Ejiofor mentions some of these in his email, including the same floorspace traders currently have being provided in both the temporary market across the road and in the future new Wards Corner development. A fuller list, detailed in a revised Section 106 agreement, would have included three months rent-free in the temporary market space, relocation costs being met and a selection of limits and discounts to keep rent and licence fee costs down until the new market has been functioning for 30 months.
You might or might not regard this as evidence that the council has always wanted the Latin Village to survive and thrive as part of the Seven Sisters regeneration. You might think the protections inadequate. But surely their existence at least merited a mention by Chakrabortty.
Ejiofor’s email also picks up on complaints by Latin Village traders, reported by Chakrabortty, about the conduct of the market’s management, saying that he too is aware of these and that “without predetermining any outcomes” the council is looking into them. But the very first element of the Guardian column he addresses is not that, or even the legal agreements or the re-provision plans but a quite extraordinary section of it in which Chakrabortty’s alleges that the council “sent an enforcement manager to hassle traders”. His column continues:
A pregnant woman running a nail bar was found without a licence, and told to close the shop. In a complaint that I have seen, she said she had felt “embarrassed and humiliated” in front of customers and neighbours. Days later, she miscarried.
The insinuation there seems very clear and extremely serious. My reproducing the passage is absolutely not an endorsement of it. I have no comment to make here on what it describes or on the reported incidents being linked by Chakrabortty. What I will say is that I hope the Guardian’s lawyers had a good look at it before the column was published. If they did, I am surprised they gave it clearance. If they didn’t see it, I would be interested to know why.
In his email to Labour members, Ejiofor, quite rightly, makes no comment about the matter either. But he does provide some background information, explaining that a number of council officers undertook a “compliance and enforcement visit to a number of premises” within the market “in response to a number of issues raised by customers.” He confirms that the woman running the nail bar was found to be trading illegally, and points out that anyone running a business of that kind must obtain a licence to do so. Licensing is designed to help protect customers against coming to harm. It is a basic responsibility of any local authority to ensure that such licenses have been obtained. This is what Chakrabortty calls hassling. Does he think Latin Village traders should be exempt from laws everyone else is expected to obey?
The council says it had “received several complaints about conditions at the market” and that “statutory food safety inspections” were due. It was decided to deal with all of these things in one visit. The council adds that officers have since spoken to the woman stallholder to assist her with meeting her legal requirement and now await her licence application.
Returning to the failure of Chakrbortty to include in his column any mention of the 2007 development agreement, the 2012 planning consent or the arrangements for providing the Latin Village with a new home, some large questions arise. Did Chakraborrty not know about any of those things? If not, why not? And if he did know about them, why did he not share that information – so fundamental to any telling of the Latin Village story – with Guardian readers? Perhaps senior Guardian editors should look for answers.
Sadly, simplistic, selective, sensationalist and therefore misleading coverage of London housing, planning and “regeneration” issues is a routine element of the Guardian’s output, from its daft mischaracterisation of “cockney” neighbourhoods, to its dismantled “expose” of Lewisham’s plans to redevelop land around Millwall Football Club. Like some business class Skwawkbox it perpetuates emotive, populist narratives about so-called “social cleansing”, population shifts and the effects of overseas investment that help reduce complex issues to slogans and deny a trusting readership the depth, clarity and quality of coverage it should receive. Life is not so easy for politicians and public servants who have to weigh and measure the pros and cons of huge decisions about how to make this city a better place in circumstances that are less than ideal. Reducing such difficult judgements to placard pieties is just spin and denial.
There is, however, a particular local backdrop to the Latin Village affair. Although both Ejiofor and his deputy leader Emine Ibrahim are senior Momentumites, many hardcore Corbynite activists – who include non-Labour members of Far Left parties and groups – didn’t want Ejiofor to become council leader. The Stop HDV campaign derided his opposition to the scuppered Lendlease deal as “spotty”, and an “indicative ballot” of Labour branch delegates suggested that another councillor, Zena Brabazon, might be the rank-and-file’s choice. Ejiofor beat Brabazon and others to the leadership in the ballot of his fellow Labour councillors – the electorate that decides these things – with the help of the Group’s remaining so-called “moderates”, who thought him the least bad option of the likely winners. Some members of the Group aren’t happy with that outcome, and neither are their kindred spirits in the branches and beyond.
Chakraborrty described the Latin Village as the Corbyn Council’s “first big test”, but it isn’t. That came back in June, when the cabinet had to decide how to respond to a report showing that two housing blocks in Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate were a fire risk and that one of them would have to be evacuated within a few months. Council officers advised that the best course of action for residents and council alike would be to demolish the block and have a new one built in its place. The cabinet agreed. But Stop HDV activists and others complained about the treatment of residents. The council also appears to be encouraging residents of Tottenham’s Love Lane estate to vote for the continuation the a long planned demolition and rebuilding of their estate in a forthcoming ballot, but it’s a scheme some Labour councillors and activists want stopped.
In a previous piece about Haringey, Chakrabortty insisted that the downfall of Kober’s administration was brought about by a popular community uprising. But some observers of the Haringey scene, rotten cynics that they are, find this a little fanciful. They regard characters portrayed in Charabortty’s accounts as gentle, normally passive “locals” stirred to righteous dissent against the vile forces of neoliberalism and their traitorous “Blairite” collaborators as, in truth, battle-hardened, oppositional old Lefties in disguise. Now, Chakrabortty’s Latin Village piece has clearly put pressure on Ejiofor. Why else would he take the time to compose a long, rebutting email and send it to every Labour member in the borough?
Dear me, we could gossip all day. But let’s consider whether Chakrabortty has any kind of general point when he contends that Ejiofor’s administration isn’t behaving as a Corbyn Council should. That, I suppose, depends on what you were hoping for or expecting. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that Ejiofor and others have passed a test, not failed one – they’ve recognised some of the cold, hard realities of running a London borough and decided not to pretend they don’t exist.
As for the Latin Village, its future is still not certain. It might be that the Haringey CPO is not approved. Such an outcome would certainly prolong the saga further. However, it seems unlikely. Its fate lies with Brokenshire’s ministry and planning CPOs have a recent success rate of over 80%. Those approved can be challenged, as can those turned down. But the odds appear to favour Haringey and Grainger getting their way. And so, the days of the Latin Village in its present form still look numbered, just as they were when I first went there in 2009. I still think it unique and its very nature makes it irreplaceable. If and when its relocation goes ahead, the council should do all it can to help make it unique and irreplaceable in a new and different way in the future.