The manager of a trendy café at the centre of a row over alleged favouritism by Hackney Council has defended the enterprise, saying it does not compete with local businesses.
Traders in the Narrow Way in Hackney Central have complained about sky-high rents – but now it has emerged the Labour-run council sub-lets premises on the street to pop-up café-cum-gallery Hackney Heart rent-free.
Figures obtained by Conservative London Assembly Member Andrew Boff show the Town Hall is subsidising Hackney Heart to the tune of £16,000 over six months as part of its regeneration of the Narrow Way.
Hackney Liberal Democrat spokesperson Tony Harms said: “It appears that the people of Hackney are, without any consultation, subsidising a commercial enterprise in a prime location, and one which will compete with established businesses in the area.”
Anti-gentrification protesters staged a sit-in at the café this weekend.
Jane MacIntyre, who runs Hackney Heart, said: “It was a sit-in in inverted commas because they didn’t actually come in the shop, but I had people outside the shop shouting at me and calling me yuppie scum.
“I tried to explain Hackney Heart is open to anyone.
“One of the protesters ended up saying he wanted to run a film night here and wanted to help out in the shop.”
Ms MacIntyre said Hackney Heart is run with help from one volunteer and one staff member paid the minimum wage.
She added: “I welcome this publicity in one sense as it has given me the chance to do some outreach work and give a massive shout-out to anyone who wants to use this space.
“It’s for community use. We’ve held a lot of free events here and I have a track record of running community events.”
Critics have cited the council’s comparatively less accommodating attitude towards longstanding bookshop and arts space Centerprise, which specialised in catering for the black community and which was forced out of its premises in Dalston last year after the Town Hall hiked up its rent.
Tony Harms said: “The council insisted that Centerprise, a well established and valuable local resource for the black and minority ethnic community, should pay a market rent.
“It seems extraordinary that they should now offer this prime location in the Narrow Way rent free to a commercial company. Having decided to pedestrianise the Narrow Way, against the wishes of local traders, is the council now saying that shops cannot be let?
“They must be more open about this very worrying situation.”
Hackney Council did not reply to an enquiry from the Hackney Citizen asking whether there was any competitive tendering process to run Hackney Heart.
A council spokesperson said the lease was “flexible”, adding: “If a big retailer comes along we will obviously go for this to improve the street and try and find an alternative location for Hackney Heart.
“We are also working with the landlord to help him find an appropriate long term retailer to go into the space.
“The lease on the property was offered by the Hackney Central Town Centre Partnership in agreement with the landlord and there was only one volunteer willing to take it on.
“The shop barely breaks even and is unlikely ever to make a profit.”
‘Whatever you want it to be…’
Andrew Sissons, the council’s Head of Regeneration Delivery, said: “The current Hackney Heart leaseholder is contracted to voluntarily run the space on a day-to-day basis during the period of the lease.
“The shop is available for the community to use for events and activities which engage local people by sharing information and providing creative opportunities for people to contribute to the current discussions about the regeneration of the Narrow Way. ”
Jane MacIntyre said: “This idea that I’m a rival to the other shops in the Narrow Way I don’t understand.
“I’ve got a really good relationship with other traders in the Narrow Way.
“I don’t want to take any business away from them. I’m not taking business away from them as I’m doing something very different.
She said Hackney Heart is not a commercial enterprise, adding: “People can come in here and not buy anything. People can take books away for free. Many, many people come in here and don’t buy anything. Elderly people come in just for a chat.
“It’s a free gallery space and a free events space.
“It’s almost what anyone wants it to be.”
She added that the premises had been empty for a year before Hackney Heart opened around two months ago.
The regeneration of the Narrow Way and landmark pedestrianisation of the street have been criticised by some traders who have expressed worry about what they have branded the ‘yuppification’ of the area.
Last year Hackney Council was forced to go back to the drawing board and commission new images of the Narrow Way after an artist’s impression of the street was slammed for being ‘too white’.
At the time Black and Ethnic Minority Network chief officer Ngoma Bishop said the original image “revealed Hackney’s transformation into a borough inhabited almost entirely by young white people”.
Update at 11.54am on 3 February 2014:
Hackney Council claims there was a competitive tendering process to run Hackney Heart but has not said whether the opportunity to take on the lease was advertised anywhere.