Clapton Tram Sheds demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall

Clapton Tram Sheds demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall last year

The fate of the historic Clapton Tram Depot in Upper Clapton Road will be decided by Hackney Council’s planning committee this evening.

It will be considering an application to turn the locally-listed building, a building which in the 19th century housed horse-drawn trams, into a combination of  flats and space for light industry.

The tram depot is the subject of ongoing controversy, as alternative visions for its future have been put forward.  Proposals to develop the depot and associated buildings have for several years met with considerable opposition from local residents as well as the craftspeople and artists who work in the buildings, many of whom want to see an arts centre there instead.

The plans to develop it into flats would include partial demolition of the building and the erection of new buildings of up to seven storeys, whereas the structure would be preserved were the arts centre vision to be realised instead.

Those in favour of the arts centre option argue that the premises would become a recognised ‘Centre of Excellence’ for both the creative industries and learning, and they see it as the potential ‘jewel in the crown’ at the heart of a major new ‘cultural quarter’ for Clapton.

“This move is well supported by all sections of the Clapton community and could lead to a resurgence of community spirit and the flowering of the current arts community here,” said Ian Rathbone, Chair of Clapton Arts Trust and local councillor for Leabridge ward.

“The Depot is integral to the new ‘Clapton cultural quarter’, and in step with the Government’s aim to build new media, IT and creative centres of excellence in the East End, generating jobs and wealth. The Tram Depot as it is now could have been purpose built – it just needs refurbishing and a little ingenious conversion,” he said.

David White, Secretary of the Clapton Arts Trust said: “Surely a vision with such obvious and overwhelming merits, is to be widely welcomed and so practical, that you’d have to support it as a wonderful way of bringing regeneration.

“The structurally sound series of historic buildings that make up the Tram Depot complex would be refurbished and the large, light filled studios and workshops (including some live/work studios) brought up to modern standards for local artists, craftspeople and bespoke manufacturers.”

He went on: “The current 30ft+ high ceilings are essential to create and exhibit public art and sculpture of the type now exported worldwide and needed by the Clapton Art Trust’s burgeoning education program.”

Under the arts centre plans, new ultra-modern studios would be added, to contrast and delineate them from the Victorian buildings, providing space for media education and access without the need to completely demolish any of the current locally listed complex of buildings.

At the front of the depot there would be a cafe, restaurant/bar and event space, providing entertainment and activities for a wide range of different audiences at different times of the day and week.

With exhibition and art shop space adjacent it would provide spaces for local people, residents and visiting professionals alike to both exhibit, perform or be entertained. The proposal also includes shops which would sell artists’ and other work, and offer other services.

The new studios and refurbished workshops would provide the space for both resident and invited professional artists to take a variety of educational workshops and courses.

The large floor space and high ceilings in the buildings throughout the depot are unique locally and ideally suited to their current use and therefore our proposed same and similar use. Many have full-length skylights and are in high demand, with a long waiting list. They are also seen as ideal for creative industries due to the ‘atmospheric’ and historic character of the buildings.

The Clapton Arts Trust is about to complete a twelve-month consultation process with residents and stakeholders. First stage findings show overwhelming support for an arts centre.

The Trust says that their proposals are supported locally by the Hackney Society, The Victorian Society, Save Britain’s Heritage, members of the local conservation committee, and the vast majority of current depot residents and small businesses.

Also backing the arts centre scheme are all six local Hackney councillors (Leabridge and Hackney Downs wards), local residents’ associations, a number of Upper Clapton Road shops and over 300 other local residents who have signed the paper petitions.

Meanwhile, Hackney Council’s planning sub-committee will this evening be considering an application partially to demolish the existing building and renovate what remains, as well as constructing five buildings ranging in height from two storeys to seven storeys. Together, the buildings would house 85 flats and 1867 square metres of space for light industry.

This proposal is a revised version of a previous planning application; under the new plans the number of flats is reduced, plans for a community centre are removed, and several other changes are made to the design of the proposed new buildings.

Many local residents have lodged formal objections to the proposals, and 665 people have signed a petition objecting to the plans. Formal objections have also been made by a range of local organisations, including the Clapton Conservation Area Advisory Committee, English Heritage, the Hackney Society and the Clapton Arts Trust.

The Hackney Society’s objection notes that changes in the formal rules relating to planning oblige local authorities to take the heritage value of a building into consideration: “The government’s new (2010) ‘Planning Policy Statement 5’ (PPS5) requires local planning authorities to take into account the significance of a heritage asset whether it is listed or not (see policy HE7). This fundamentally alters the planning context. It places a far greater onus on the council to justify any decision to allow the destruction of a heritage asset by, in effect, removing the defence that the asset was not listed”.

The site was granted ‘local listed’ status in October 2010. The Hackney Society comments that “We appreciate that a local listing provides no statutory protection but suggest that if there is to be any point to local listings at all, then it must be to tip the argument more towards preserving the listed building and away from demolition.”

Related: Love local landmarks? Protect your favourite Hackney building