Developers are being pressed for further information by both councillors and campaigners this week over the level of affordable housing to be provided in the sweeping transformation coming to Hackney Central.
The two-phase scheme around the Tesco on Morning Lane will see a number of mixed-use residential and office buildings built around a new public square, with retail spaces focusing on space for makers, described by developers Hackney Walk Ltd as “something very new to Hackney Central but also something that belongs”.
However, little information has so far been released on how many of the planned 450 homes will be genuinely affordable, or on the precise height of the planned skyscrapers themselves, which will range from four to 19 storeys.
At a Hackney Central ward forum, secretary of Hackney South constituency Labour Party Dr Heather Mendick said: “[Hackney Walk] say that they don’t really have any idea how many social rent or council homes there will be, but I want ballpark figures.
“Are they thinking 20 per cent council, 30 per cent social, or are we thinking 0 per cent council, 0 per cent social rent, or 20 per cent so-called affordable, but not actually affordable?
“Height has also very much been glossed over. The Town Hall bought the Tesco land for £55m, and they said at the time that it was to gain more control over development.
“This development sounds like any other kind of development, so what has it leveraged? What has it got out of buying the site?”
The Town Hall took out a £55m loan from the Public Works Loan Board to purchase the Morning Lane site, saying at the time that its use of such funds to buy up land enabled it to have more control over what came forward in the area.
The developer are contracted to deliver at least 20 per cent affordable housing, with the council said to be “hoping they would do better.”
Planning policy for the area target 50 per cent of all homes to be affordable, with a tenure split of 60 per cent social rent to 40 per cent intermediate.
A council report reads: “Viability negotiations have commenced but are at a very early stage. Any shortfall against policy targets will have to be robustly justified.”
Having bought the land from Tesco, it then simultaneously signed a deal with Hackney Walk, who have five years to “get themselves organised”, according to Chris Pritchard, Hackney’s director of strategic property services.
Pritchard said: “We didn’t want a deal with a developer where they can sit on it forever and ever and nothing happens, so there is some pressure on Hackney Walk for them to bring it forward without putting them under so much pressure they can’t build anything at all, or give them such short space of time they can’t build it.”
The Town Hall stand to get a “big chunk” of the £55m back when construction starts onsite, and will get a share of rents from it in perpetuity when it is completed.
Residents on Tuesday night questioned how the new public space will be managed, quizzing Hackney Walk on if the square will be truly open to the public, getting the response: “Public space is public space.”
However, the square has also given councillors on the Town Hall’s planning committee pause for thought, with Cllr Brian Bell (Lab, Brownswood) warning Hackney Walk off its potential use as an excuse for not being able to provide affordable housing.
At a planning committee meeting to look at the plans, Cllr Bell asked officers how little affordable housing Hackney Walk “are trying to get away with”, provoking laughter from the developers.
Cllr Bell said: “If you choose to leave a big gap of a square, that’s wasting space then I couldn’t support it for a second, as they could build more housing of which more could be affordable. People are crying out for affordable housing.”
Planning committee chair Cllr Vincent Stops (Lab, Hackney Central) pointed out that Bell would “need to have an open mind when [he comes to his] decision and take into account viability”.
Town Hall officers have said they support a new public square.
Residents at Wednesday’s ward forum were told that Hackney Walk plan to return for more detailed consultation on the proposals in the new year.
Pritchard added: “These guys haven’t designed the scheme yet. We don’t know what it’s going to cost to build properly. They have submitted figures on its viability to the planning authority which they are going through.
“Presumably that changes as you get a design together and you know what it’s going to cost to build. We’re a bit in the dark at the moment at how much the scheme’s going to cost and how much money’s in it, so for them to predict where the affordable housing is actually going to come out is quite difficult at the moment.
“I take the point that you can make assumptions if you know you’re going to get about 450 homes, but the reason I’m not pressing them is becasue I know there’s two Channel Tunnel rail lines they’ve got to build across, they’ve got to build it in phases will they have to pay debts before they start selling homes.
“I’m very reluctant to press them on whether it’s going to be this or that, but would rather they were able to tell us that prediction when they are in that part of the programme and know what it’s going to cost to build.”
Concerns have been raised over the impact of large skyscrapers on nearby heritage buildings, including the Grade II-listed Church of St-John-at-Hackney.
While no precise heights have been provided for each building yet, one tower in drawings shown to residents was shown as higher than Trelawney Estate, which is a 15 storey building.
A representative for Hackney Walk said: “The site will be a mixed-use “inspired by and built to support the diversity and spirit of Hackney’s communities. offices and more employment and retail space.
“Retail is undergoing a shift. If you’re just going out to buy a list of things, you’re better off doing it on the internet. If you’re going to go out somewhere, you’re looking for an experience and something more imaginative.
“One of the reasons we focused on makers is that we’re competing with the internet. If you see something that’s been made onsite, you can’t get that from the internet.
“In terms of the [retail] mix, I’m going to be as evasive as possible. We’re going to look for as flexible an application as possible, but if at this point I said what the mix shoud be today, I think that would be foolish. The mix we want today would not necessarily be the mix we want three years from now, so I’m avoiding that.”