G: How would you describe Hackney in 3-5 words?

J: Diverse, booming, challenging, renowned, home

G: Hackney is known for its impressive street art scene. The street art tours of East London are probably the most popular tours in London right now and they bring  a lot of tourists to the area, which no doubt contributes massively to the local economy. What are the council’s policy and your personal view on street art?

J: The Council recognises that public opinion on this has changed over time. Some of what traditionally would have been called graffiti is now considered to be street art and valued by many members of the community. The Council’s policy is that in the right place street art can be supported, subject to appropriate permissions being sought and granted, and to that art being appropriate and not offensive.

The problems start when artwork begins to be tagged, which is often immediately. How defaced does it have to become before complete removal would be condoned or even expected by a majority of the public? The Council still receives many more requests for graffiti removal than it ever has for preservation for art works.

My personal view is that street art should have not only the support of the building’s owner, but also that of the local community. I’ve previously been asked for the Council’s permission to paint murals on estates and under bridges etc. Even if it’s acceptable in principle, my reply is: “Don’t ask me, convince the local community that that’s what they want to see when they come out of their front door in the morning.”

G: Who are your favorite street artists in Hackney? 

J: Borondo for sheer artistry and Banksy for wit. I miss Jules and Vincent brandishing the bananas, down at Old Street roundabout when I’m on the 243, it always made me laugh. Plus Banksy is famously not precious about the work’s longevity on a wall, accepting the degradations of tags and municipal intervention as part of street art’s existence.

G: A lot of local people and businsesses are being priced out of Shoreditch / Hackney. What is being done to solve the housing crisis in Hackney? Is there anything that could be done to stop the rent increases?

J: The lack of truly affordable housing is the biggest crisis facing London today, as prices in the centre spiral and in turn place pressure on outer London boroughs and beyond. Shoreditch, like the rest of Hackney, has suffered even greater rises due to the huge increase in its popularity as a place to live – whether for its schools, improved transport links, or just for its atmosphere.

Unfortunately no council has any statutory powers to direct or control the rents charged by private landlords. However, Hackney Council is taking a range of steps to help tackle the issue of high rents and poor standards within the private rented sector in the borough, such as through our Social Lettings Agency.

The Council is working with co-operative private landlords to encourage them to provide housing at lower than market rates, and ideally at rates within the Local Housing Allowance (making properties affordable to households on low incomes). To this end, Council officers meet with private sector landlords on a regular basis in order to encourage them to both improve their standards, and also to raise the Council’s concerns over high rents and the impact this has on households in higher cost areas, such as Shoreditch. The Council’s Social Lettings Agency only works with landlords who provide accommodation to Hackney residents at more affordable Local Housing Allowance rates.

The Council is also working with Shelter and other organisations on affordability in the private rented sector, and we continue to lobby the Government on this issue – asking for more powers to intervene and exercise control to the benefit of local residents. We want more targeted powers for local authorities so they can ensure a fairer deal for renters. In February, we published a ten-point plan setting out how we will help to improve the private rented sector, which included calling on a new Government to take action nationally, as well as calling for greater control for Councils over rents, and specifically for them to be capped by inflation. Unfortunately, the outcome of the general election means that there is little prospect of improvement in the short term.

The new Government’s intention to insist on Housing Associations sell their properties at a discount and force councils to sell more homes to pay for the policy will only see London become more unaffordable – as does their belief that charging 80% of market rent is “affordable” to most normal people.

Hackney Council continues to be one of the country’s largest truly affordable home builders – with new council-owned housing and low-cost shared ownership properties being built. But, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the size of housing need in the borough, not least for the more than 2,000 families we support in temporary accommodation.

G: We supported your petition against the poorly planned redevelopment of Bishopsgate Goodsyard site but in reality who will make the final decision on this new development proposal? I understand that new developments are vital for our borough, but what can be done to make sure that these new developments create value and not diminish it. 

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J: The decision whether to grant or refuse the Bishopsgate Goodsyard application lies initially with both Hackney and Tower Hamlets Councils, but ultimately the Mayor of London (through Greater London Authority [GLA] planning powers), or the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will make the final decision.

If Hackney and Tower Hamlets resolve to approve the application (in Hackney’s case, this will be done through the elected Members on the Planning Sub-Committee), the decision will then have to be endorsed by the Mayor of London for the development to proceed.  If either or both Councils decides to refuse the application, the Mayor of London will again have to endorse this. If the Mayor doesn’t agree with the Councils’ decision to refuse, the GLA can ‘call in’ the application and could resolve to approve the application regardless.  The Mayor of London could also decide to ‘call in’ the application before either council takes a decision and determine the application himself.

The Mayor of London issued his first official comments on the developer’s proposal in January and stated that he was “fully supportive and welcomed the work done to date”. However, he did state that further matters needed to be worked on, most crucially the affordable housing offer and the balance of commercial floor space. Officers working on the project from across the various planning authorities are still in the process of working through a number of issues with the applicants, including those highlighted by the Mayor of London.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government through the department’s planning powers, could also call in the application and determine it at any time, although this is uncommon.  Finally, the Planning Inspectorate arm of the Secretary of State’s office could also make the final decision, depending on if the applicants decide to lodge an appeal in the event the application is refused, or on the grounds of non-determination if the application isn’t determined within the statutory time period.

The Council looks to work with landowners and developers early on to shape their proposals, and ensure that developments create value rather than diminish it. On developments such as the Bishopsgate Goodsyard application, the Council’s Regeneration Delivery team liaise with developers and the planning authority to try and maximise the amount of commercial space, including managed and affordable workspace, space for local start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises, and to secure employment and training opportunities working with the Council’s job brokerage, Ways into Work. These efforts are designed to ensure development proposals don’t just meet the Council’s planning policy requirements, but also create significant local economic benefit and value. Furthermore, the Council and the Mayor of London both charge a Community Infrastructure Levy, which secures funds towards delivering infrastructure to support new development, and planning legislation enables Councils to secure other community benefits, such as the delivery of affordable housing and public realm improvements.

G: The recently launched Business Charter program seems promising; can you tell a little bit more about what kind of businesses are joining in and how local community will benefit from this?

J: Businesses who have been applying to join the charter to date are from a diverse cross section of sectors covering retail, leisure, design, creative technology and the food industry. The Hackney Business Charter will benefit the local community by asking businesses to make a solid commitment to investing in their surroundings and those within it.   There are many ways they will do this, and we are actively encouraging businesses who apply to initiate innovative methods of doing so, which we will share publicly at www.hackney.gov.uk/business-charter as the scheme progresses.

Businesses will be expected to provide employment opportunities for local people and to provide their employees with a fair wage, which in turn will lead to reduced unemployment in the borough, and help create a sustainable and prosperous local economy. Businesses will also be expected to use local resources and services where possible, again contributing to the local economy and supporting their business peers in the borough. Perhaps an example of an instant and direct community benefit is that larger businesses will be advised to take part in Corporate Social Responsibility programmes that benefit local community groups and initiatives, and we are going to make that process as simple as possible by developing a database of community projects that need support, which we can then match up with Hackney Business Charter members.

G: What more could be done to support creative and tech industries that are flourishing in Hackney? What can be done to sustain this growth and make sure that it benefits local community as well as UK in general?

J: Our approach has been to support enterprise and creativity at all levels, but small companies are often the innovators and they’re the ones most likely to create new jobs. However, businesses of all sizes, enterprise, the hospitality sector and the arts are crucial stakeholders in the success of the local economy. Engaging with them and understanding what they need to thrive is a vital element in creating a strong sense of place and one that works to everyone’s benefit. The over-riding purpose of this work for us is to create jobs, training and apprenticeship places and the chance to develop economic opportunities for the whole community.

In Hackney it all starts at town centre level with a team of Town Centre Managers and Business Development Officers dedicated to working alongside businesses and helping to sort everyday issues and manage and animate the high street. At a more strategic level engagement happens at management level with businesses looking to expand and develop new markets at home and abroad or physically expand the business into new buildings. This means having a handle on the local property market, its opportunities and the key operators and land owners in the area.
The Council helps raise the profiles of local companies and facilitate networking through various projects. In Hackney this has led to the creation of a sponsor-funded enterprise centre, BL-NK, which hosts a range of business events; an annual trip to the SXSW festival in Austin Texas with subsidised, sponsored attendance by Hackney’s emerging businesses; and a range of business networking events in the borough. We’re always looking for common interest between the council’s priorities for the community and business needs. For example, the need to recruit highly skilled technical staff and the council’s objective to create training and apprenticeship placements which leads to the creation of local opportunities for young people with high quality employers.

We work with businesses that are forced to leave their current commercial space because of rent increases or because people want to convert the space to another use. We always try to find a solution for these businesses because they are often the very fabric of the area and why people want to locate there. In these instances we always react as fast as possible and try to safeguard these businesses and retain them within the area.

Through the planning process we aim to protect commercial space in the area as much as possible. Where new developments come forward we explain to landowners what the business community want and push for an element of affordable space for start-ups and emerging businesses. We expect interesting and imaginative ground floor uses, especially in places such as Shoreditch where they’re critical to maintain the area as an interesting business location.

We are never afraid to push back on developers to secure the right solutions for buildings and spaces. This means officers spending lots of time upfront on site and doing tours of the area to explain and show the local business community in action at the buildings that they work in. This and ensuring early engagement has saved a lot of commercial property from residential conversion and secured countless jobs and local economic growth.

Together with the support of local businesses, we continue to fight central Government changes to planning laws that would allow commercial to residential conversions easier. The kind of housing that would result from such conversions would only be luxury high-end apartments that would do nothing for those employed locally looking for accommodation. Plus, the loss of much needed business space would further increase remaining commercial rents, driving away the very businesses we want to see thrive in the area.

In relation to the wider community, we’re now making headway in joining up our schools with many tech and creative businesses. Code Club was an idea that allowed local companies to support coding in our primary schools. Hackney also recognised that young people of school age weren’t getting the opportunities of previous generations to gain work experience and so created the Hackney 100 scheme with its aim to place 100 young people from the borough aged 15-18 in paid work placements with local creative companies for four hours per week. There’s also NowCreate, built in partnership between Hackney Council and D&AD, it supports Hackney schools and young people aged 14 to 18 to expand their creative skills and improve their understanding of creative career opportunities, especially in the growth industries around Tech City.

We’re always looking for ways in which local business can help the local community, and in turn the tech and creative sector can be helped to grow. For example, what was once a simple council Christmas lights scheme has been turned into a showcase for the local creative and digital business community. As well as the ability to interact with the installations on the street there have been a series of indoor events such as bicycle-powered cinema screenings. By harnessing the creative talents of local business, something traditional and predictable became unusual and engaging.

G: Politicians are some of the most creative people in the world especially when it comes to creating election promises and programs, but unfulfilled expectations often lead to apathy and affect turnouts in the elections. What could be done to encourage people (especially young people) to vote or to get involved into politics? Why should they care?

J: In my view, politics and elections in particular have become too transactional, where politicians try and buy votes on the basis of a deal, promising that each individual voter will be personally enriched, whether financially or in some other way, as a result of that candidate winning. When at the end of the government’s term people feel no better off, apathy and distrust is inevitable. Politicians should certainly spell out what they intend to try and achieve, but more should be made of the values they will bring to the issue rather than just outbidding the opposition. In that way a more honest debate could be had about the principles and values behind party policies.

Young people are just as concerned about national and international issues as other voters, but increasingly do not see the usual political parties and processes as addressing their concerns. However, I believe that the party political process still offers the most potential for balancing conflicting political views and determining a national government, even if it appears broken at present.

The single biggest thing to engage young people must be to lower the voting age to sixteen. I was previously unconvinced by this, not least because whenever I put the question to groups of school students, they would be divided themselves as to whether they thought they were ready for the responsibility. But in recent years, I have detected a shift in their opinion in favour of moving to sixteen. Plus, during the Scottish referendum, it often appeared to be the sixteen and seventeen year-olds that gave more coherent arguments during TV interviews than many adults, proving they’re more than capable of understanding the issues.