Holloway Prison closed, suddenly, in 2016. The initial response of genuine shock was met with a community group-led resistance and a local authority response that sought to safeguard the site for affordable housing.
Three years on, at a Kanda organised photo shoot, the Mayor of London, Leader of the Council, local MP and representatives of Peabody and London Square announced the purchase of the site and plans for a 60% affordable housing masterplan with a women’s centre to honour the legacy of the site.
Starting to design the consultation process was slightly daunting: the largest residential-led site for a generation in Islington; a diverse set of community groups connected to legacy; local residents with concerns over impact and a policy landscape among the toughest in London.
It took three years to get to committee and three appearances to finally get approval. Whilst there were a few late twists and turns, the integrity and openness we demonstrated throughout the process allowed members to focus on a small, specific set of issues and seek more information on these points.
The public-facing consultation began with an extensive stakeholder audit and mapping. This became the basis of who we were seeking feedback from and on what issues. The provision of affordable housing and the types of tenure were consistent points of discussion, but so too were the issues that make the site unique: honouring the legacy, designing a Women’s Centre (without a brief for the services provided), ensuring sustainable development and providing exemplar affordable homes in a dense urban form.
The consultation spanned the pandemic lockdowns. We started in the summer of 2019 in a bright and repurposed Visitors’ Centre on the site but outside the prison grounds. Over 300 people came to the first event where we collated ideas, listened to stories of the site, and challenged people to build their own vision for Holloway out of a carefully calculated number of Lego bricks.
This was designed to be as inclusive as possible. We discussed broad themes and started with a blank piece of paper. There was no technical jargon or policy speak – we wanted to know what people understood and what they wanted from the site.
Two further events were held in person, on the potential for the Women’s Centre and an update on the masterplan before everything was forced to move online. The former Holloway Prison site was one of the first in London to host a virtual exhibition, still relying on physical flyers to publicise the event, but also using social media more than ever before.
The online experience was good – people could view the materials and respond in their own time. At a time when opportunities became restricted the project became something to get involved with.
Throughout the off-and-on-line contact with community groups, we organised meetings with the main three community groups interested in the site and local residents. The initial response to lockdown was to increase the frequency of meetings to allow for easier communication, meaning every fortnight 15 of us were able to discuss progress.
The masterplan for the site was effectively redrawn three times following consultation, with the number of homes settling at 985 (60% affordable), and the Women’s Centre increased in size to double the size of the education block in the old prison. Further commitments were made on playspace, routes through the site, energy generation and use, and an extra care facility for older people.
The final consultation event took place online, but also in a ventilated Marquee on the site for interested people to see the model. Through this process, we were able to advise residents on a neighbouring estate on how to set up a TRA, arrange site visits to gardens and examine a series of unusual boundary treatments. There is an efficiency to online consultation, but a warmth in the personal touch, even in October!
Underpinning this was a creative, bespoke visual identity, collateral, and in some cases merchandise that allowed the consultation team to be a collaborative player in the design process. We were seen as advocates and amplifiers for important community issues to the client team, and as a conduit for important information in the other direction.
The politics of planning is never far from view in Islington, and rightly so: with 14,000 people on the housing waiting list and the least amount of green space of any borough in the UK, land in Islington is precious. Consistent, clear, and timely communications enabled members to understand the trade-offs and the benefits along with site constraints through various site tours, member forums, and individual conversations. Crucial to the tall buildings policy being breached and being acceptable was the better-than-policy-compliant affordable housing offer.
Perhaps fittingly, the final tours of the site were for 40 American and Canadian female construction workers – the result of a trans-Atlantic collaboration of community groups promoting opportunities in the construction industry to women.
The site of the former Holloway Prison presented an unparalleled and unprecedented experience and opportunity for the client, the community, and Kanda. This does not mean the knowledge gained is unusable elsewhere, the energy, discipline, and stamina to continue promoting the benefits of an excellent scheme are a badge of honour for everyone connected with the scheme.