Holloway women’s prison in Islington, London, closed in 2016 as part of the government’s £1.3bn prison building and reform programme. Receipts from prison land sales are to be used for the construction of new prisons. HMP Holloway was the only women’s prison in London and sits on a 9 acre site of public land in Islington, the most densely populated borough in London with some of the highest housing costs.
The site is still currently owned by the Ministry of Justice who have made clear their intention to sell and capitalise on the assets. If their plans aren’t challenged, the risk is that the site will be purchased by property developers to build flats priced beyond the reach of many.
What if the needs of local people were put before the profit seeking, prison building motives of the Ministry of Justice and property developers?
Last year, we launched A Community Plan for Holloway, funded by Trust for London, to ensure that local residents have an opportunity to influence the development plans for the site. Community led planning is a way of prioritising the needs of the community and to begin to understand local needs. We have published Islington: A local needs analysis to highlight a range of issues facing people living in the borough. The report provides a helicopter view of the kinds of problems people experience and the report will be used in an online survey and in local meetings to encourage people to think positively and creatively about what could and should exist in the footprint of the Holloway prison site.
In a recent crime survey of 2,000 Islington residents it was found that their biggest concern, by quite some margin, was housing costs. 70% of people thought the cost of housing was a problem, and half thought it was a major problem. As the local needs analysis I recently carried out shows, they’re not wrong. From the cost of buying a home, to the cost of a monthly rent, putting a roof over your head in Islington is an expensive business. The average cost of a house in 2015 was £583,000, a whopping 16.5 times residents’ average earnings. Based on what you can typically borrow from a lender, that would mean someone would need to take out about four mortgages! And it’s getting worse by the minute. Only three years previously average house prices were 12 times average earnings. No wonder the number of people living in mortgage-owned housing in the borough fell 9% between 2001 and 2011. Over the same period, the number of people renting privately rose 85%.
Private tenants face some of the highest rents in London. Someone on average gross earnings of £2,616 a month could expect to pay two thirds of it on rent in 2014/15. And what do they get for all this cash? Some of the poorest quality housing in the borough. Consider that in relation to the local authority owned housing stock, 100% of which now meets the Decent Homes Standard. But the number of council-owned homes is falling fast. Between 1997 and 2016, the number of homes owned by the local authority dropped by a third. This was accompanied by a 17% fall in the number of people living in social-rented accommodation (which includes people in housing association owned homes too).
But you might be scratching your head thinking ‘I thought everyone in Islington was loaded? Isn’t it the home of the croissant-munching metropolitan elite?’. Whilst Islington is home to a number of wealthy people, it also has very high levels of poverty, deprivation and need.
Just take a look at some of the figures. It is the 24th most deprived of England’s 326 local authorities. It has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in the UK, with 38% of children living in households on very low incomes. One in ten people of working age are on the main out-of-work benefits. At least 442 households became homeless last year, and there were 881 households in temporary accommodation arranged by the local authority at the end of September, including 1,124 children. 20,733 households are on the waiting list for social housing. It has the second highest rate of recorded domestic violence incidents in north London, with 1,873 incidents recorded in 2015, and an estimated 7,119 actual incidents. One in six adults have depression, anxiety or both, and it has the highest rates of recorded serious mental illness in London and England. Males living in the most deprived parts of the borough live 5.3 fewer years than males in the least deprived areas.
And this is to say nothing of the levels of need experienced by the women who were formerly held in Holloway prison. In the year prior to its closure, more than 1,891 passed through the prison and on any given day there were around 525 women held there. One in four had contact with mental health services in the year before imprisonment. One in two experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood. One in three will have spent time in local authority care, and one in five will were homeless before they went to prison.
The Holloway prison site offers a once in a generation opportunity to provide decent housing that residents can actually afford, as well as services and community infrastructure that goes some way to tackling some of the issues I’ve outlined here. To squander the opportunities presented by this former prison site to line the already fat pockets of London property developers would be a tragedy.
Matt Ford conducts research and policy analysis for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and is author of Islington: A local needs analysis.