Save Ridley Road – how the community is fighting back against faceless developers

Whilst the media bemoans the ‘death of the high street’, across London, investors are trying to drive out the kind of local, culturally appropriate small retail that keeps areas alive.

Danny Hayward
10 December 2018

Image: Save Ridley Road protestors. Credit: Justin Griffiths-Williams, with kind permission.

For thousands of people Ridley Road is what makes Hackney possible. It is a place of work for more than a hundred independent traders. It is a place where you can buy good food for little money. It is a place that is full of music and joy and transformation like almost nowhere else in London, and the people who use it know that it embodies more than any archive the complex experience of generations of the people who have moved through the borough and fought to make it what it is.

It is, also, a prime piece of underdeveloped real estate, and it is under immediate threat.

The threat first burst out into the open in the middle of October this year, when traders at the Ridley Road Shopping Village received a scrap of paper from their building manager declaring that the Shopping Village would shut its doors in two weeks. A helter-skelter campaign by traders and local community groups got the evictions cancelled, for now. But as of the time of writing, the landlords are still trying to force new and degraded contracts on the tenants. Their planning application to turn the Shopping Village into flats has not yet been rejected. Rent increases for street traders have raised questions about the Council’s long-term commitment to the market. And on the horizon more dark clouds are forming.

Whose Ridley Road?

The Ridley Road Shopping Village is a large commercial unit at the east end of Ridley Road. In decades past it was a Tesco, but recently it’s been used for a variety of purposes related to the street market itself. Its basement is one of a number of important storage sites for the market street traders, its ground floor is a maze of jewelers, record shops, t-shirt printing facilities and tailors (the majority of which are Caribbean-run), and on its first floor a further 50 or so artists rent small studio desk spaces. The building is currently owned by Larochette (a company registered in the Virgin Islands tax haven), which bought the Shopping Village for £6.5m at the end of 2016. A planning application for its conversion into 10 luxury flats plus ‘high quality’ retail was made in the middle of this year.

To the west of the Shopping Village is another large building, Ridley Road Villas. The Villas are home to a vast homeless hostel well known for its rat infestations and puzzlingly high rents. Less well known is the fact that the basement of the Villas provides more essential storage space for the street market, and that their management company is primarily controlled by Aitch Group. Aitch Group advertises itself as a ‘boutique property developer’ and is heavily involved in residential developments in Hackney Wick, of the ‘unique waterside living’ variety.

The street market itself is owned by the Council, whose positions on its long-term viability have oscillated significantly during the last 15 or so years. In 2015 the Council introduced a significant rent increase for traders with street stalls, but, as of yet, this seems not to have driven away large numbers of traders.

The coming fight

A fight over the future of the market is now inevitable. On the one hand, we have an assortment of independent traders, part-time workers, homeless people and artists, along with the enormous constituency of people who go to the market to shop, socialize or wander. On the other, we have a group of savvy mid-size property developers with large East London holdings and a track record of marketing flats to right-to-buy landlords and international investors.

If Larochette and Aitch win in this fight, then the results are easy to predict. First the Shopping Village traders will be forced out, to be replaced by expensive residential accommodation and ‘micro-stores’, more likely closer to the model of Shoreditch’s Box Park than to the current template of small retail related to the cultural passions of people who actually live here. That in turn will be the signal for Aitch Group to wind up Ridley Villas, push its homeless population back out into the streets, and submit an application for a large complex of flats of the ‘unique warehouse style’ that it already flogs in the high six-figures on its generically tasteful website. The loss of storage for the street traders will lead in turn to a significant curtailment of activity in the market, and before anyone has time to blink a hundred and twenty years of independent working-class culture will be reduced to a rump of four or five stalls, the main purpose of which will be to supply to Larochette’s and Aitch’s respective property portfolios with a light touch of historical ‘character’.

Joining the campaign

This can’t be allowed to happen. The first round of the conflict, relating to the outrageously insensitive attempted eviction of the Shopping Village traders, needs to be taken as a wake-up call. East London residents can come together to push back the developers, force the Council to block applications for planning permission, and to rejuvenate our area. We have a narrow window in which to build a representative movement to deepen what we love about Hackney; otherwise it will be ripped away from us very quickly indeed.

There are a number of things you can do:

1) Donate to the Shopping Village traders’ legal defence fund. This is so important! Some of the traders have already left. Those who have remained have shown considerable courage in staying and fighting. It will be much easier for them if they know that they can pay for a solicitor to represent them in court if necessary. It will also be much easier for the supporters of the Save Ridley Road campaign to fight for the market alongside traders who have experienced standing up to the developers and winning.

2) Join Save Ridley Road. Save Ridley Road is a coalition of groups and individuals who work, live or shop at the market, and who want to come together to ensure that any changes that take place there will not be decided on the whims of property developers. The Facebook Group will be a place where we can share information about the news and coming actions.

3) Object to and expose the developers’ planning applications. It takes confidence to make objections to planning applications, and the process can seem arcane. But numbers matter, and we need people to come out and say what they feel. Groups like Save Ridley Road are trying to help people develop some shared knowledge about the grounds on which each of us can object to developments that are not in the interests of Hackney residents.

4) Build from within market campaigns. We need to build strong, deep, diverse organisations to fight for the places where we can live variously and well. But to do that we need to be active in the places where that living is already happening. Save Latin Village, 35% Campaign, and other, similar groups are spearheading this work and should get our unstinting support.

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