London’s industry is being cleared for a luxury flat monoculture

Not everybody wants to commute into central London to work in an office, or get up at 4am to clean it


Cross the canal from the Olympic Stadium and you’ll enter Fish Island, part of a thriving industrial and artistic hub in Hackney Wick. But among the brewers, scaffold yards and gas suppliers, the trendy cafes and artists’ studios, you’ll find empty lots, building sites, and new blocks of luxury flats.

Hackney Wick is a microcosm of a trend that has been reshaping London in recent decades, flattening these jumbles of vibrant and often creative industry to make way for a sterile monoculture of luxury apartments and city jobs.

I’ve published a new report today calling for the mayor to rethink the release of these industrial sites, and to do more to protect the employment they provide. I visited businesses in Hackney Wick, Charlton and Peckham, and heard from experts at Cass Cities, UCL and Just Space.

It’s a common misconception that these sites are empty and underused, and that manufacturing in London is an anachronism. In fact, vacancy rates on industrial sites are now lower than most high streets, and in Hackney Wick only four per cent of the sites are unused.

That hasn’t stopped property developers and planning authorities from kicking viable businesses out, to make way for homes. Councils and the mayor are desperate to solve our housing crisis, but in the process they risk making the jobs crisis worse.

Not everybody wants to commute into central London to work in an office, or get up at 4am to clean it. All those people working in skilled and semi-skilled manual jobs are being left behind by the mayor’s obsession with banks, business services and the creative industries.

In the seven years from 2006-13 we lost 750 football pitches worth of industrial land, twice the benchmark set by the mayor’s London Plan. That could get even worse, as the government has consulted on extending permitted development rights to light industrial land. That would let greedy developers buy up and develop sites without even needing planning permission for the change of use.

Just think, for a moment, about the implications, given that developers can double their money just by buying industrial land in London and then getting its planning status changed to residential, ready for development.

It could be a complete disaster, a gold rush for developers as they bulldoze businesses and build more flats with Tesco Metros and empty office space on the ground floor.

Thankfully, the City Hall planners seem to realise there may be a problem here. When I asked the deputy mayor for Planning about this a few weeks ago he told me that they have now commissioned a review of industrial land.

I welcome this study. It will consider whether ‘less high-value activities [are] critical to sustaining the city’s metabolism’, and whether ‘businesses are moving further into outer London, or further outside of London’ creating ‘increased congestion’ and ‘negative externalities… including emissions.’

But the mayor refused to join me in lobbying against the permitted development rights, and won’t make any changes to his London Plan in his term of office. I don’t think we should wait until after the elections next year to protect London’s industries.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party Assembly member and deputy chair of the Policing & Crime Committee. Follow her on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.