Hackney Fashion Hub: A parallel universe of tourist wealth, launching in 2014

A tsunami-sized wall of cash is heading to Morning Lane, a shabby thoroughfare in Hackney - but who will benefit from it?

Two years after the riots, a tsunami-sized wall of cash is heading towards Morning Lane, a shabby thoroughfare in Hackney.

The local council secured £5m from the Greater London Authority’s regeneration fund for areas affected by the riots and it is being spent on a project costing tens of millions and called the “Hackney Fashion Hub”. Fashion outlets, a café and design studios will be housed in two new seven- and five-storey buildings and 12 railway arches located opposite and adjacent to the old Burberry factory, which has attracted busloads of Japanese tourists since it opened as an outlet store in the 1990s.

The developers are the Manhattan Loft Corporation, “the company who brought loft living to London” and whose recent projects include “67 of the most unique apartments in London, on the top floors of the Grade I-listed St Pancras Renaissance Hotel”. The architect is the trendy David Adjaye and work starts in 2014.

As well as big-brand fashion salesrooms, the development will include design studios “where locals can show their work”. The stress is on the word “local” and the council is keen to persuade us that this project is not just to attract tourists and investment from the Far East.

So we, the locals, should be over the moon about it, shouldn’t we? I spoke to Lia, who lives in Hackney and works at a vegan, volunteer-run café on Clarence Road, a focus of the London riots. She knew nothing about the development. But some local people do know and are into their designer brands – as the discerning young men who looted the Carhartt outlet near London Fields showed in 2011. Perhaps this is why David Adjaye’s shops on Morning Lane have massive, futuristic-looking riot shields on the front. I asked Adjaye Associates about them and got this reply: “No, those are simply shutters; all shops have shutters on them. They are shutters that cleverly also function as rain shields.”

Hackney Council claims that the new hub will be physically integrated with and encourage visitors to go to “other areas of Hackney” (such as the betting shops and pawnbrokers on the Narrow Way) and “new signage” will encourage them to do that. But in reality it is separated from Hackney Central by the bus station on Bohemia Place, while retailers on the Narrow Way in central Hackney, a site of rioting, are excluded from the party.

They are somewhat disgruntled. So the council has painted bright geometric shapes on the road outside their premises. “Next week we’re getting some pot plants,” said Ayub, who owns a local clothes shop. “They’re trying to kill us.”

So everyone has been catered for: the underclass in the ghetto of the Narrow Way and Clarence Road; the Chinese, South Korean and Japanese visitors in their parallel universe of tourist wealth on Morning Lane; and those who can afford the new flats on Chatham Place. If the shopkeepers still feel dissatisfied, they could participate in a scheme the council has set up called Hackney Is Friendly; it’s a “place to find a friendly face on the Narrow Way. Come in and say hello if you’re passing.”

 

It's all no change in Hackney: a simulated view of the new fashion hub. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.