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How a Latin American market became the battleground for Corbynism’s soul

Haringey, the “first Corbyn Council” run by Momentum figures, is displacing a migrant hub to build 200 luxury flats. Why, and what does this say about Labour in government?

A chilly evening marks the end of a working day for traders at Seven Sisters Indoor Market in north London.

Laughing and chatting to friends shutting up neighbouring shops along Tottenham High Road, they trickle out into the night.

Londoners surfacing from the Tube station outside could completely miss this market, with its entrance almost hidden by the outdoor Pueblito Paisa café – popular for its empanadas.

“Maria! Maria!” One man, wrapped in a coat and scarf, yells to a woman closing the shutters on an underwear shop, gesturing towards a rat lurking close by. “Watch out for my bikinis!” she laughs, as it shoots away.

Soon, this community may be leaving their market for the last time.

As part of a project to regenerate Tottenham, Haringey Council has recently given the go-ahead to redevelop this site, known as Wards Corner – named after the defunct Edwardian department store building that has housed migrant stallholders since it closed in 1972.

Grainger, a property developer, will build 196 new flats – none of which will be affordable (below market rate) or social housing – and a new retail space, with only six units allocated to independent stores.

“I’m grieving, because I’m going to lose my community”

There will also be a new market for the original traders to occupy if they choose, a concession tacked on in 2008 at the request of then Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Mock-ups of the development reveal a bland roll call of chain outlets: Accessorize, Boots, HSBC, Costa Coffee and Pizza Express (though the brands have been mildly disguised).

This glassy edifice is a world away from what is known locally as the Latin Village. It’s a labyrinth of fresh food stalls, interspersed with a beauty parlour, barber, estate agent, money exchange and legal advice kiosk.

A convenience store with a butcher’s, bakery and café tacked onto it opens late as a night club at the weekends. This was the place to watch Colombia’s world cup games last year.

Arepas, coffee, and biscuits, juices and other ingredients unique to Latin America, which you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in London, line the stall fronts. Dishes exclusive to the market have developed over the years, including a multi-layered speciality locals call “coquita”, with soup, stew, beans, rice, plantain and pork belly served together over three different plates.

Overlooked by a brightly painted mezzanine level, customers and stallholders wander through the aisles they call calles (“streets” in Spanish), and there is a Calle de los Niños bedecked with paintings by children who play here while their parents work.

For nearly five decades, it’s been a hub for working-class migrant communities in London, originating with African-Caribbean traders. Now chiefly Colombian, there are other South American and Nigerian, Ugandan and Jamaican stalls too.

“It’s a nucleus, an eco-system,” says Stefania Alvarez, a 24-year-old trainee barrister who grew up in the market and made all her friends here. She remembers being struck by the loud music and chatter as a child, and getting in trouble with stallholders while running around and knocking plant pots over.

Stefania came to the UK from Colombia at the age of five, with her mother Vicky – one of the founders of the Latin Village.

I meet them in a makeshift office where we sit on bamboo chairs, above the bright, turquoise nail bar they run called “Pretty Nails”. They have a successful money transfer business here too, called El Cafetal.

“For us, this was heaven”

Fleeing violence after her father was killed by guerrillas, Vicky Alvarez left Colombia and was granted refugee status here. “I was a single mum, raising my daughter who was five years old, I couldn’t afford childcare, so I thought I’d try my luck here and give it a go,” she recalls, having started out with a small clothes shop selling Colombian jeans. “And it paid off.”

Vicky remembers when there were only around three or four other families here. They had parties, cooked familiar recipes from home and listened to CDs of the latest Colombian music in the market.

Now there are around 50-60 stalls, with more than 120 workers who make their livelihoods here.

Vicky was grieving for her father, but built a network around her in a country where she had no family.

Now that network is under threat, and she faces displacement again.

“I’m grieving right now, because I’m going to lose my community,” she tells me, wiping her eyes. “They cannot touch what it means to us here – the memories, the hope, it’s our sense of identity.”

The prospect of demolition has been hanging over Wards Corner for 15 years. Partnering with the council, the property developer began buying out parts of the site in 2005. Stefania remembers the stress of her mother and colleagues whispering about “Grainger” in hushed tones throughout her childhood.

Plans temporarily stalled in 2010, when a High Court appeal brought by local campaigners found Haringey had failed to “promote equality of opportunity and good relations between different racial groups” when granting planning permission.

Wards Corner is locally listed as an “asset of community value”, and the United Nations even intervened in 2017, calling the redevelopment “a gentrification project [that] represents a threat to cultural life”, warning the UK government against it.

Yet Grainger had again secured consent in 2012, and earlier this year the government granted a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to Haringey Council to acquire the remaining land (some of which, above the Tube station, is owned by Transport for London) for Grainger to start work.

***

Haringey Council is known by political observers as “the first Corbyn Council” in the country. Its leadership was ousted last year, when the old guard was deselected and replaced with representatives of Momentum, the campaign network that supports Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Its leader Joseph Ejiofor and deputy leader Emine Ibrahim are two of four public office holders on Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, its “highest body”, responsible for “ensuring that the organisation operates in line with its aims and values”.

Ejiofor and his team were voted in on a manifesto pledging to “do housing differently” – reflecting Corbyn’s national policy to put tenants and residents first.

When elected, the new Labour council scrapped the Haringey Development Vehicle, a controversial public-private housing project. Its developer Lendlease eventually settled out of court with Haringey for an undisclosed fee (it’s thought that the former was trying to claw back some of the £4m it had already spent).

“We’re treating this as a renewal. Nothing stays the same forever”

Why, stallholders ask, can’t Haringey do the same with Wards Corner?

Councillors argue that the long-term commitment has already been made, and cannot simply be torn up.

“I know there are people who would be keen effectively for nothing to change,” Councillor Ejiofor tells me. “[But] some of these things are a long way in the past. There is a reasonable expectation that when two parties sign an agreement that they’ll both keep to it, otherwise somebody gets sued. And I have to say, as a council, we’ve got a little bit of experience of that.”

Although it’s still possible for the Council to withdraw the CPO and cancel the plans, it is reluctant to do so. Ejiofor says it has calculated how much it could cost to scrap the scheme – but “we’re not sharing it with you, no disrespect”.

This comes after the council’s press operation gave a figure of £10m to the left-wing news platform Novara Media, only to hastily water it down to “many millions of pounds” afterwards.

In 2017, Grainger’s total spend had reached £10.7m, according to the Council. Perhaps that’s where its mysterious £10m came from, but its reticence and lack of evidence suggests uncertainty. Grainger will not tell me how much it has spent so far.

Regardless, rather than blaming his predecessors, Ejiofor defends the plan. “We’re treating this as a renewal. Nothing stays the same forever,” he says. “I’m not the youngest person, but within my lifetime Covent Garden was a fruit and veg market. Now for all you youngsters, it’s a hipster place to go on a Saturday night. So things change, right?”

He feels comfortable with the redevelopment, because he believes “nothing will change” for the traders. They will be moved across the road to an equivalent-sized temporary market, which will be there for two and a half years of construction, and then back to the new market, by the original site.

“If I wanted to, I could get rid of 90 per cent of the traders here”

Grainger’s senior development manager Jonathan Kiddle says the market is “unique to the area”: “That is why, as well as delivering new homes and jobs, our plans include a brand new indoor market, located 60 metres from the current one.”

Traders are being offered an initial rent-free period for three months, then a fixed rent for “a period up to five years” (my emphasis), and will have their moving costs covered. They are also being offered a 30 per cent discount on their market licence fee for the first 18 months.

“We are committed to ensure that it’s a sustainable market going forward,” says Ejiofor.

Yet these concessions are not that simple. Ejiofor admits that there will be a “2 per cent per year uplift” on rents each year, and traders do not know what the starting point for their rent will be.

Neither Ejiofor nor Grainger tell me how much the rent will be, and some traders will pay higher rent than they currently do when they move, depending on the size and location of the unit they are allocated by the developer.

This uncertainty unsettles the traders I speak to.

Ever since plans began, some have been made to feel uncomfortable in the market. They have reported incidents of offensive language, verbal abuse, racial discrimination and even violent incidents to the management, police, TfL, Tottenham MP David Lammy and local councillors.

The man who manages the market on behalf of Grainger, Jonathan Owen, was investigated by TfL in March 2017 for his conduct, and claims he’d used language like “bloody illegal immigrants”, called a trader a “fucking bitch,” and declared “a fucking war” on another trader complaining about him.

The report found he’d used offensive language in meetings and personal conversations with traders, and threats (once telling them: “If I wanted to, I could get rid of 90 per cent of the traders here.”) He accepted he’d caused offence and apologised.

Owen is the the director of the company called Quarterbridge, appointed by Grainger to relocate the traders and design the new market, as well as the director of another company and its subsidiary that owns the market’s lease.

For the traders, this amounts to a conflict of interest, as their manager – who is supposed to look out for them and their current market – is part of the team invested in the demolition and relocation.

“We’re all vulnerable, we don’t have a voice, we have a right to be treated with dignity”

Indeed, they are frustrated with his upkeep of the market, which looks very shabby when I visit. Broken electrics, leaks, lack of maintenance, and pests have been neglected, they tell me, and they show me a toilet that’s been left blocked in the men’s loos.

As the original plans 15 years ago didn’t even include a replacement market, and with the inadequate management of their current market, they see their future as precarious.

“For me, to leave is to lose my business and all my investment into it,” says Sanday Nyerende, who has run an estate agent here called “Ben’s Property Solutions” (everyone here calls him Ben) for 14 years. He is from Uganda. “We’re all vulnerable, we don’t have a voice, we have a right to be treated with dignity.”

Ben blames the “council leaders”, who he says “claim they are helping us but they are giving money away, not to us”.

Since last November, a scrutiny panel has given traders the opportunity to air their concerns to councillors, but the Council’s cabinet has not paused plans to hear out this process.

Grainger has been working with a “Steering Group” of traders, with some (nicknamed “collaborators” by one trader I speak to) supporting its plan, but others finding the meetings a tick-box exercise – simply discussing carpet refurbishments and other trivial market matters to waste time.

“The community flows but they’re splitting it up,” says Patrick Rey, Vicky’s partner who works at the money exchange. “They’re dividing us. They say they want a new market, but there’ll be new rents and they will kill it and destroy it. The community spirit can never be replicated, and nobody wants to listen.”

***

Upstairs above the nail parlour, a couple of young architects who have taken up the Latin Village’s cause are poring over blueprints rolled out on the table.

David McEwan, who moved to the UK from Colombia when he was two and has identified with his roots here, is working with fellow architect Ben Beach, a key member of London’s radical housing network, on an alternative plan for the market.

As the Seven Sisters and West Green Road Development Trust, they will submit their community plan to Haringey Council in eight weeks’ time.

It is over a decade in the making, and includes purchasing the building and running it as a community asset, expanding the market and adding low-rent spaces for social events, advice services, nurseries, space for start-ups, with profits flowing back into the community. They have crowd-funding, legal advice and help with financial modelling.

“This is the litmus test for the Labour party – what does Corbynism mean in office?”

They will also be appealing the CPO decision and any further legal decisions, but have to work fast before Grainger can begin moving traders out in 2020 when the temporary space is ready.

“This is the litmus test for the Labour party – what does Corbynism mean in office?” asks Beach. “It’s a battle for what Corbynism is about – a signal moment for the Corbyn project.

“It’s not politically tenable that the first Corbyn council in the country is going to displace a migrant working-class community to build 200 luxury flats. How can they think that’s tenable?” he asks. “Is this it? Is this what we’re going to get with Corbynism? This series of stale, inert leaders?”

I have asked the Labour leadership, Momentum, Haringey Momentum, and Momentum’s chair Jon Lansman to comment. None have responded.

There are differences of opinion on the matter within Momentum. Some feel it’s a terrible and embarrassing move for a left-wing council, while others argue austerity restricts money for tackling homelessness and other social problems, so the council cannot afford to lose any more.

Youth violence is a high-profile problem here, and Haringey is the sixth most-deprived borough in London. It has suffered a 40 per cent cut in central government funding since 2010.

Lansman was asked about the redevelopment last night, during a Q&A at an event in Cambridge. “The decision is not whether or not retaining the market is worthwhile, but whether the cost versus the benefits are justifiable,” he replied, according to a recording I have heard from the event.

“We cannot commit unlimited resources to any project regardless of the cost-benefit when councils are in such a financial state,” he said, adding a dig at the Labour leadership:

“I have to say, in approaching the commitments that have been made for the next Labour government, John McDonnell is running a very tight ship, lots of people will say too tight. He is trying to be another Iron Chancellor – but that is because we do want… a programme that is deliverable and sustainable.”

It doesn’t sound like the radicalism and idealism usually associated with Corbyn’s politics.

“I have no choice. I have to stand up”

“I thought it might have teething trouble at first but would hopefully all be quite virtuous,” says a former Haringey councillor who knows the Momentum councillors well. “But regeneration is about community engagement, not just building things.”

Another former councillor expresses dismay that a disgraced former leader of Haringey Council, Charles Adje, was appointed cabinet member for strategic regeneration – having been suspended in 2011 when a botched sale of Alexandra Palace brought the council into disrepute by costing taxpayers around £2m.

Many I speak to who are close to the council and its workings decry a lack of imagination and competence among the new leadership to find an alternative for Latin Village.

Their suggestions include applying for money from the government’s new Future High Streets Fund (local areas can win up to £25m for a project), though it’s unclear whether the Latin Village fits its brief; cancelling the planned £36m of work at the site of Fortismere School (where Ejiofor was a governor) and spending it on Wards Corner instead of paying Grainger; or dipping into general capital funds (which totals £615m over five years) to cover costs of cancelling the contract instead.

“You can’t use capital money for revenue spend,” Ejiofor responds to this idea. “It’s not capital spend, right?”

Back in the nail salon-cum-campaign HQ, the traders and architects wrap up after a long evening of strategising.

“I’ve worked so hard here,” says Vicky. “I have no choice. I have to stand up.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.