Hackney Walk: Luxury fashion mall funded by Boris Johnson’s riot regeneration cash is a ghost town
PUBLISHED: 09:02 26 September 2019 | UPDATED: 09:02 26 September 2019
Three years after its launch, most of the railway arches at the luxury fashion village Hackney Walk – which was developed with millions of pounds of public money to regenerate Hackney Central – are standing empty.
Once billed as a "landmark district", it is more like a ghost town, and one of the four shops trading there, Present, remains boarded up with wood after being ramraided twice weeks ago.
The Gazette has struggled to find out who now runs Hackney Walk, as its website no longer works and its last post on Twitter was on Mother's Day in March.
MP Meg Hillier expressed her shock after the Gazette pointed out that only four of the 14 units are occupied this week. She criticised Hackney Council for not making sure the development - which was built using £1.5m of Boris Johnson's riot regeneration funding - is not being "better used".
When it was announced in 2011 following the riots, critics moaned the scheme would lead to gentrification rather than regeneration, and questioned how most people in Hackney would afford the designer wear. But Hackney Council insisted it would create jobs and boost footfall in the Narrow Way.
The council was successful in securing £2m funds after applying directly to City Hall for a slice of the £70m that was being doled out after the riots. It never held a tender or consulted over what it might invest in beforehand.
While £500,000 of the cash went on improving shop fronts around Mare Street where the riots broke out, most of the money was ploughed into refurbishing 12 railway arches in Morning Lane.
This was matched by £4m from the publically-owned Network Rail, £135,000 from the council and £12.5m from Hackney Arches Construction Company, formerly co-owned by businessmen Harry Handelsman and Jack Basrawy.
At the fanfare launch of Hackney Walk in 2016 Mr Basrawy told the Gazette that "Hackney was made for the project to happen" because of its manufacturing past and its "vibrant and creative scene".
"It's not a case of 'you could put this anywhere'," he added.
"Absolutely it will create footfall, it will create jobs, and it will create opportunities," he promised. "Hackney Walk has no barrier or wall around it. The streets around will benefit."
When Mr Basrawy sold the agreement to the Network Rail lease in 2017 he claims that 11 of the 12 arches were full and he was in negotiations to sign a contract for the other big stand-alone building opposite Nike.
But since that time many of the shops - including Gieves and Hawkes, Colombo, Zadig and Voltaire, Folli Follie, Nicole Farhi, BLK DNM and Wolsey - have upped and left. The only four brands left are Nike, Present, Matches Fashion and Joseph.
Hackney Walk is now run by LabTech, which manages prime real estate in Camden Market and the West End - although there is no mention of Hackney Walk on its website.
A spokesperson told the Gazette that since they acquired the Hackney Walk site in 2017 they have been "working to reposition the estate".
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"We are currently working with Hackney Council to change the offer so that we can regenerate the arches into a mix of retail, café and leisure space," they said.
This would require a planning change of use from the current retail shop use to include professional and financial services and cafes and restaurants.
Meg Hiller, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, called on the council to take action, and questioned whether it had followed through to make sure the development had delivered what it was supposed to. She said: "This was part of a general plan for the area to improve the Narrow Way and ensure the arches contributed to Hackney, and what I am shocked by is that most of them are now empty.
"If it's a private owner, they need to be challenged on it, and the council should be in a good position to do that.
"They should have powers over the development, because part of the whole deal was that it would be contributing to the general regeneration of the area, and the footfall in the Narrow Way."
She added: "A good landlord shouldn't hold an empty property. Maybe it's to do with the rent they are charging, and retail space is problematic, so they need to look into it, and it has to be that the council that challenge them because they have a master plan for that area."
The regeneration fund was supposed to deliver projects that boosted the economy and employment - but no figures are available from either the council or City Hall as to how many jobs have been created at Hackney Walk.
City Hall had no idea where the money had even gone to when the Gazette approached them this week, citing that the money had been given to the council years ago under then London mayor Boris Johnson's administration.
Ms Hillier thinks the council should also be monitoring job creation and progression, because that was the whole point of the project.
"You need to hold the people who have taken on the arches to account, to say there is an expectation there would be local jobs created for local people, and if it doesn't work so well, you need to track what's going on to learn lessons for similar schemes," she said.
"The way you really measure and evaluate is if you got a job there and went on to be a manager in a high end store in Kensington, and that could be considered a win for Hackney," she said.
"We need to make sure the jobs stick, and that they are good and high quality and lead to progression. If you want to progress, the evaluation of the jobs is important."
The council's business chief, Cllr Guy Nicholson, said he shared concerns there were too many vacant units at Hackney Walk.
"We are keen to work in partnership with the owners to ensure that these units are brought back into use and the long-term success of the project and the wider town centre," he said.
"The original Greater London Authority investment in Hackney Central has transformed formerly derelict buildings, creating dozens of jobs and supporting local residents into careers in fashion and manufacturing.
"While the retail environment continues to be a challenge in all of our town centres, we will always support positive investment in Hackney which aims to create opportunities for our residents."