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Gillett Square small traders 'in the dark' over £2.8m affordable workspace development - that should have started last week

PUBLISHED: 12:49 15 November 2019 | UPDATED: 13:01 15 November 2019

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The "pods" and affordable workspace in Gillett Square which are set to undergo a £2.8m redevelopment. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

Emma Bartholomew

Gillett Square traders say they're in the dark about the £2.8m development of their affordable workspace - which was due to start last week.

The containers in Gillett Square where business owners will operate from while the building opposite undergoes a £2.8m redevelopment. Picture: Emma BartholomewThe containers in Gillett Square where business owners will operate from while the building opposite undergoes a £2.8m redevelopment. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

Hackney Co-Operative Developments (HCD) was given planning permission in August to put a clear polycarbonate façade and an extra two floors on the terrace in Bradbury Street, which overlooks the square.

The not-for-profit community interest company was initially supposed to match fund a £824,000 grant from the Greater London Authority (GLA) in 2015.

But now it must stump up more than £2m for the project that's expected to cost £2,830,000.

The council had to step in over the summer, approving a loan of £200,000 as well as extension of the 77 remaining years of its peppercorn lease to 125 so that HCD could secure a £1.8m loan from the Unity Trust Bank (UTB).

When the council cabinet were asked to approve the lease extension, they were told by the council's senior financial control officer, Russell Harvey that if they refused: "HCD is not likely to be able to meet UTB's loan conditions and may not be able to proceed with the refurbishment".

The money bequeathed from Boris Johnson's administration at the GLA was supposed to be spent 20 months ago - but by that point HCD had neither secured planning permission nor a bank loan. A six-month extension was granted last year until September 2018.

Hackney Council announced last week that works were due to start imminently - but one week on, and it was not obvious that anything was actually happening when the Gazette visited.

While tenants from the top floor relocated to Woodberry Down, where HCD has ploughed £850,000 into creating more affordable workspace, the remaining tenants in retail "pod" structures in the square had no idea what was going on.

They were supposed to relocate into containers in the neighbouring car park in July.

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One person said they hadn't heard from HCD for months and others expressed concern they had been left in limbo "just trying to survive for 18 months", and that they are constantly told the works are "about to start every single week".

When the Gazette tried to contact HCD, we were told that all senior management are on annual leave and wouldn't be available to comment for at least 10 days.

A spokesperson for Hackney Council insisted the works had indeed started to move a fire exit inside the main building and on refurbishment of the lower floor.

Community group ReSpace which is currently occupying the top floor of the building has had its lease extended until the end of January.

The public money from the GLA was originally earmarked in 2015 to provide affordable workspace at the six-storey "Dalston Bunker" in Ashwin Street, which would have been delivered by Dalston Works - a collaboration between HCD and the Bootstrap Company.

It was one of 69 submissions for a slice of the £20m London Regeneration Fund (LRF) to "help businesses and community groups in the capital".

When asked last year, City Hall, Bootstrap and HCD were unable to tell the Gazette exactly why or when that project fell through - but it is thought it was deemed "unviable", and at some point the money was transferred over to the Gillett Square project. There was no tender.

HCD's former managing director from 1996 to 2012, Adam Hart, has expressed concern the project could bankrupt HCD, and with costs spiralling, some of the tenants the Gazette spoke to now share his fears. 
Mr Hart said: "It seems HCD should in all common sense be out of time by now on this and certainly the tenants there are all in the dark. One has to ask what is actually behind this project to keep it going past all reason."

In a statement issued by the council last week, Edward Quigley, chief executive officer of HCD said: "This is a critical project for HCD, and for Dalston. There are few, if any, providers of genuinely affordable workspace adding to the offer in Hackney, and I am proud that HCD is able to meet this need.

"I'd like to congratulate staff, volunteers and our general council for pulling together to deliver this project and the scheme can be used as a case study for redevelopment that prioritises small, vulnerable businesses."

The council's business chief Cllr Guy Nicholson said: "Social enterprises and cooperatively-owned developments like this are vital to ensure a diverse economy."

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