Back to the future of London

Plus flatpack furniture, fake funerals and standard lamps

As Huey Lewis and the News once said, “Gotta get back in time”. So in today’s issue we’re looking back to a few stories from past issues to see what’s happened since we first covered them and try to answer a few questions about London’s future.

Is the Camden Highline really going to happen?

Back in April we wrote about the Camden Highline, the £35 million project designed to “turn a disused stretch of railway viaduct into a new elevated park and walking route”.

Back then it was hard to see past some of the bigger challenges (e.g. the fact it’s being built right next to an active rail line) and the pretty optimistic plan to get it built and open by 2024. Now, almost five months later, it looks like the optimism is still there.

Last month there was an “online public presentation” where, as well as saying they were on track to open in 2024, the people behind the Highline talked a lot about “bee hotels, habitat bags, veg patches, birdboxes and the inevitable wildflower meadow” and the designers also offered a solution for the ‘fence’ that would have to go between the walkway and the live railway (the solution is to “programme the screen …. like a gallery element,” which we think must mean hanging some pictures on it?).

But the famous Piet Oudolf (the man behind New York’s high line and the winner of the competition to design Camden’s version) has apparently “not yet been asked to submit any planting designs, and his name was not even mentioned during last month’s presentation.”

As Camdenist noted a few weeks ago there are many new, independent businesses already opening up on the route of the Highline, and according to The Telegraph, efforts are also being made “to engage with local people so that the route does not become a ‘hipster highway’, used only by tourists and more affluent locals”.

Will 2021 be the worst year for homelessness?

In May we reported on the fact that 2021 was shaping up to to be London’s worst ever year for homelessness, and unfortunately it looks like that prediction is going to be borne out.

This week it was reported that data from the homelessness charity Crisis shows that “in London between April and June this year, rough sleeping increased by 25 per cent”.  

The Standard also ran an article stating that “new figures” showed the “number of households left homeless in London has rocketed by 65.8 per cent [from 1,460 to 2,420] in the past year.” But, as they don’t say where they got those figures from, we can’t verify them right now. Although it wouldn’t surprise us if they were true.

The Standard article quotes some borough-level figures (e.g. “Haringey saw homelessness climb by more than 160 per cent to 168 and Tower Hamlets saw the number increase by 133 per cent to 156”) which have definitely come from this Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) data. If you click Quarter 1 reports under 2021/22 on that page you can download a zip file which gives you each borough’s homelessness stats for April to June this year.

Crisis also put out a press release at the end of last week saying that, in London, “official figures indicate that the number of people deemed to be living on the streets has already returned to pre-pandemic levels” and warning that, as the Everyone In scheme comes to an end, thousands more “risk being forced onto the streets or remaining trapped in unsuitable temporary accommodation.”

Is Ikea coming to Oxford Circus?

Also in May, we mentioned that Ikea was in “advanced talks” to take over the former Topshop store on Oxford Street (which was then on the market for £420million), after they passed on the old BHS building.

Last Thursday the Guardian reported that Ikea is “poised” to pay £385m for “the long leasehold on the building, which includes the now-vacant 100,000 sq ft Topshop outlet as well as a Nike Town store and a shop for footwear brand Vans.”

(The question of just how people are going to get a Billy bookcase home with them on the tube has yet to be fully addressed.)

That money will pay off the £312m mortgage on the building, while the rest “will be used to help satisfy a larger pool of claims against Arcadia, the total of which was reported by administrators Teneo to have hit $2.4 billion in July” (and which includes Arcadia’s pension fund deficit of about £300m; around £40m of Ikea’s money is earmarked for that apparently).

If you want more on the future of London’s high streets (and you have a Telegraph subscription), their fashion editor, Tamara Abraham just written an article on the death of the chain store and how retailers are having to raise their game to survive.

Does anyone want to live in Nine Elms?

We’ve talked about the Nine Elms and Battersea development (and especially the ‘sky pool’) a few times over the past few months. It got a mention in our look at the gentrification report that came out in June, and our interview with one of the report’s authors, and of course we spoke to author Will Wiles about it just last month.

The big news since then has been the opening of the Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station tube stations. But, on Monday, the Telegraph (again) reported that investors are fleeing the “nightmare on Nine Elms street.”

If you get past that horribly forced pun (and the Telegraph’s paywall) you’ll find that much of the uncertainty over the development derives from R&F, “a Chinese developer that faces increasing pressure over its debt level from the Chinese government, from whom some of the loans stem” and on which “much of the regeneration is dependent.”

There’s also the disparity between developer’s talk of the area becoming the model “15 minute city” with “everything people want and need within a 15 minute walk” and the fact that there are there are precious few cafes, restaurants and other things you’d expect in a community.

The other telling stat is that “many of the buildings only have occupancy rates of around 25-30pc as the sites are unattractive to full-time residents”. Doesn’t sound much like a burgeoning community does it?

And while we’re talking about communities…

We’ve mentioned the campaign to Save Brick Lane a couple of times, once back in May and then again in June when we reported on the gentrification of London. The last we heard about the campaign to stop the Truman Brewery being turned into a ‘shopping mall’ was that the proposal had been deferred for a few months, but the group behind the protest have not been quiet.

Last Sunday there was a “rally and coffin procession” on Brick Lane, with ‘mourners’ dressed in black and holding banners reading “Is the East End Dead?”

The proposal for development at the Truman Brewery was actually deferred until today, but it looks like the decision came through last night. We'll follow this one up in a later issue:

We’ve also spoken about the campaign to protect Ridley Road market in Hackney (a favourite spot of June’s ‘Where Do you Go?’ interviewee, Sam Roberts).

As well as investing £1 million in Ridley Road Market, Hackney Council plans to build 600 new homes across Hackney to to tackle the area’s housing shortage. A couple of weeks ago, Time Out spoke to “affordable housing expert” John Kelsey who did the maths on the project:

“At an average of 2.5 persons per dwelling, 600 homes over 15 years will house 1,500 people which is slightly more than the projected population increase in seven years (1,335).’

And that’s before we get to the fact that “more than 13,000 families are on the council’s housing waiting list… with 4,700 households identified as in urgent need of a new home”.

As for the market itself, the campaigners went on a walkabout of the proposed plans last month and reported back in this Twitter thread.

Finally, will Pret survive?

In early May we noted that things were looking very shaky for Pret (a they’d “suffered from an absence of commuters and tourists” in their 340 London stores). A few days ago though, Pret CEO Pano Christou said he was “optimistic about trading in city centres after employees returning to offices last week drove a 15 per cent sales uplift in just seven days,” and that sales were at around 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

And the rest…