Shabby to chic
In his latest book Alec Forshaw documents the changing fortunes of Islington which, as he tells Angela Cobbinah, was ‘like a desert’ 40 years ago
17 June, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah
Exmouth Market in 1982 before the Town Hall’s intervention
LIVING amid a seemingly never-ending construction boom, it’s hard to believe what London was like in 1980, a city whose air of general shabbiness suggested post-war rather than brave new world.
This was especially true of Islington, nowadays one of the most fashionable places in the capital, but then a borough on its uppers.
“Islington was like a desert, with lots of empty buildings and vacant sites,” says Alec Forshaw, who joined the council in 1975 to begin a more than 30-year stretch as a town planner.
“There was a great spiral of dereliction. Traditional industries were moving out, a lot of local shops were disappearing and the population was falling. It was even thought of as too poor to have a supermarket. Sainsbury’s only came in on condition it could have a car park as it believed that most of its customers would be driving in from more affluent parts of London.”
His book, 1980s London, the latest in a long line he has written about the capital over the years, details what happened next as the seismic changes heralded by the Thatcher government, combined with progressive policies at a local level, transformed Islington and other parts of the capital forever.
Part memoir and part social commentary, Alec uses Islington as a springboard for his survey of the places and events that are now part of history, writing with the enthusiasm of someone whose passion for the job led him eventually to become the council’s conservation chief. It is partly down to his efforts that Upper Street became known as “Supper St” as it went from drab to fab in just a few years, and historic Clerkenwell was finally put on the tourist map.
The main problem facing him and his colleagues in 1980 was how to attract people and businesses into a borough which had been further blighted by a bonkers scheme to drive an eight-lane motorway through the borough, and another to build an Old Street-style roundabout at the Angel. Once these threats had been lifted, planners had to battle against thoughtless architecture and property owners whose first instinct was to demolish anything old, not least the medieval Smithfield meat market.
Islington’s biggest trump card was its historical environment and central location, which needed to be protected and promoted, he says: “We had to get our policy act together. We designated conservation areas and more than doubled the number of listed buildings. I learned that you have to trust your judgment and that things take a long time.”
It was Alec’s good fortune to be working under the auspices of what he calls “the Socialist Republic of Islington” where Labour leader Margaret Hodge, in defiance of Mrs Thatcher’s cuts and privatisation agenda, pressed on with an ambitious social housing programme as part of efforts to regenerate the borough, and this encouraged more enlightened town planning.
The revival of Exmouth Market in Finsbury, which by the 1980s had just a few stalls in operation, showed what could be done through a mixture of persuasion, landscaping and changes in planning rules.
“We paved it, offered virtually free licences to encourage stall holders to set up pitches, and allowed restaurants to operate on the ground floor,” he explains.
“We gave grants to [the street’s main] property owners, Debenhams, to refurbish the upper floors of buildings that were largely empty or just used for storage. At first they were very reluctant. Their vision was to flatten the whole lot and build a shopping mall.”
The market became an early purveyor of street food and its improvement led to the refurbishment of Spa Fields park nearby, making it an attractive place to hang out in.
At the beginning of the decade there was little indication that Islington would one day become a property hotspot.
“Few people chose to live in central London and when Janet Street Porter commissioned a new house in Clerkenwell it was thought extraordinary,” says Alec, who lived in Holloway at the time.
Then came the Big Bang, the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in 1986 that led to an influx of foreign banks into the Square Mile and bankers eyeing up homes in Islington’s elegant Georgian terraces and squares just up the road. Soon estate agents were jostling for space in Upper Street.
He describes how the Big Bang sparked a massive wave of office development in the City, where the ever-increasing demand for large trading floors saw miles and miles of derelict dockland turned into London’s new financial district.
As the private sector surged forward like a juggernaut, Coin Street, a parcel of land behind the South Bank designated for office development, represented one of the Greater London Council’s final up-yours moments when it handed it over to community activists for social housing shortly before being abolished by Mrs Thatcher.
Alec retired from the council in 2007 just as plans for a series of 30-storey luxury apartments in City Road were rolled out.
“Just as I predicted, we have ended up with a desert – even on the nicest day you never see anyone round there,” he says ruefully.
“The private sector really took off in the 1980s and things got out of control. We are still living with the consequences of that.”
Having completed the book before last year’s first lockdown, he is struck by the similarities between 1980 and now: “London is once again facing radical change. We have empty high streets, empty office blocks and we need to get more people living in the middle of London. The only real solution is local or government intervention.”
• 1980s London: Making the Best of It. By Alec Forshaw. Brown Dog Books, £15