• Municipal Enquiry

Compliance, defiance or popular planning?

Will McMahon – Chair of Community Plan for Holloway – talks to Nick Mahony of Municipal Enquiry about collaboratively generating a community plan for the site of the old Holloway women’s prison in North London.


“When communities are faced with ‘regeneration’ or ‘redevelopment’ plans in their area they’re usually on the back-foot from the start. It’s unlikely they’ll have time to immediately go and talk to others who have been, or are, in similar situations, or that they will know all the key details of planning law. To do this you need time, ready access to the right information and the resources to involve communities in a proper process.

The Community Plan for Holloway project has been aiming to address some of these problems since 2016 by putting the local community at the heart of redevelopment plans for the former women’s prison in North London.

The site in Holloway is unusual. It was the UK’s biggest women’s prison and it’s a huge site which has great significance in terms of the history and politics of criminal justice. Oscar Wilde, many of the Suffragettes and even Oswald Mosely and his wife were held there during the 2nd World War. Ruth Ellis and several other women were also executed there by the state. It wasn’t originally a women’s only prison, but later became one of the largest women’s prisons in Europe.

The site is also the largest development in Islington for 30 years – opening-up a once in a lifetime chance to provide amenities for the local community, including social housing, green space, a community building and more. I lived just off the Holloway Road in the 1990s so I already knew the area quite well.

I got involved when I was working with The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Myself and Rebecca Robert, and other colleagues at the CCJS, were interested in demonstrating the Angela Davis principle, which is that if you want to create any alternative to the current criminal justice system then you need to try to demonstrate how an alternative might work in practice in the same footprint – so the question was: what should be built in the same space that the prison occupied?

Building a community plan

What we wanted to show was how the regeneration of this prison site could meet some of the needs of local people and, by doing this, also help create non-criminal justice resources to support the type of people who are typically brought into the criminal justice system. These people, who make up the overwhelming majority of the prison population, usually have unmet social needs.

We knew the project shouldn’t just be dominated by the specialists and that if it was going to work it was vitally important to get input from right across the local community.

First and foremost, this would mean involving local people directly in developing plans for the site, including people who are working class, young, poor, from minority ethnic communities and with disabilities. In other words, the people who are 99% of the time shut out of the planning process.

Crucially, it also meant listening to women about what they wanted for the site and what services might they want, as we know that women who get involved in the criminal justice system mostly get drawn in through the actions of men they know. We thought specific non-criminal justice community resources for women in the footprint of the prison would be an important legacy. So, right from the start, it was also important to have a women’s building on the new site.

One of the first things I did, very early on, was to go and speak to the people who had been leading two other projects that had been campaigning for the community in London, in similar situations of redevelopment and regeneration - these were StART Haringey (in North East London) and People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH) in the East-End. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

As I was working on this in paid time I had the chance to do this from the off - not something every project has.

Talking with StART and PEACH showed that there was much to be learnt from these projects about how to involve communities in local campaigns and how to engage with the developers and the council.


I was struck when talking to these and other projects that there’s no ready source of information for communities about how to negotiate these situations, so when developers come into communities – like a spaceship landing– it’s really hard for people to engage with these processes, except when it’s on the developer’s terms.

Compliance or defiance?

The keyword for developers when it comes to engaging with communities is compliance. At a local level all developers want is to be compliant with the statutory engagement principles. This is largely a tick-box exercise, as legally compliant engagement basically amounts to no more than organising a room with pictures or models of the development plans and setting up a rudimentary consultation exercise. The developers and the community will be compliant if that’s all they do.

In practice the process of becoming compliant means that there’s often this dance communities go through with the developers whereby people can start to question how compliant certain plans are and whether the plans really reflect what the local community needs.

For example, people might ask how compliant any given set of plans are with disability law and the needs of local people with disabilities? Plans will typically be legally compliant but if you speak to people from disability groups’ they usually hate the word compliant, as they equate it with minimum requirements. It then comes down to people in the local community to mobilise in an effort to try and stretch the developer’s plans beyond these minimum legal requirements – it becomes a struggle to try and get more of what they, rather than the developers, want. And to engage in these processes and struggles people need the legal knowledge, time and resource to get communities informed and involved.

Certain people in communities will come together to look at new plans for development or regeneration in their local areas. The residents living immediately around the site will often be interested and interest also very much depends on scale of development. Then you have pre-existing groups in the community that are concerned about this sort of stuff and who go to the consultations, such as residents’ associations or representatives of local political parties.


Some residents will then get more energised and start putting laminated sheets on lampposts calling for a petition to be signed or a local meeting, that kind of thing. The nature of the people that engage is crucial. Typically, those that get involved are still the people who already have time on their hands or those who are already active in local civil society. Your ability to engage with a planning process can be much more limited if you are on a low income, have two children and two jobs.

Representing community

In the case of the Holloway project what we did is started to form relationships with pre-existing community groups in the areas around the site. We then also successfully bid for some money from grant funders – The Tudor Trust and the Trust for London – to pay for staff time to engage with the community. Partly this was also with the aim of developing a community organisation that could respond more collectively to what might happen with the site, a community organisation that was built upon street and community connections.


Government announced the closure of the prison site in November 2015 and we started working with local campaigners from May 2016 onwards, by which time they had already organised a march and demonstration on the local site. Then in November 2016 we helped organise the first public meeting.

We used what time and resource we had to bring people together. While the developers felt like a big spaceship landing in this area, we recognised we were still slightly like a little Non-Governmental-Organisation (NGO) spaceship landing from outside too, so we just tried to be as accountable and transparent as possible at every stage.



We had been given money specifically to ensure the community had the strongest possible voice on the future of the site and our final aim was for the community to take over and lead the organisation of the project. Right from the start we stated that if we didn’t give it over to the community we would have failed.

We therefore engaged intensively with a whole range of local groups and organisations to show local people and our funders that we were working on this set up in a way that was solid. After these initial discussions we then formed a community partnership group – which was made up of the local trades council, representatives from Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties and, local churches and housing campaigns. We approached Conservatives too, but they didn’t want to be involved, although they did make the most of it in their local manifesto for the 2018 Borough elections.



The other thing we did was help set up Reclaim Holloway, which we worked to bring together, as a local campaigning group. This was a radical alliance of local people and groups. By helping to bring this group together the idea was that this group could then be part of the community partnership group and wider campaign but also continue to do their own thing.


We therefore set out to help but not dominate the space. Community Plan for Holloway was the partnership group. Some of the members of this group were in conflict in other settings, standing against each other in elections, for example.

These were the main ways we set out to make sure the community were represented and central to what was happening. It was about finding ways of bringing together a loose coalition of radical campaigners, established political organisations and civil society groups to then help involve other community members who weren’t already engaged.


What we have been doing is a kind of community organising I suppose, since it was about engaging and involving anyone in the community who has a view - it was about amplifying their voice in ways that make it become impossible for the developers and the council not to take notice.


On top of building relationships and alliances between existing groups and organising public meetings, we also designed a survey, once again with the purpose of further understanding and building up that sense of community voice.

We learnt from PEACH that in order to allow local people to say what they really want to say we needed to keep our survey quite straightforward and to the point. So what we did was set up a website so we could engage with people online and then also delivered 10,000 survey leaflets through doors so people could respond off-line, asking people to let us know what they would like to see and not see on the site and to tell us anything else they wanted to say.


We got 970 responses, which was very good compared to the first developer consultation, which received a few hundred. In contrast to our survey, the one Peabody put out was very guided.

For our survey, we analysed the responses we received, identified key themes and issues and then published our findings in a pamphlet. We then called a second public meeting, inviting local people to come and find out and discuss what they’d asked for and wanted from the site. About 200 people attended.

Supporting a democratic process

To date I’d give this project 5/10 in terms of how democratic it has been and given how undemocratic the process would have likely been had we not done anything at all.

Given the resource we had we’ve probably done the best we could have. I’m still meeting people who say, ‘who the hell are you’? And ‘what are you doing here?’ But the project is now in the local papers every week or two, so it’s certainly also starting to get a life of its own in the local area – but it’s definitely taken a lot of seeding work to help it grow as far as it has.


Had we had the kind of resource bank I was talking about earlier, which could have given local people the information they would need to campaign more autonomously, we would have worked out faster how to reach different sections of the community.

For example, had we not talked to PEACH at the start of this process, we would have put out a more complex questionnaire, which would have been a mistake. Had we not talked to StART, in particular Tony Wood, we would have developed the wrong organisational structures. PEACH and StART each gave us invaluable advice about engagement and participation as well.

We’ve learnt that it takes significant resources to do this kind of democratic work – not least because there is so much that mitigates against a project like this being successful. It’s not just all the cynicism there is currently with established politics, or about the motives of developers and all the disaffection people have with local authorities, it’s also that this kind of work takes a lot of time and effort to engage and involve people properly.

Building for the long-term

In the most recent phase of the project we’ve set up working groups with a brief to work on different subjects including the womens’ building, a social tenants’ group, a cohousing group, sustainability and architecture, and planning. But it’s still only the Community Plan board that makes quasi official public statements about the project as a whole. Through these groups and by using this structure we aim to relay what the community is saying.


The board holds weekly meetings, which are now online. These meetings help the project stay in touch with what the community is saying and, on this basis, say what the community’s position is and what the community thinks.

Impacts of popular community planning?

We only really know that the developers and local authority are taking notice of us when we see they are changing what they are doing and how they are doing it. Our role is to wedge in-between the developers and council for community advantage.

So, for example, following pressure from us they recently extended the consultation period on the latest masterplan by three weeks, so it now may be six weeks in all. We also questioned the representativeness of the sample they got up for their own consultation – when they claimed they had attained representativeness, we said their sample wasn’t sufficiently robust. We are currently engaging with local BAME groups and other grassroots activists to demonstrate this and to improve community voice.

We are still in a situation where we don’t have any clear idea what the day-to-day or overall influence of the community really is, so the planning process is still all a bit of a black box, despite all this work.

We knew the GLA bought the site that StART is campaigning around, to sell it to a developer. We therefore knew it was possible for the GLA to intervene in these situations because they had done that in this case. In our situation what happened is that the GLA did eventually intervene, but this time only in order to broker a deal which meant we had to work with Peabody. This happened because the GLA loaned Peabody money to buy the site but on the condition that 40% would be private, 18% intermediate products (shared ownership etc.) and 42% social housing, which would be for genuinely affordable rent.

At the time when this deal was announced, in 2019, although we had heard some rumours we had no firm indication that this deal was being reached. When the news was announced, some people thought it was a major coup, others were more critical as what they wanted was 100% council housing and a women’s building. In an ideal world that is what I would have wanted.

However, as a local authority, Islington couldn’t do this, as they were unable to afford to buy the land and also weren’t allowed to borrow the money they’d need to do this. Government wouldn’t allow this and they didn’t have the borrowing rights. However, others thought the deal represented a massive achievement, since at that point social housing in these kinds of developments was averaging no more than 10% in London and we got 42% guaranteed social housing plus a Womens’ building.

In May 2018 I got another job, so I’ve worked on Community Plan in my own time for the last two years. In that year we arranged a handover from Centre for Crime and Justice to a new – free standing - organisation which is officially called Community Plan Ltd, but which is publicly named Community Plan for Holloway.



This new organisation has been set up as a not-for-profit company, as we were advised that it would take too long to set up as a charity – so this is now our new institutional form. We needed a legal form so that grant funders could give us the kick-start resources to get the project off the runway.

We still don’t hide that we – the board of Community Plan for Holloway - are legally responsible for decisions taken by the Community Plan, although we kind of obscure that we’re now set up as a company, as this can be off-putting. At meetings we say we’re the Directors but still see our role as reflecting and amplifying community voice. People have changed their role from when they first got involved in the original group and are now directors, but most of the original group of people are still involved.

So we are now a hybrid organisation and what we’ve done most recently is get new funding from the Community Fund (£50k), as well as more support from the Trust for London and Tudor Trust. This means we now have 2 part-time staff members.

One of our new sub-projects is called ‘Holloway Story’. For this we’re going to get people who are good at recording and carrying history, to make a film and build an archive, to tell the story and make the history of the process and the community planning work present.


We’re also currently responding to the draft masterplan and building a contact network, so as this process continues to develop we can continue to regularly involve everyone who wants to have a say. Despite our intentions we still have progress to make when it comes to properly involving those who are usually locked out of these issues. There are signs that we are beginning to make progress with this though.

Rather than using, or having faith, in any given participation ‘technique’, or set of pre-existing professional expertise, the next phase of community engagement, similar to the last, will continue to be more of a tea and biscuit type strategy, which depends on just sitting down and talking with people and building up collaborative relationships with them.

In terms of the broader picture of how this kind of thing could work better in other communities and across the country I still believe we really need a hub or centre for things like this. For me, to make redevelopment plans work better, it’s not primarily about community land trusts or coops, or campaigning around land value tax, it’s about there being a resource where communities confronting developers can go, to basically say what they expect and how they can deal with developers and local authorities.

In short, what we need is a better way of generating popular plans for communities, that’s really accessible to everyone and gives communities a voice and a say and is not just for those with pre-existing resources and expertise.

What I’ve learnt

If someone were to ask me what I have learnt so far it would be to focus on the following:


It’s vital to recognise that planning law and policy is stacked on the side of the developer you have very little chance of impacting on developers unless they breach the fairly undemanding legal requirements on consultation, accessibility and equalities. For the most part, everything will be legally compliant, but that does not mean it will represent the community or deliver what the community wants.

In response to this situation you have to develop your own form of local democracy and power, which takes some doing. It’s important not to imagine that there is a single pre-existing community with a single voice. It’s therefore crucial to listen and use the resources that you have to amplify and organise all the voices in the community. This can take time, but if your lead steering group does not in the end have the range of voices that are often not heard then you will not have a community plan.

But you also need experts. The Community Plan architecture and planning working group we have convened for this project are experts in their field and have provided invaluable advice when responding to the draft masterplan and the Environmental Impact Assessment scoping document. The crucial part though is to combine professional expertise‘ with, what my Action on Empty Home’s colleague, Brighid Carey, has written about‚ which is community intelligence - different communities have lots of diverse forms of knowledge and intelligence and it is this that is the key ingredient in forming a community plan.

If you end up in a ‘dance of negotiation‘ with a developer, as we have, recognise that they will make positive noises, try and create some participatory mood music, but in essence not commit to anything beyond being compliant with law because it will impact on their bottom line.

Developers are very good at occupying the space between ‘Yes‘ and ‘No’ in discussions because the words ‘could’ and ‘might‘ create a delay as they press on with what they have already planned, while appearing to be listening and negotiating.

When the music stops, the dance ends, the lights are turned up bright you may see a development – but it will be a development that has no trace of what the community wanted, unless that is, you have developed your own type of community power and brought it to bear on the process.

For this reason it is really important to bring into the negotiations and into the room what local communities have told you they want and even more importantly, to have as many people as possible from the community in the room to say it for themselves – even if different parts of the community want different things.

Peabody has never wanted to come to a community meeting to listen to what the different parts of the community have to say – I think they were looking for the Community Plan to be a gate-keeper – a role we have always refused.


How successful have we been to date? It is impossible to measure at present – but there is still a lot to play for.” The one thing I do know is that if you don't campaign you will not get anything, if you do, you might just win something - just look at the recent victory achieved by PEACH


Will McMahon is the Chair of the Community Plan for Holloway and the Director of Action on Empty Homes

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