Interview: Save Hackney Wick campaigner Henri Gibbs on the threat to East London’s creative communities

We first became aware of the creative community at Vittoria Wharf in East London’s Hackey Wick when Arrows of Love frontman and Wharf resident Nima Teranchi spoke passionately about the threat that its community faced from a proposed new development by the London Legacy Development Corporation and Balfour Beatty during an interview for The Joyzine Radio Show.  Since then a growing movement of local residents, artists and well wishers has formed to fight the plans and develop an alternative blueprint within which the LLDC could work with the local community.

With eight days until the deadline for evictions we spoke with campaigner Henri Gibbs about Vittoria Wharf, the crusade to save it, and what impact it could have on creative communities around London and the rest of the UK:

Tell us about the Vittoria Wharf community – what kind of work has been going on there & who are some of the artists involved?

Vittoria Wharf is a hive of constant activity. We are a community of about 100 creatives and small businesses working out of units ranging from big communal warehouse spaces to more personal studios. There is such a wide spectrum of output from fine artists to film makers, musicians, producers and digital artists to food makers, actors and sculptors.

One of the flag bearers to how spaces like ours foster talent is the emerging artist Conrad Armstrong. Since moving to the Wharf he has discovered his voice as a multi platform creator, soaking up the area’s industrial character and expanding his craft in the way only a space so free and open could allow. His work has become as much social commentary as it has a display of refined skill and has led to an exhibition titled Tension at the Saatchi gallery this September which will be a showcase of work, indelibly marked by the environment that it has grown in.

Other tenants are or have been Oscar winners, BAFTA nominees, leading UK female pioneers in their fields, performance groups receiving momentum awards and people who have worked to make the world better around them; working on issues of child trafficking, inventing new forms of art therapy, working with NHS Trusts, founding London’s first Mental Health gallery, and making initiatives to ensure local bars and nightspots pay their own cleanup costs instead of leaving it to Tower Hamlets council.

What makes Vittoria Wharf an important creative hub? Why should people outside of the community be concerned?

Vittoria Wharf is listed as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ for Tower Hamlets. It got that listing along with Stour Space in 2013 and has gone from strength to strength since. It was given such a listing because it was deemed as somewhere that represented the unique character of the area, an area that has been the bastion of London arts for many years. This is a real creative community that collaborates, cross-pollinates and feeds off each other to not only produce exceptional work but also to nurture those that are finding their voice by creating a natural environment for them to grow in. It’s not only an asset to the community, it’s an asset to the city, to our society. We know people have heard this story before, they’re not surprised, it’s been going on for years. What we say to them is we have a real opportunity to make a change here, to show that there is a pathway of cooperation with developers that is open, transparent and allows proper consent to be given by those that are directly affected. We have a blueprint for hope here, things can be done differently but people power is the only way to make it happen.

group shot by kirsten allen
Photograph by Kirsten Allen

When did you first hear about the planned demolition? Was the community consulted? What are the plans for the site if the demolition were to go ahead?

Rumours have circled for years about the destruction of Vittoria wharf. You have to understand that spaces like these in our city always have the threat of demolition and redevelopment hanging over them. They combine not only the hint of dilapidation that makes the building contractors lick their lips but also the attractive aura of artist culture that often seems to be the pre-cursor of gentrification and displacement.

As for our situation there has been no consultation of the community, they have picked up bits and pieces of what they call “public support” which in reality may be one person saying that they wouldn’t mind a new footbridge. The first real public consultation with the tenants of Vittoria Wharf happened a month before the eviction date, if that’s a fair and just consultation process then I’m Charlie Chaplin. In all the meetings we have had so far there has been nothing but point blank rejection for their plans and you can see some of the video evidence for that on our page.

Their plans for developing this part of the Wick, adjacent to their planned developments within the Olympic Park are historical, i.e. they date back almost 10 years to when the area was mostly derelict. At that point they thought what would serve the public best (let’s not forget LLDC are a “public” body but without democratic accountability) would be a new £5mil footbridge linking up developments either side of the Lea Canal.

It’s also worth noting that LLDC’s own feasibility study in 2014 showed negative conclusions on the location and that revered archaeologist Malcolm Tucker recommended that the area be listed for conservation! Both ignored. The building of that footbridge requires the destruction of a third of the Wharf, breaking up the community and paving the way for more demolition and displacement. Everybody is aware how the dominos fall, it spells the end for our special community.

What has the Save Hackney Wick campaign been doing to try to reverse the decision? Have you made much progress?

What we are saying is that the situation here has changed and we need a fair and open appraisal of any planned demolitions. That starts with a 3 month extension to the evictions that begin on the 5th of September which should be followed up by a full judicial review. We are totally within our rights to ask for such an extension, especially when you consider that they haven’t even had final planning permission for building the bridge! We have worked our way through the departments of LLDC and now we are knocking on the door of the chairman who is apparently the only one who can make such a decision.

The exciting part of our discussions is what we are offering as an alternative model for their footbridge that will cost the taxpayer nothing: that is, in partnership with willing investors, to develop the building into live/work studios that help to ease the housing crisis and a multi use community work shop and performance space that can co-exist with their new developments including the school which they plan to build. The model appeals to LLDC to accept its hand in partnership, find solutions together, and allow community insight to help it spend its money in the best way for the public interest. It maintains that instead of LLDC committing public resources for an outdated, unwanted plan, the creative community has the partners, determination, financial foundations, track record, and imagination to continue to further develop the current community asset into a true cultural hub for the area, to create a non-profit organisation that will dedicate would-be profits to local targets that would in fact contribute to the goals of Tower Hamlets Council’s own local area action plans – benefiting the wider community, including the school and residential blocks LLDC are building themselves, on cultural, community, socio-economic, educational, business, and outreach levels.

What can people do to help the campaign?

Right now we need visibility, like our page Save Hackney Wick and invite your friends – it’s very easy just go to ‘more’ on the Facebook page and click invite friends. Simple. There is also a petition and a mailing list to join up to.

If you know of any press organisations or sympathetic groups that would like to know about it then do tell them. You can put pressure on the powers that be by tweeting to @LondonLegacy and @MayorJohnBiggs and ask them to grant us our extension.

If you check out the website then you will find different ways to add your voice. We need to put pressure on the people who claim to be working in the interests of our community to do their job and listen to what the community is saying!!

Interview by Paul Maps /


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