The vast, concrete cavern was attracting criticism soon after it opened in 1965, as a grand statement of postwar ambition. And Southwark council has been seeking a developer to transform it for the past 20 years.
That ambition could be realised this week. In 2014, the building was sold to property group Delancey for £80m, and the developer’s proposal for radical change will go before the council’s planning committee on Tuesday. If approval is forthcoming, the centre will be demolished next year.
In its place will rise a state-of-the-art complex intended to turn an unfashionable neighborhood into a destination, and revive the dream to remake the Elephant as a “Piccadilly of the South”. The project will include 979 homes and a multiplex cinema, alongside a new campus for the London College of Communication (LCC) and incubator hubs for local start-ups. This regeneration will also address the problem of overcrowding at Elephant and Castle tube station by introducing a new entrance.
Despite broad consensus that the building is no longer fit for purpose, however, its re-development has been fiercely opposed by tenants, local campaign groups and a growing list of councilors.
And one man’s carbuncle is another’s safe haven. The jumble of beauty salons and cafes inside the centre, and the market stalls filling the “Moat” surrounding it, support one of Britain’s largest Latin American communities. There are more than 100 Latin American-owned businesses clustered around the site, a presence that has grown steadily along with London’s Latin population, and dozens are facing displacement or dissolution.
This prospect is a constant source of anxiety for traders such as Lucy Villamizar, who arrived from Colombia 25 years ago and founded a hairdressing salon in what she calls “our Chinatown”. “I always expect the letter with a notice to move next month,” she says. ”We made our lives here...My idea was to retire here. It will be hard at my age to start again from nothing in another place far away.”
Lucy’s hairdressing salon. Image: Kieron Monks.
The traders’ strength is numbers. Together they form a collective attraction for London’s Latinos, who flock to the centre from across the capital for a taste of home and keep the local economy ticking over. Many traders fear that they would struggle in a new location, isolated from their community and established client base.
The centre also functions as a support network for Latin immigrants. “When I first arrived in London people told me about this area,” says Lenin Erazo, originally from Ecuador, who manages a restaurant in the centre. “People come here to learn English, to look for a house or a job, or to understand how the government works.”
The traders are represented by campaigning charity Latin Elephant, including the many non-Latin businesses that share the space, among them a bingo hall and bowling alley that attract 500,000 visitors a year. The group’s main aim is to keep the cluster intact through the transformation.
“There is a consensus that development is good for the area, but we don’t want displacement of existing communities,” says Patria Roman-Velazquez, a sociology lecturer at Loughborough University and chair of Latin Elephant. ”If this is going to happen we need a fair deal.”
Roman-Velazquez points to the council’s obligations under the Equalities Act to consider the impact of development on minorities, as well as the elderly and low-income customers who depend on the centre for services and social life. “It’s important to protect these groups and there is a duty to make space available for them,” she says.
Latin Elephant has won concessions during the development process, securing 10 per cent affordable retail space on the new site, as well as a relocation fund of £634,000 for traders. Delancey is also offering a “support and guidance service” for local retailers that will have to move, including assistance with finding new premises and marketing advice.
Lenin Erazo in his restaurant. Image: Kieron Monks.
But Roman-Velazquez is concerned that the relocation fund is inadequate, that the cluster will be broken up during the five-year construction process, and that the developer has given only vague commitments that traders will be allowed to return to the new site.
The case has become an incendiary issue in the borough and beyond, drawing more than 600 objections from the public and fierce criticism from campaign groups across London. Concerns go beyond the fate of the Latin cluster to Delancey’s plans for housing.
Developers are required to provide 35 per cent affordable housing in new builds, with half at social rent equivalent. Delancey’s scheme would meet the affordable housing target, but deliver just 33 homes – 3 per cent of the total – at social rents. The rest would be split between London Living Rent and affordable rent, defined as 80 per cent of market rates. With new two-bedroom apartments in the area on the market for £3,000 per month, “affordable” rent could cost 85 per cent of an average salary for the borough.
Opposition is stiffer for this being the latest in a series of controversial developments in Elephant and Castle, which add up to a £3bn transformation of the area that critics have called social cleansing.
The demolition of Heygate Estate saw more than 1,000 residents evicted, and in many cases forced out of the borough, with minimal compensation. The replacement complex allocated just 82 of 2704 homes at social rent, with all properties sold going to overseas investors. Plans to demolish and remake the Aylesbury Estate with 778 fewer social rent homes are going through a public enquiry. The new Strata Tower and Elephant One buildings have delivered more than 1,000 homes and zero at social rent.
“We don’t want any more homes for rich people, we need council houses at genuine council rents,” says Tanya Murat, spokesperson of campaign group Southwark Defend Council Housing. (Delancey’s proposal will “destroy a vital part of our multicultural community... and replace it with shops people can’t afford to shop in and houses people can’t afford to live in”.
Local politicians are also joining the opposition. Fourteen councilors have signed an open letter against the scheme, citing “unacceptable” social housing provision and inadequate protection for traders.
Delancey is resisting further concessions at this point, claiming its proposal is already at the margins of viability, although the group projects a £154 million profit. And Southwark council leader Peter John has defended the plans on the basis that, as local government funding has been slashed, councils are being forced to embrace private sector developers and imperfect projects in order to deliver much-needed housing.
The same reasoning has been used by Labour-run councils across the capital to justify regenerations, from Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth to South Grove in Waltham Forest. Haringey council has presented its £2bn HDV scheme as a necessity, sparking a ferocious backlash, while pursuing another pariah project that threatens London’s other major Latin American cluster.
The Elephant development is “representative of the most acute changes currently taking place in London,” according to Michael Edwards, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. These trends are ”wholesale displacement and dispersal of settled residential communities through ’regeneration’ mechanisms” and “land market and rental pressures displacing small businesses and ethnic specialist economies across the city”.
But the tide may be turning. Labour councils now face growing pressure from below as their constituents organise against regeneration projects, and from above as their party leadership pushes for new constraints and accountability.
Protests are expected outside Southwark’s planning committee meeting on Tuesday as the fateful decision is taken. Campaigners are still hopeful of last minute concessions. After 20 years of thwarted development plans, a derided building and its marginalised community are not going quietly.