Elephant & Castle shopping centre is facing re-development. But what of its Latin American residents?

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre. Image: Getty.

South London’s Elephant & Castle shopping centre has long served as a punchbag for aesthetes, and has been variously described as a “blunder,” an “eyesore,” and a “manky hot-pink semi-empty mall.”

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. 


A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 

“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.