“It’s strange to see the area so still and silent”: A walk around Elephant & Castle at dawn

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which is to be demolished.Credit: Getty

It’s 4am and it’s cool, dark and foggy. There’s hardly anyone on the streets of Elephant and Castle as I begin my dawn wander outside the wildly unattractive shopping centre.

Opened in 1965, it was the first covered shopping mall in Europe, and is today shabby and full of character. It’s home to Latin American cafés, Castle Tandoori – an Indian restaurant largely unchanged since the 1980s – £1-a-go massage chairs, and, until recently, Palace Bingo. The latter shut its doors in April, among the first of many closures to hit the shopping centre in upcoming months as its vendors prepares for imminent demolition.  

During the day, the centre is a lively stomping ground for many local pensioners from diverse backgrounds, predominantly African and Caribbean, and it’s strange to see the area surrounding the centre, usually buzzing with life, so still and silent. It strikes me how strange and sad it will be when it’s no longer there.  

Walworth, like most areas of London, is undergoing extensive change. I’m reminded of this every time I find myself in the area.  As I walk towards East Street, I survey the places that no longer exist: the Tibetan Buddhist Centre that was located in a former Victorian bathhouse, the Cuming Museum, which has remained closed since a fire in 2013, the Heygate Estate – now replaced by Elephant Park. 

I pass by the ArtWorks; an odd ill-placed pop-up of shipping containers housing restaurants, start-ups, and a small library frequented by locals. Just across the road, tucked at the end of Hampton Street behind the 43-storey Strata tower, which was in 2010 voted Britain’s Ugliest New Building, stands the United Reform Church. The church hosts a weekly community canteen run by charity Be Enriched. Locals, often vulnerable adults and rough sleepers, gather at the church to enjoy a free meal and chat about everything under the sun, from zombie apocalypses to the housing crisis and the gentrification of the area.  

An elderly man emerges from the fog; he’s wearing a top hat and hobbling along with his walking stick. Startled, I smile awkwardly and say good morning, he smiles back and nods. I wonder where he’s going at this time. I keep walking down the street, passing by East Street Market, one of London’s oldest, largest and busiest markets. There’s a blue plaque stuck to the building by the entrance marking the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin.

The market, which is notably featured in the opening credits of Only Fools and Horses, will come to life this afternoon, drawing in crowds of people. Its stalls sell everything from fruit and veg to suitcases, antiques, and underwear. You’ll often see the same characters frequenting the stalls, dressed in eccentric outfits and chatting to the sellers. At this time, a few empty stalls have been put out, shrouded in mist, a man stands beside them. I float by.


A greasy spoon on the high street is lit up, the shutters are half closed. There are plasters strewn across the pavement. I pass by shops and supermarkets, bus stops, beauty salons and pawn brokers. I reach the top of Liverpool Grove and glance up. St Peter’s Church, the first church designed by Sir John Soane, the architect behind the Bank of England, stands tall and looks slightly out of place in the area. During the blitz local people would seek shelter in its crypt, 30 people were killed when a bomb hit it. The crypt, recently restored, is now a community space and café. During the colder months it provides shelter to those sleeping rough.   

I keep walking down the High Street until I come to a junction, where I cross the road and wander into Burgess park. I walk up the steep wildflower mounds – relishing in finding a bit of countryside in London. Birds fly over my head; the flowers are beginning to bloom. From the hills, I look out at the Ayelesbury Estate and Divine Rescue Shelter (another soon-to be-gone soup kitchen) and the Shard. 

I walk pass the almshouses in Chumleigh Gardens, established by the Friendly Female Society, the sheltered housing was run by and for women, operating “by love, kindness, and absence of humbug”.  Hidden inside the gardens in the courtyard of the almshouse there’s multi-cultural garden, built to reflect the area’s diversity. In the Islamic Garden at the back there’s a sculpture depicting local hero Kieb Thomas, a community activist and teacher. The gardens, now closed, are a hidden gem providing peace and quiet in an otherwise noisy and heavily populated space.   

I continue through the park, pausing by the lake. Surrounding the much-used outdoor barbeques are piles of rubbish. A fox is trawling through it. A cleaner wearing high-vis is walking around, surveying the damage with an expression of disgust on his face; he takes photos of the litter. I climb the hill, and from its summit I take in the view; the tall glass buildings of Canary Wharf, and the local gems like New Peckham Mosque, a place of workshop frequented largely by the Turkish Cypriot community and housed inside a Grade 1 listed church. Finally, I take a seat on the grass and wait for the sun to rise.  

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.