A few weeks back, in mid-December, Sadiq Khan’s administration gave Labour-run Southwark Council a final green light for the redevelopment of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. Doing so opened the way for another large piece of the area’s ongoing regeneration programme to proceed, though not without facing some of the same sorts of opposition stirred by previous ones. As so often with such projects, there are arguments with merit on all sides. The story is also both distinctive and highly instructive about the part of London it occupies.
The shopping centre’s big problem has always been that not an awful lot of people shop there. In his book Remaking London, Ben Campkin has documented that on the day it opened in 1965 only half its units were let and that “the centre has only ever been partially occupied” – sadly, a fundamental failing that nourished its characterisation as an eyesore and a blight. Though hailed at the start as a great consumer breakthrough, the building dated rapidly and, as is the way of these things, later acquired a cult status as its bad reputation solidified. Its appearance in an episode of Luther spoke for itself.
There are other strands to this narrative, though, and these have been emphasised by opponents of the plans now approved by Southwark’s planning committee (narrowly) and City Hall. In and around the centre, including in the railway arch units round the back, a cluster of Latin American small businesses grew, breathing a bit of life into the derided retail shell. A bingo hall on the top floor serves a clientele of around 650 people a day. What will happen to these traders and to their customers, who for many years have stopped the place from dying ?
Swings. Roundabouts. Losses. Gains. Weighing competing interests. Seeking optimum outcomes for now and the years to come. Finding the finance and the know-how to deliver. These are the factors to be considered and the tasks to be addressed by planners and politicians with an obligation to create the best neighbourhoods, boroughs and city they can for the largest number of residents. But what is “best”? Who decides? Who wins from “regeneration” change who does not?
The report by City Hall officers – the GLA Stage 2 report, if we’re being official – provides the details of Southwark’s deal with developer Delancey. The shopping centre is to be replaced by a new and enlarged quantity of retail space, new offices, a new entrance for the Elephant & Castle Underground station (which forms part of the site), a new campus for the local London College of Communication, and 979 new homes. Of these, 330 are deemed to satisfy the Mayor’s definition of being “genuinely affordable”, thereby meeting his 35 percent “threshold” requirement. 116 will be for Social Rent, including 28 three-bedroom homes.
The plans underwent a number of revisions during last year in order to meet concerns of the Mayor, including an increase in the “affordable” housing provision. The GLA report says this was subjected to its own viability testing and the conclusion reached that it is “the maximum level that can be achieved within the proposed scheme at the current time”.
There is also a “relocation strategy” for existing traders. The report says that the redevelopment area contains 65 retail tenants at present, plus 18 businesses leasing office space. A “relocation fund” of £634,700 has been created, which will be allocated by an on-site business adviser, overseen by the council, to help meet various relocation costs.
Some of new retail space (10 per cent) and office space will be let at discount levels averaging 40 per cent of local market rates for a five year period and – following the GLA’s intervention – held at 75 per cent for the next ten years. There won’t be enough space to accommodate all the current traders, though the GLA report notes that Southwark has a “supply pipeline of affordable workspace” in the wider Elephant & Castle Opportunity Area.
The bingo hall will not be replaced, and the GLA report makes unhappy reading for those who go there. Nearly half of its customers are over 65 years old and nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they are of black African or Caribbean descent. “The loss of the bingo hall would therefore likely have adverse impacts on these groups which may include experiencing a loss of social inclusion,” the report acknowledges. Delancey will give first refusal to a bingo hall operator interested in some of the new leisure space, but it wouldn’t be as big as the current hall.
There are other “mitigation measures” for other people who look set to lose out from the new scheme. But the GLA report concludes that both the “displacement of traders” and the impact on the bingo hall users would be “outweighed by the wider benefits of the scheme”.
In the eyes of Southwark and City Hall, those wider benefits are clear: the Tube station improvements; the 330 homes for Southwark households on low and middle incomes; the new home for the London College of Communications, notwithstanding the opposition of student union activists armed with “artwashing” and “social cleansing” mantras; a new shopping centre that will surely be more successful than the one that has been ailing for half a century, bringing with it new jobs and, for the council, additional income from business rates it badly needs.
Critics of the scheme contend that the new development will be a loss to local people and destroy the Elephant’s multicultural character. Will it? Or will the outcome be less straightforward? Might the more robust shopping centre businesses, such as La Bodeguita Colombian restaurant, which has been helped by Southwark to find new premises nearby, prosper in a more prosperous setting? Will the new retail landscape be eschewed by Elephant residents or will they flock to it, whatever their income, culture or ethnicity? It is sometimes claimed that Westfield in Stratford isn’t used by local people, but the shoppers who throng its aisles look pretty much like regular East Londoners. Why would the new Elephant centre not appeal to ordinary South Londoners?
A range of activists, both local and otherwise, and politicians who’ve opposed the scheme or have misgivings about it say they will monitor the outcomes of the Delancey scheme closely. They have their various priorities and agendas, just as those in favour of it do, but it is absolutely right that the Elephant shopping centre project receives close and careful scrutiny as it evolves. The Mayor says he wants “good growth”. Will this latest piece of the new Elephant & Castle produce it?