On a wintery and particularly windy night in London, a small crowd of people sporting elephant face masks slowly start to gather together. Parking their bikes and throwing fuschia banners over them which read ‘housing action’, whilst others wrap up in their scarves holding up pale pink flags with pretty, child-like elephant drawings on them.
An older lady urges her granddaughter to skip towards the crowd and strike a pose for the picture, in front of the banner reading ‘protect our barrios’ conveniently placed right under the Southwark Council sign on Tooley Street. As the amount of the policemen (two are now present, urging about two hundred people not to block the bus route), banners and neon backpacks grow, so does Raul’s confidence — the man in control of the mic following a failed attempt to blast Despacito.
“We know that social and ethnic cleansing is taking place across London and we need to stop that. If you go to Elephant & Castle or Heygate, or any of the new buildings in central London, you will find that at night all the lights are off,” shouts Raul.
He compares these places to safety deposit boxes for investors rather than “real homes for real people” and council housing which he says is what London desperately needs.
“Not greedy developers, not profit, we need ordinary housing. I was brought up in Southwark, and I don’t recognise Elephant and Castle at all. What we have is Heygate estate demolished by greedy property developers.”
“Houses for people, not for profit!” echoes the crowd who are there to protest gentrification, while the Southwark Council planning committee meets to make the postponed decision about the Elephant & Castle Town Centre regeneration plan, as proposed by developer Delancey. The plan will see the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre demolished and a new campus site for London College of Communication built alongside a new London underground station, commercial space and a thousand new homes.
Those who protest the terms of the Elephant & Castle development plans are not alone in their concerns, many Londoners are unhappy with the current housing situation, blaming Mayor Sadiq Khan for the lack of affordable homes. Amandeep Singh Bhogal, a conservative campaigner, wrote on Twitter “not a single affordable home built under Labour Mayor Khan in ten boroughs in FY17/18,” alongside a hashtag which said, “you can’t trust Khan.”
Mayor Khan has set out his plans to “put Londoners living on social housing estates at the heart of decisions that affect their homes,” adding that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to roll this out across the country.
The day following the protest, seated in a cosy local coffee shop around the corner from the Imperial War Museum’s gardens, the owner Andrew quietly pours some mint tea.
“Did you know that Elephant & Castle used to be called South London’s Piccadilly?” he asks me whilst quickly flipping through a hefty architecture book. The glossy pages list all the buildings and monuments of the area filled with blurry 1960s photographs of tipsy women in fur, and men with cigars grinning at the camera – half their smiles covered by the champagne bursting out of a vintage bottle.
The picture was taken in the tavern, referred to as a “historic boozer” by Southwark News, and gave the area its name ‘Elephant & Castle’ — an impressively large meeting point for locals at the time. The old pub was swept away in the post-war remodelling of the road layout.
Between 1971-1974, the Heygate housing estate was constructed, providing homes for over 3,000 people. While the estate later developed a reputation for crime, poverty and dilapidation in the later years, there were differing opinions on whether it was a vital housing necessity, or according to some: a slum filled with crime
The demolishment of the estate, as part of the urban renewal of the Elephant & Castle area, between 2011-2014 was highly controversial, as the community was frustrated with Southwark Council. They felt that an established community had been scattered throughout the borough and beyond for the benefit of developers.
“I’ve lived in the area for as long as I can remember and I still haven’t forgiven Southwark Council for the job on the Heygate estate in which I lost two close friends to new areas,” Ernesto Ortiz Delgado, a broadcasting assistant technician who works at the London College of Communication (LCC), tells me.
“You will seek people to buy the land in Southwark, make 99.9% profit on it – but the majority of the residents will never first-hand see that profit. As someone in the local community, I think Southwark have messed up, but they won’t see it that way,” Ernesto says.
The dream to rebrand the Elephant and revive the vision of the Piccadilly of the South is hardly a new concept as Southwark Council have been looking for a developer to transform the Elephant & Castle shopping centre for the past twenty years. Soon after it opened in 1965, it was disregarded by some as an eyesore but it remains as a significant cultural and social hub for the local community and traders.
The land which the shopping centre resides upon has been bought by Delancey, and the Elephant & Castle Town Centre regeneration plan is seen as the final milestone in the grander scheme of development in the area. The project was met with a massive backlash and campaigns such as Up the Elephant, supported by Latin Elephant and Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth amongst other groups who were also in protest.
On January 16th, the planning committee of Southwark Council rejected the motion to approve the Elephant & Castle Town Centre Redevelopment application after a seven-hour meeting, going against the case officer’s recommendation to grant permission.
The application was not rejected but postponed until the next scheduled meeting on 30 January. The local community and traders expressed worry about social and affordable housing, the relocation of shops in the shopping centre, the future of the traders as well as the bingo hall — a much-loved leisure spot for some locals.
“Elephant & Castle is like the heart of the Latin American community, all the restaurants and the Latin American businesses, we almost feel like we’re in Latin America when we go to Elephant & Castle,” said Rosa, one of the many protesters standing with Latin Elephant — a charity that promotes innovative ways of engaging and incorporating migrant and ethnic groups in processes of urban change in London
“If this planning goes ahead, all of that is going to be destroyed,” she continues, “our community is going to lose, you know, its home and heart,” Rosa explained.
Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth have also stated that they view it as a huge insult to all the people who make up the local community that there is not even any council housing as part of this development. Their members are mostly homeless families living in temporary accommodation and hostels in Southwark and Lambeth who are suffering from high rent prices and poor accommodation.
“It is all going to be luxury flats the people who are in housing need can’t afford,” their representative stressed, “so we are here to demand 100% council housing and good leisure facilities for the local community.”
Falling at the heart of this debate was University of the Arts London with its new proposed site for LCC to be built where the Elephant & Castle shopping centre stands, right across the road from their current campus. Some questioned whether a liberal arts university should be part of a controversial development plan protested by the local community, while others highlighted the benefits of the college staying in the area.
LCC has been considering moving options over the past decade, as staying in the current campus has proved increasingly difficult due to the age of the building. Back in 2016, when the model for the new campus was first displayed, John Parmiter (a member of the University of the Arts’ Court of Governors who also chaired the Estates Committee) told me that staying in LCC and trying to fix the current building was also an option. However, it would take eight years while the students are attending the college.
Southwark Council believes that LCC is a valuable part of the area and does not want them to move to the other discussed locations such as Stratford or White City. “You cannot replace what a university and the students bring to an area by putting shops or houses or anything else,” said Jon Abbott, Head of Regeneration North from the Council.
Head of College, Natalie Brett believes LCC must stay in the area as they have been in Elephant & Castle for over 50 years and if they suddenly have to leave, it would create a huge hole in the outreach work that they do with young people and local school kids.
“I’ve never sat until two in the morning, did you know that?” Brett chuckles, referring to the planning committee meeting on January 16th. She is the Head of LCC, one who resists the stereotypical imagery of her job with a fashionable bob and a big smile accompanied by her trademark red lipstick.
“I’m not very happy in the way it turned out because I think there was so much noise going on about the concerns people have, that there wasn’t enough opportunity for the benefits of the project to come through,” she says.
The Regeneration and Cultural Partnerships Manager of the College, Gill Henderson, agrees with Brett, stating that they have been exploring and developing local partnerships and collaborations, and there is so much more they could do with a building that is welcoming, flexible and one that allowed them to build on those relationships.
“I think there are some valid and understandable concerns that have been raised,” Henderson says of the protests against the redevelopment plans. “However, I’m not convinced that the ‘local community’ are all quite as vehemently opposed as is being presented.”
Having lived in the area since the 80s, Henderson hardly ever used the shopping centre which she claims is also the case for many friends who are long-term residents. She says she was very surprised by the sudden declarations of love for the shopping centre.
“It is vitally important to support the Latin American and BAME traders who have revitalised the place and to get them into new premises – which is why we worked with some of them on our Shop Front project,” she says.
“We need to celebrate the past, but look towards a future which retains diversity, culture and creativity at the heart of the Elephant. That is when regeneration will work. When it’s not just for developers and local authorities. But also for communities and LCC.”
Not everybody felt the same way following the decision to postpone the application for the plan; there was a sit-in protest by students inside the LCC campus accusing the university of being complicit in the ‘social cleansing’ of the area by partnering with Delancey.
The protesters who participated in the occupation stated that LCC’s relocation is less of a concern to them and their primary focus is UAL’s involvement with Delancey, the tearing down of the shopping centre and the replacement being unaffordable luxury flats.
“Basically, because of UAL’s involvement, Delancey can push down the 70.5% social housing requirement that all council planning in Southwark has to meet to 3% because UAL is technically ‘used for the community good’ which is a quite common loophole that planning projects use,” said a student at the occupation who did not want to be named. “They team up with a public institution to whitewash the problems of this plan.”
When asked whether they think they can stop gentrification, another student who wished to remain anonymous replied that gentrification will always continue to happen, but at the same time it can be continuously stopped. They listed Southwark being a Labour council as a big part of why they think this area can be successful in terms of combatting gentrification and getting more council houses.
“Most specifically for this project, Delancey has already bought the land that Elephant & Castle shopping centre is on,” the first protesting student continued, “and we think that this is a really good opportunity for UAL to push for a project that involves more social housing and is just a better deal for the community – and a more socially responsible one.”
Sahaya James, the campaigns officer for the university’s Student Union, who was leading the occupation inside the college, tweeted that she received an email which stated that she is under disciplinary investigation and cannot enter her university without permission; which James claims were due to her protest of “UAL’s complicity in gentrification.”
James is seemingly more petite in real life than her Twitter picture suggests, yet she possesses the same determined eyes and dark hair with turquoise dye at the bottom bits, minus the two red lines of face paint on her cheeks in the ‘Sahaya for NUS President’ campaign poster.
Sahaya James also criticises the university for the way the protesters have been treated, claiming they have been intimidated and that “the UAL management have refused toilet access to a section of the occupiers for a whole night in a cruel attempt to wait us out.”
Other supporters on Twitter showed solidarity with James and criticised the university’s decision to block an elected union representative’s access to the institution, deeming it as anti-democratic and unacceptable.
The email sent to Sahaya James discloses the university is undertaking an investigation under the University’s Disciplinary Code for Students. The grounds for investigation stated in the email are that she opened a fire door at LCC to allow people to enter the building without permission and without going through the security procedures which are mandatory at the College.
Head of College, Natalie Brett, responds that the majority of the occupiers at the college were not LCC or UAL students and were actually students from University College London and the London School of Economics.
“There was a campaigns officer for the university, and yes, she is ex-LCC, and I am aware of one, maybe two other LCC students but at least eleven out of fourteen were actually from outside of the university. So was it really our occupation I have to ask,” she says.
Resembling the occupation to “a bit of a red herring in a way,” Brett says she witnessed the students from LCC and a lot of the staff who also live, work and were born in the area, getting very frustrated with the demonstrations.
“It is very difficult talking about the occupation because I feel as though it was led by people’s own personal agendas to do with their political view, and not a representative of what people in this building might think,” she states.
Brett expressed she was perplexed that while there was an occupation going on, the university had a hundred school kids from the local area who came in for a class and they nearly had to cancel that because “one of the occupiers had opened a fire exit to let people in the college, who were not a part of our community, which is a major safeguarding issue for the university.”
Others inside the college are divided up in their views. Staff member Ernesto Ortiz Delgado thinks that the students would have done better by occupying the bases of Southwark Council rather than the university, as the council “make the final or all decisions on what is going to be built or not.”
While he understands the motives behind the occupation and feels it is something to get behind, he describes the protests inside LCC as “a childish sit-in where students think they are forcing the hand of UAL.” Delgado suggested asking the public how they can go about renovating Elephant & Castle without damaging its presence; he believes that while this can surely be done, more communication needs to happen.On 30th January, the planning committee met again regarding the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre and LCC development, deferring the decision to allow Delancey’s improved affordable housing, retail and bingo offer to be fully considered.
“Decision over the Elephant & Castle development is being deferred following last-minute concessions from Delancey with rumours of actual council housing being offered,” tweeted the Up the Elephant campaign, “they are listening to our demands, and we will keep up the pressure until they are met.”
Delancey issued a statement on February 5th, on behalf of the Elephant & Castle Town Centre Regeneration Project. They stated that the developer has listened to the concerns and issues raised by the local community, Ward Councillors and Southwark Borough Council on their initial planning application for the redevelopment of the Elephant & Castle Town Centre.
Submitting their revised offer to Southwark, they added that a consultation process would be started to present and discuss these proposals.
Delancey confirmed that the revised offer includes: all social rented housing to be owned and managed by either Southwark Council or another registered provider, the delivery of Elephant Box Park to further supplement the independent trader relocation strategy for the shopping centre, as well as re-visioning Pastor Street to create a vibrant affordable, mixed commercial environment alongside an advisory group.
A 21-day re-consultation on these proposals will be undertaken to discuss the issues and concern raised regarding the previous proposal, and a detailed discussion will be carried out around the newly updated offer according to Delancey.
While the Delancey party has not given answers to specific questions regarding the social housing percentages and consideration of the ideas during the four years of consultations with the local community, they tell me that “in the interest of managing expectations we may not have the answers to all your questions but will do our best to come back to you with something.”
Their statement ends by stating that they “look forward to continuing to work with all the relevant parties to reach a mutually acceptable and positive result for all, and a conclusion which delivers the new town centre and essential improvements to the transport, education and housing provision for the community in and around Elephant & Castle.”
“I think it was the right decision to make,” says Brett of the deferral decision, “I think a lot of people in the room there know that this is about time to have a proper conversation. Let’s try for Southwark and Delancey to work really hard together and try to push as much as they can out of this project to answer the people in the local area and hopefully then; we can move forward with the development.”
As for the college, Brett believes that the university’s outreach work and impact in the area have got a bit lost in the last few months, and the deferral gives them more time to articulate that better.
Following chants and playing bingo on their feet in the crisp, clear night, the protesters outside the Southwark Council building see the deferral decision as a victory to celebrate. However, Latin Elephant tweets they are still waiting to be consulted following Delancey’s recent announcements, adding that they don’t view learning about this offer and letter via social media as a good start.
“I think that it is now more clear than ever that after four years of consultations, our demands, the community’s requests are the same ones from the first day until today,” Santiago from Latin Elephant tells me, whilst holding a banner with one hand and gesturing at the Southwark Council building with the other.
“And it seems that they are only just now conceding certain things, actually taking our concerns into account and we think it is quite late. We welcome that if they actually commit to our requests, but we believe that this is the best example as they have never listened to the community because otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this situation and there would not be a last-minute offer with pretty much what we were requesting in the past four years.”
Featured image by Veronica Aguilar via Flickr CC – Slideshow images by Defne Seracetin