The Elephant in the Room

As we begin 2018, the housing crisis which is blighting the lives of Londoners, threatening communities and changing the face of our city is rolling on with relentless pressure.

As we begin 2018, the housing crisis which is blighting the lives of Londoners, threatening communities and changing the face of our city is rolling on with relentless pressure. In the south London borough of Southwark, that crisis is causing increasing conflict.

Southwark Council is the largest social landlord in the country, with some 55,000 council homes in its portfolio. However, much of the housing stock is poorly designed and faces systemic issues. Damp, leaks and compromised fire safety are just a few of the problems facing some of Southwark’s largest estates. Large sums of capital are needed to either refurbish or replace much of the built environment which makes up Southwark’s social housing. The strong communities on all of our estates often exist in spite of the built environment, rather than because of it.

Local authorities across the country are facing this challenge, which is being felt acutely in Southwark and which has both hands tied behind its back. Conservative and Tory-Lib Dem governments have cut all state subsidies for affordable and social rented homes since 2010, made it impossible for local authorities to borrow against their housing revenue accounts to build council homes and even made the increasingly damaging right to buy policy easier, diminishing our social housing stock to the tune of thousands of homes per year. Their changes to housing legislation represent nothing short of an attempt to destroy council housing as a viable way of addressing housing need - a need which local authorities are legally bound to try and meet.

It is in this context which many proposals for housing in Southwark are set; the most recent of these is the proposed redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle. Much of the site provides valuable services to the local community, with the market providing affordable retail options for residents in an area where the average salary is £16,000. This market also provides a large retail space with affordably let plots, allowing the local BAME community to trade in a prime location with a high footfall. Its vibrancy is further added to by the large Latin American community whose traders have contributed to, and rely on, the success of the shopping centre as an accessible and affordable retail space. Although a private enterprise which no doubt has its detractors, the large bingo hall run by Palatial Leisure is a key community asset of particular interest to the elderly and BAME people who socialise there, eat and enjoy the hall as a community. The buzzword which epitomises the strengths of the Elephant as it currently exists is ‘affordable’. Borough, Bankside and Walworth are working class communities; the Elephant and Castle as it stands serves that community.

However, for all of its pluses the site itself is in need of redevelopment. The Northern Line entrance to the Elephant and Castle underground station is only one year away from being closed at peak times, due to overcrowding. The lift system there is also unsafe and has been the scene of a number of violent crimes and robberies. The London College of Communication, another valuable asset to the community, is in desperate need of a new building and would prefer to stay at the Elephant. It would be a loss to the borough if this could not be provided and they were forced to leave the area. Couple this with the desperate need to provide more affordable and social housing in the borough and the loss of social rented units on the site of the old Heygate estate, just around the corner, and there is a compelling case for a redevelopment of the Elephant with housing at its heart. The key is that any development must finely balance what is to be gained against what is to be lost and ensure that any private profit is offset against significant community gain.

To ensure this balance is met, local authorities have planning policies which developers must comply with. The trouble with the Elephant and Castle development is the proposals put forward by developer Delancey do not even get close to a number of these standards. In four key areas the current proposals do not meet the council’s expectations:

1) The proposal is not policy compliant when it comes to affordable housing, proposing just 3% social rented housing. To be policy compliment in Southwark every development must provide 35% affordable housing, of which 50% must be at social rents.

2) The proposal is not policy compliant when it comes to the social re-provision of the bingo hall, which provides an affordable social activity. DeLancey and the Council have so far not even been able to agree a temporary space for this facility, let alone a like-for-like replacement in the long run.

3) The proposal does not provide any viable interim guarantee of continued retail space for the market traders currently trading in the shopping centre, of which the Latin American community makes up a key component. Unless this can be provided the thriving BAME SME community faces the very real threat of being put out of business entirely, with significant human and community cost.

4) Finally, the proposal provides no guarantee in perpetuity in the covenants on the housing. This means that within 20 years Delancey could sell the site for profit. As well as this, the social housing at present will not be let by a recognised social landlord, such as the Council or a housing association, and there is no clarity on how the measly 3% social housing will be managed.

As one of my colleagues eloquently put, “A 7.5% profit for Delancey may be a viability red line; well, these are ours.” As far as I and others are concerned, we cannot accept a scheme which doesn’t meet these policy requirements.

For these reasons a vibrant community campaign has grown in opposition to the proposals. It has brought together LCC Students, today taking part in an occupation in opposition to the plans, the Latin Elephant community group, whose residents and traders have lobbied council officials and held public meetings, and local Labour councillors, branches and candidates for the 2018 elections - of which I am one. Together we have collectively recognised, and been willing to fight for, the immensely valuable parts of the community at the Elephant. They may not look fancy in a development promotional, but form an integral part of what is good about our community. Residents across London want to see real improvements in the built environment which will in turn provide real improvements in the day-to-day lives of Londoners. What has become clear in this struggle is that there is a growing movement demanding that those must be mutually inclusive, and that new buildings and regeneration of the built environment cannot come at the cost of the living community it is supposed to be built for.

The Labour Left can continue to be a standard-bearer for this demand in London and across Britain. By making simple and clear demands to prioritise the needs of the community, our effort to build a broad coalition of representatives in opposition to this development has been successful. The diverse group of Borough, Bankside and Walworth Labour councillors and candidates publicly opposed to this scheme include members of Momentum, such as myself, and members of Progress. Together we may yet be able to challenge the growing norm that development is for profit not people, for corporations not communities – and make regeneration for the many, not the few.

For the residents, traders and community in and around the Elephant, that struggle has never been more important.