Let's talk Latin America

Elephant and Castle ‘regeneration’— London’s Latin hub under threat

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Later today, Tuesday 16th of January, the redevelopment plan for Elephant and Castle shopping centre is going to the Southwark Planning Committee. Local people will be protesting, along with others who don’t agree with the plans as they stand—but why?


I grew up not far from Elephant and Castle (EC), an area of South East London that is known far and wide for an eclectic variety of reasons: it is the home to the Ministry of Sound, the LCC art college, the shiny metal box-come-electric generator that Aphex Twin is rumoured to live in (just a rumour, disappointingly). Elephant’s now-demolished Heygate Estate was also a recognisable icon, the large cluster of 1970’s brutalist flats was a favourite set location for filmmakers until they came down in 2010.


London’s Latin hub




One of the area’s most notable features, however, is its thriving Latin American community; I have heard EC referred to as ‘Little Colombia’, but in fact Latinos from 19 different countries live in the borough of Southwark, making up 8.9% of its total residents. It is Elephant and Castle, though, where the colours, tastes, sounds and smells of Latin America are concentrated. Here over eighty Latin American business trade, attracting people—Latino and otherwise—from across the city. Finding reasonably-priced and delicious empenaditas, maracuya ice lollies, Harina P.A.N (a favourite Venezuelan flour brand used for making arepas) alongside salsa bars (where the MC shouts out exclusively in Spanish and the bar sells aguardiente) all together in a British city is no mean feat. Thanks to decades of hard work on the part of London’s Latinos, who took up residence in Elephant in the 1990’s when it was a less than desirable spot, a unique economic and cultural hub has been formed.


It is, without a doubt, the ‘unofficial Latin American capital of London’ and recent campaigns have called for it to be recognised as the city’s first Latin quarter.  But imminent plans for the long-awaited redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre threaten to disseminate, or at the very least dilute, EC’s local community of which Latin American’s make up a sizeable proportion.


The shopping centre which dominates Elephant’s landscape is famous, or rather infamous, for its outdated design, winning the title of ‘Britain’s Ugliest Building’ on multiple occasions since its construction in the 1960s. But in a London that appears increasingly homogenous year on year, with soulless structures creeping up on every inch of spare land in the inner city, there is something special about the EC shopping centre—it is homegrown, it is characterful, it is cheap! What is more, the dying phenomenon that is market culture still has a foothold there. That is not to say that the centre is not rundown and crying out for some TLC. But in what form?


The ‘regeneration’ of the shopping centre 


The Elephant and Castle shopping centre has recieved many insults over the years (Photo credit mapio.net)


The EC shopping centre site was bought by Delancey, an off-shore (registered on the British Virgin Isles, a well-known tax haven) private investor in 2014. According to Delancey, the development is set to made up of 979 homes, of which 342 will be affordable (35%) with some below social rental levels. Alongside the housing, a new “broader and more diverse” range of shops and restaurants will make up the new shopping centre.


At a community council meeting on Tuesday 9th January, the Leader of Southwark Council Peter John presented his reasons for supporting the Delancey plans, telling attendees how the redevelopment of EC shopping centre had been an ambition of Southwark council for 20 years. EC was once, he said,“the Piccadilly of South London”; a glittering image which John cited as a reference for what Elephant could be in the future.


The shopping centre “never flourished” John stated, for various reasons: money ran out before completion, leaving it partly unfinished; it was built at a time when car was king, and as a result it is particularly pedestrian-unfriendly, placed between two busy roundabouts. In short, it never became a shopping destination, able to attract big business and turn over large volumes of capital. One of John’s principal objectives for the redevelopment was “ensuring Southwark residents spent money in Southwark shops”, instead of heading to retails outlets in neighbouring boroughs or central London.


‘Affordable housing’ 


What the new EC shopping centre is predicted to look like (Photo credit Delancey)


What most people—local residents, councillors, and commentators—find unable about Delancey’s plan for the site is the lack of genuinely affordable housing. On their website, Delancey proudly states that “as there was no affordable housing on the site previously,” the introduction of 343 such properties (35% of the total built) will be of “100% net benefit for the community”.


But ‘affordable housing’ is an ambiguous term. A new category of ‘affordable housing’, Discounted Market Rates, has been recently created—it charges no more than 80% of the market rent, and pertains to private Build To Rent schemes. This gives private investors the ability to offer ‘affordable housing’ that meets policy requirements.


The latter is the form of ‘affordable housing’ that Delancey will mostly provide. It is clear to most, given how expensive London rents are, that properties at this reduced rate will only be affordable to high earners. Indeed, in Delancey have stated that 60% of the ‘affordable’ houses will be occupied by those on salaries of £60,000 to £90,000 per year. The remainder of the ‘affordable’ housing we will be—brace yourself for yet another category—at ‘London Living Rent equivalent’, so £205 – £308 per week.


A study done by Southwark Council in 2015 concluded that what is now described as ‘affordable housing’ excludes the average Southwark resident, showing that a working single person on the average median income for Southwark, cannot afford more than 26% market rent (and a lone parent working on average income cannot afford more than 14%). This research suggests Delancey’s predicted ‘100% net benefit for the community’ of Southwark is a fallacy.


Fobbing off traders 


Customers pick up a bite at Guyanese food hut ‘Kaietuer Kitchen’ in EC market (Photo credit Kabulawayo blog)


Equally as worrying as Delancey’s plans for housing on the EC shopping centre site, is their plan (or lack thereof) for current traders. Planning permission is going to the committee regardless of the fact that Delancey and Southwark have not yet reached an agreement with the traders about their future.


Delancey insists that retaining local retailers and providing specialist services, such as the hub of Latin American stockists, cafes, and restaurants, is crucial for a successful redevelopment; their actions, however, suggest this is not a genuine stance. Southwark policy for the EC regeneration requires 10% of all new units be reserved for displaced traders, and makes the specific requirement to provide such units at no more than 40% market rent for the first 5 years; whilst the 10% quota was squeezed out of Delancey, the investor has provided no information on how ‘affordable’ their rents will be.


It is likely that even on reduced rents current traders will not be able to afford to move back. Delancey itself stated this in a planning document which recognises “that some existing retailers in the area are benefitting from disproportionately low levels of rent” and concludes that “it may not be financially viable for them to survive in the area in the longer term”. While Delancey is certain that some current traders will be priced out, they are not so certain of what will become of them. The investor has only agreed to provide a relocation strategy after planning permission is accepted, despite a 2007 Traders Charter approved by Southwark recognising relocation as a foremost priority in order to secure continuity.


Despite its various policy documents created to protect traders in such situations, Southwark council does not appear a reliable agent to push Delancey to commit to a suitable relocation plan. On another Delancey-owned project in Elephant (a mixed-use site with no ‘affordable’ housing called Elephant One) ‘affordable’ retail space was set aside for soon-to-be-displaced EC shopping centre; this site was sold to Sainsbury’s instead. Furthermore, parkland that once stood on the aforementioned Heygate Estate was also sold to Delancey on a 99-year lease at a ‘peppercorn rent’ of £100 per year—this was done on the condition that it would be turned into a new market square to accommodate soon-to-be displaced traders. The market square at present stands empty.


Another bone of contention is the current compensation deal—£630,000 split between traders. But with 57 traders from the shopping centre facing uncertainty, the amount they would end up with is just over £11,000. A current trader said that “people laugh” when they ask for compensation of £100 – £250,000 per trader, but that covers 4 years loss of earnings on top of everything else.


Patria Roman-Velazquez, a sociology lecturer at Loughborough University and chair of Latin Elephant—a charity that promotes the inclusion of migrant and ethnic communities in urban regeneration—has highlighted that, despite significant dialogue, traders don’t have anywhere to go, and their desire to be clustered together in any relocation plan has been ignored.


Equalities Act—a legal obligation 


Elephant and Castle’s busy bingo hall (Photo credit Sy’s prints)

Latin Elephant is pushing for justice local people, their research showing that Delancey’s development disproportionately affects older and BAME people as EC is a specialist centre of economic activity catering to these sectors of society. The Migrant and Ethnic Businesses (MEBs) that are an integral part of the Elephant community and have already been negatively affected, or indeed pushed out, by the sale of council land to private developers that has occurred over the past 5 years. The bingo hall, meanwhile, which sees 7000 mostly older attendees pass through its doors each week, will not be replaced like-for-like in the new redevelopment.


As a result, Delancey’s plan violates not only Southwark policy surrounding the EC regeneration, but also the Equalities Act; as Latin Elephant points out: “Of the protected characteristics listed in section 149 of the 2010 Equalities Act, age and race are particularly relevant for the purposes of the proposed development”.


Delancey does claim they worked hard to create clarity and involve everybody through extensive public consultation but the ‘improvements made’ as a result include an improved entrance for the tube station, addition of a live music venue (although one historically important one already exists—and is being bulldozed) and enlarged public spaces. If such widespread, considered consultation occurred, how could the crucial worries concerning housing and traders have gone unheard?


We want regeneration, not gentrification


Cllr John urges us to remember that “creating huge change” come with “with huge challenges”. And this is undoubtedly true. Change can be hard to process, and some people don’t like it in any form. But this is not the case in Elephant. Most long-standing local residents warmly welcome regeneration—cleaner, better designed public spaces and buildings, more shops close by, investment in infrastructure; I’m sure I was not the only one thrilled by the changes made by TFL and Southwark council in 2015, when one of Elephant’s mega-busy roundabouts was transformed into a peninsular, creating a more accessible, safer and aesthetically-pleasing public space.


But the issue is that not all residents will get to enjoy the benefit of these positive changes, least of all BAME (a large proportion of whom are Latin American) and elderly residents and traders in EC who are set to be disproportionately affected by Delancey’s current plans. The redevelopment will be at their cost. These are the people that, together with wider Elephant community, made this part of London their home when it was not a desirable but a derided destination, when circumstances were more challenging.


Whilst regeneration is due in Elephant, I think Peter John’s statement that the shopping centre at its heart “never flourished” does the community a disservice—it did flourish, in an unexpected and unique way despite, and perhaps partly because of, the lack of investment and infrastructure it received. The cheaper rents in EC shopping centre created space (practically unheard of in such a central location) for independent and migrant ethnic business to sell at affordable rates. It makes me think that developer’s ambitions to create a shopping destination that John describes as “a bit different” may prove to be deeply ironic: surely the arrival of the usual high street suspects to Elephant town centre and the decline of the Latino community will serve to make it more similar, not different, to other shopping districts scattered around London?


Of course its easy to romanticise the current state of the Elephant and Castle and criticise Delancey and Southwark’s plans, without offering any practical solutions in a climate when council funding is scarce. But it is not local people’s responsibility to negotiate with private investors, it is Southwark council’s. And the community is loudly telling them—as owner of the EC bingo hall Patrick Duffy put it—to stop, re-think and consider the people who live in Elephant, not just the people who aspire to live there. There is no simple solution to what is a complex situation, but councillors, when they have the opportunity to do so, should not accept local people paying for the failures of poor government policy.


Fortunately, there are councillors who have expressed concern at the deep flaws in the current Delancey plans, and have signed an open letter highlighting the fact. They echo the simple sentiment of the local community: we want regeneration, not gentrification. At the planning meeting later today this community will be standing outside Southwark Town Hall on Tooley St making noise in protest, in the hope it is not too late to stop the plans as they currently stand.


Find out more

To find out more or get involved see the 35% Campaign, Latin Elephant.

Header photo – Unreported London WordPress