On 15 January, in a six-hour meeting that ended just after midnight, Southwark Council’s planning committee voted to turn the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, where 3000 people once lived in 1212 flats, into a ‘mixed-use development’ of 2500 homes for 4000 people, plus shops and restaurants and some ‘community space’. It was asked why the scheme would be an improvement on what’s already there. ‘It’s better because it’s an improvement,’ came the non-answer. Nearly 300 fully grown oak trees will be cut down to make way for a privately managed park. A quarter of the land will be given over to car parking, on a site that has the best transport connections in London.
According to council targets, 35 per cent of any new development should be affordable rented housing (‘affordable’ means 80 per cent of the market rate, too expensive for the 20,000 people on Southwark’s waiting list); only a quarter of the new flats will be. And a mere 79 of them will be for subsidised, secure tenants. But before the council could spend £15 million demolishing the estate and hand the site to the developer, Lend Lease (who will pay Southwark back later), there was a last kink to be teased out: the three remaining Heygate leaseholders who didn’t want to sell their flats; certainly not at the prices they’d been offered. Last week, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government granted a compulsory purchase order.
Southwark’s long campaign to hand an empty site in Zone 1 to a private developer is nearly over. The Liberal Democrats, who ran the council between 2002 and 2010 in coalition with the Conservatives, organised the clearance of the Heygate’s inhabitants, issuing a third of the secure tenants with eviction notices. Since then the Labour Party has been desperate to finish the job and take the credit. Their motives are at first glance politically mysterious. Westminster’s illegal moving of poorer, unlikely-to-vote-Tory council tenants out of marginal wards in the late 1980s has been a long-term political success, delivering comfortable Conservative victories ever since. What Southwark’s doing is legal, but no less unjust, and says something much worse about the state of local government in London, because all three main parties have more or less the same policy. The local MP, Simon Hughes, is outraged that the scheme’s first homes are being marketed abroad; it’s not clear if he’d be all right with people from Chipping Norton snapping up the impossibly priced one-beds, which start at £310,000.
At the compulsory purchase order hearings in February, the competing accounts of the estate’s history and the physical state it is now in were so wildly different that the adversarial format of a hearing can’t account for the gap. The objectors pointed out that the Lend Lease plan didn’t conform to the council’s 2004 strategy for the wider area; the council tore the plan up last year and says it doesn’t apply. The council’s written submission mentioned the decline in the buildings’ maintenance (for which it was responsible) and the dangers of ‘progressive collapse’ (think Ronan Point) in 1960s buildings built using pre-cast concrete panels. It couldn’t actually say that the Heygate is in any such danger, because it isn’t. The estate uses a different pre-cast system from Ronan Point, and was built later (finished in 1974) to tighter standards. Catherine Croft, the director of the Twentieth Century Society, spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Better Elephant group, which is campaigning for a regeneration scheme that actually benefits local people. ‘In decades to come,’ she said, ‘we will be astounded how structurally sound buildings were cavalierly demolished.’
There’s a full account of what’s happened to the estate at Southwark Notes, a treasure chest of archive material and gallows humour, documenting the changing policies and promises regarding not just the Heygate, but the Elephant and Castle as a whole.
Southwark blames austerity and the repeated slashing of social housing subsidies for the lack of social rented units in the scheme. Central government cuts weren’t the reason the council started looking to release the ‘latent value locked up in the land beneath’ the Heygate in the late 1990s. But now there’s a £23 million hole in their 2014-15 budget, with a 10 per cent cut coming the year after. Money from developers around the borough – for public facilities, a few affordable homes, some training schemes – is the only new cash the council is going to get. In 2011-12 it reported £67 million from such agreements, up from £15.5 million the year before. The median income of the social housing tenants it already has is £9100 – not much council tax revenue to be had there.
Since signing the regeneration agreement with Lend Lease, the council has refused to say how much it was selling the land for. The figure came out by accident at the beginning of the year: £50 million. It has spent £44 million buying out leaseholders and rehousing tenants. The staggered nature of the development – due to be finished in 2025 – means that Lend Lease can build the most profitable sections first and put in the affordable homes when it wants. Or it could just sell the land, at a higher price, without building them at all.
Last week Southwark also said that it wants to build 10,000 homes, a commitment which seemed unlikely almost as soon as it was announced. If any are built, they won’t be in Elephant and Castle, of course, or anywhere else in Zone 1, all of which is going cheap in the austerity firesale.