Elephant & Castle

Its difficult to imagine this now,but apparently the Elephant & Castle area was once known as ‘The Piccadilly of South London’. It was redesigned after the Second World War (when it was heavily bombed) and has remained virtually the same ever since. In 1999 it was voted  “ London’s ugliest eyesore’ by the Central London Partnerhip and soon afterwards Southwark Council declared its commitment to  a regeneration programme. In 2002,the initial plans collapsed after they failed to establish an agreement with their then preferred commercial partners. Since then,the Council has been negotiating with other consortia and says it is on the point of choosing the (as yet unnamed) developer ‘that will fund the massive infrastructural changes planned over the next eight years.” The cost will amount to an anticipated £1.5billion.

Even though the project has barely commenced ( apart from Heygate Street residents being moved to Wansley Street) it has already received accolades: In November 2004,the Elephant & Castle Regeneration Team won the ‘Best Local Authority Planner’ award (presented by Mayor Ken Livingstone). Councillor Richard Thomas (an executive member) has emphasised that (in their view) they are responding to calls over many years for the old shopping centre to be demolished & replaced with retail zones that are’attractive to shoppers and successful for traders’. He concedes that there will inevitably be ‘short-term upheaval’ but claims that the council is ‘very sympathetic to people’s feelings of uncertainty during the changes’.

This is not quite how it seen in the shopping centre itself. There the sense is more that their concerns (& future) are not (for the Council) a priority  and they are in effect ‘dangling in the wind’ with little idea as to what will happen to them or when.  Diana Sach ,owner of La Bodeguita restaurant & the adjacent delicatessen for the past ten years,acknowledges that the building itself is old & decrepit (she used a stronger description) and that arranging trade deliveries is complicated. However, like her Colombian neighbours,Elizabeth Kaubsom (Lonnie’s International Hairdressing Salon) and Claudia Bernal (Alteraciones Nicole) she feels strongly that the contribution of Latin-American  entrepreneurs such as herself  deserves appreciation: They  ‘took on units in the centre when it was in a trough,built up their businesses and made Elephant & Castle popular’.

According to the Southwark Council timetable,the shopping centre will be demolished in 2010 and the rebuilding will take four years. What will happen to Diana,Claudia,
Elizabeth  and the others during that period? The Council has given assurances that they will be temporarily re-located ‘in affordable trading space’ and have mentioned in that context the Oakmayne Plaza (the old Volvo site on  New Kent Road). This doesn’t convince Diana & co: How will this space be allocated? How much will it cost? Even more significant,will they ever be able to return to the new modernised shopping centre? Their fear is that they  may be priced out,the rents will be too high and that the big retail chains (Virgin,Next,Starbucks,etc) will move in and take over.‘The pequenos impresarios’ can’t compete against  ‘las grandes potencias’ ( Claudia)    “Ellos son los elefantes y nosotros somos los pollitos” (Elizabeth).

Southwark Council disputes any contention that it has provided insufficient information or that local traders have not had opportunities to attend meetings with Council representatives.They cite particularly the ‘Regeneration Exhibition’ held outside the London College of Commuications on January 19th & 20th. The two sides are clearly still some way apart in their perception  as to how well (or badly) this issue is being handled. One thing is for sure: For all Latin Americans (& other Londoners) who currently go to the Elephant & Castle to eat their food,drink their coffee,watch their football matches and even just to chat,how it is resolved really matters.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on May 1st, 2007 by Colin D Gordon

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