Save the Elephant

Protesters outside the council meeting

London’s Elephant, or Elephant & Castle is south London’s major road junction, funnelling traffic from Westminster, Blackfriars and the city to where both the A2 and the A3 head off, one to Dover and the other towards Portsmouth and the south-west.

It gets its name from a coaching inn, probably older than Shakespeare, replaced several times over the years, most recently around 1960. That name and the elephant symbol on the 1965 shopping centre probably came from the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, who used ivory on the handles of their knives and whose coat of arms is supported by two elephants and, since 1622 has had a crest with an elephant carrying a castle on its back.

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre

Although the post-war reconstruction of the area included some of the better buildings of the era – including the now demolished Heygate Estate* and the 1959 Alexander Fleming House (1959) now converted into flats – the shopping centre, planned with great aspirations to revolutionise retailing in the UK was sadly reduced in scope by budget restrictions and never really took off. Increasingly it was isolated by the ever heavier traffic flows and the often unpopular subways many had to use to reach it.

The march sets off from the Elephant

New road layouts, including the removal of the subways have improved the area, but the shopping centre is still less than inspiring, though a thriving and lively market has grown up there, largely due to the Latin American community. But that doesn’t make enough money for Southwark Council and the private developers the council has largely been taken over by, and there has been a huge programme to replace low cost social housing by high rise private towers and estates, forcing many of the former residents out of the area, often to the cheaper fringes of London or further.

As well as towers like the ugly Strata with its purely decorative green-washing wind turbines on its top (they caused highly unpleasant vibrations for the residents when used) there are larger schemes such as Elephant Park, which replaced the Heygate, as well as ongoing demolitions on the large Aylesbury Estate and plans to remove all or most of the borough’s council housing by the Labour council dominated by the right-wing ‘Thatcher-Lite’ New Labour Progress group. Much of the new properties are destined to be sold off-plan to foreign investors and never occupied and very few will provide the new homes that so many Londoners desperately need at rents they can afford.

London Latin American banner on the march ‘Protect our Barrios – Fight Gentrification’

So it came as no surprise when the council and the new owners of the shopping centre Delancey announced plans in 2015 to demolish it and redevelop the area. Nor, given what has already happened in the area that the needs of the growing Latin American population, which in 2009 the chair of the London Assembly had made clear were important and should be taken into account in the regeneration of the area were almost completely ignored. Though they weren’t being singled out – the needs of the rest of the community were also marginalised in a redevelopment by Delancey together with the London College of Communication who would get a new campus.

The protesters meet for a rally before the march at the LCC, where a student occupation is taking place against the plans

As well as local residents and traders, the protest also included students from the LCC, who incensed by the proposals and their management’s collusion with Delancey have occupied part of their building. Trade unionists from the LCC and also working for Southwark Council were also taking part in the protest, and a number of councillors had also come out against the proposals which the council officers had recommended and the cabinet were hoping to push through. I left well before the end of the long meeting, where the full council turned the current proposals down (14 had earlier signed an open letter against the scheme, citing “unacceptable” social housing provision and inadequate protection for traders), but after several more hours in private session agreed to hold another meeting at the end of the month, where Delancey were expected to come up with an improved proposal.

Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s older brother and a Southwark resident speaks to to the crowd

The protests so far have obviously led to some improvements in the scheme, but the gulf between development for profit and development for public good is still huge and it seems unlikely that it can be bridged. Until the Labour party membership in Southwark – and other London Labour councils – takes back control from Progress though the democratic mechanisms of the party, social cleansing will continue.

As well as pictures from the protest I arrived a little early and took a few pictures in the immediate area Around the Elephant.

Images and text of the protest are at Don’t destroy Elephant & Castle
Walking the Rip-Off – Heygate & Aylesbury
Heygate Estate Scandal
Heygate Panoramas


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My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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