A controversial regeneration scheme in Elephant and Castle is reaching its endgame following years of protests from local traders, residents and activists. It’s another win for gentrification in the capital but at what cost to the area’s vibrant Latin community? Freelance journalist Kieron Monks reports.
Distriandina, also known as The Colombian, is one of the largest, liveliest, and longest-serving Latin-American nightclubs in London.
Nestled in the railway arches behind the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, the venue attracts crowds of 300 on weekend nights that extend deep into the early hours, largely drawn from the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
The arches were largely derelict and the shopping centre neglected when the Quintero family set up shop in 2002, initially as a Latin grocery serving tastes of home. Over time, they earned the licenses to operate as a cafe, then a restaurant, and eventually a nightclub.
‘We were the second Latin business to open in the area and we helped to bring in more,’ says Mateo Quintero, 21. ‘We helped to change the area and gave it a Latin complexion.’
Latin-American businesses flocked to the Elephant over the next two decades. More than 100 now operate in and around the shopping centre, making this one of the two major Latin clusters in London – the other is in Tottenham.
But the gradual processes of establishment and growth are coming to an abrupt halt for Distriandina and the wider community. The shopping centre faces imminent demolition, and traders face a struggle for survival.
When the Elephant & Castle shopping centre opened 1965, it was envisioned as one of South London’s premier commercial hubs. But the hulking structure struggled to attract occupants and over the years it became run-down and derided – like much of the surrounding area.
Southwark council has eagerly pursued development of the centre for more than 20 years, as a central component of a wider regeneration of the neighbourhood. That process that took a leap forward when property firm Delancey acquired the site for £80m in 2014.
The group is now preparing to break ground on a spectacular new town centre. The 2.5 acre development will include 979 new homes, business and leisure space, a new campus for the London College of Communication (LCC), and improved access to the Elephant & Castle tube and train stations. The plans will deliver ‘a thriving Zone One destination, which will become a focal point for the local community,’ Delancey said.
For Southwark council, this represents the fulfilment of a long-planned renewal project. The new town centre is the centrepiece of a £3bn transformation of the area that includes the demolition of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates and the rise of the grand Elephant Park housing scheme.
Cllr Johnson Situ said the plans ‘will create a vibrant, new town centre, which is a key part of the wider regeneration of Elephant and Castle bringing new homes, jobs and opportunities to the area.’
Delancey’s proposals have been fought every step of the way by a coalition of local traders, residents, and activists, concerned at the potential impact on their livelihoods and communities. This movement drew support from previous campaigns against the demolition of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates, which entailed the loss of thousands of social rent homes, to be replaced with housing complexes unaffordable to most residents.
Protesters scored a victory in January 2018 when the council voted to reject a Delancey proposal, citing an offer of just 33 homes at social rent and insufficient protection for local businesses. But a revised offer was voted through in July, and after further amendments, it was passed by the Mayor of London on December 10.
The revised offer met City Hall’s requirements for 35% ‘genuinely’ affordable homes, split between social rent, London Living Rent – pegged to one-third of average local household incomes – and discount market rent. However, the new figure of 116 social rent homes still falls short of the council’s stated requirements, which call for half of the total affordable homes to be at that level.
‘City Hall has used its planning powers to the fullest extent to achieve this,’ a spokesman for the administration said. ‘35% of the nearly 1,000 new homes will be genuinely affordable, and the Mayor’s intervention in the scheme resulted in lower rents for the affordable housing.’
Hard-won gains, unresolved issues
The offer to traders has also markedly improved. Local businesses have been promised 10% affordable retail space within the new development, with discounted rents for 15 years, instead of five as originally proposed. Business advisers have been appointed to help traders manage the transition, and a relocation fund has been boosted from £250,000 to £635,000.
Delancey has also committed to creating temporary boxpark on an adjacent site with space for around 30 units, with others to be accommodated in nearby properties.
But unresolved issues remain. Traders protest that the relocation fund will not stretch far between more than 100 potential claimants, with substantial refurbishments required for their new premises. Music venues such as Distriandina will be forced to apply for new licenses to sell alcohol and open late, with no guarantees they will be forthcoming.
Emad Megahed, who runs an IT company in the centre and heads the Traders Association, is concerned that many of the proposed new units ‘are tucked away where people can’t see them in bad strategic positions.’ He believes many businesses will struggle to survive the transition.
‘They are creating beautiful gardens for us but we know these gardens are full of bombs and dynamite,’ says Megahed. ‘Within a year businesses will die because the trading environment is not the same.’
Breaking up the Latin cluster also threatens the support network between businesses, the Latin community, and disadvantaged groups, says Patria Roman-Velazquez, a sociologist at Loughborough University and chair of the Latin Elephant campaign group.
‘The economic links make the businesses stronger – the bigger units support the smaller ones and vice versa,’ she says. ‘At a social level, this cluster of economic activity functions as a community…migrant and ethnic groups will be disproportionately affected by this development.’
‘This is a rare indoor space where you can circulate without buying anything. For disadvantaged groups – older people, ethnic minorities, if you’re someone who struggles with the language – these places are a real haven.’
Brave new world?
After years of struggle, there is a recognition among traders and campaigners that the process is reaching its endgame. Bulldozers are expected to move in before the end of the year.
The priorities now are seeking an increase to the relocation fund, managing the transition as painlessly as possible, and negotiating side deals between individual traders and the developer. Some traders are positive about change.
‘Businesses have to progress and areas have to progress,’ says Mario Lopez, manager of La Bodeguita restaurant. ‘If an area becomes stagnant people go elsewhere…we have to provide something new and exciting for the local population.’
‘If you have a good business and a good product this is an opportunity for us,’ he adds. ‘If you look at the demographics of people moving into the new towers they will be professional, affluent people with large disposable incomes, which means they are going to push our customer spend higher.’
Several traders say they feel worn down by the long struggle and are ready to move on. But even the optimists acknowledge the development will bring challenges and dangers. Nobody expects every business to survive. Families and communities will suffer in the process.
Gleaming new towers and boutiques may help the Elephant & Castle to shake off its battered image. But it remains uncertain whether this megaproject will benefit existing communities, or write them off as collateral damage.