To the right of an incomprehensibly large roundabout in Elephant and Castle, south London lies a shopping centre. Passing by, you might assume that it was closed: shop fronts lie empty and the blue cladding around the building is faded and worn. In a few weeks, this shopping centre – known colloquially as the Elephant – will be demolished as part of a £4 billion pound “regeneration” scheme by Southwark Council.
But in a small area outside the shopping centre, there are still signs of life. On a late summer’s day, a few stall owners brave the wind to sell discount sunglasses, footwear, selfie-sticks and jewellery. Their time here is limited.
“I can't express my feelings of how bad it is,” says Mohammad Al Waris, a trader who claims not to have been offered a suitable place to relocate. “As someone who's been here for more than 15 years… it's very sad. I've got nowhere to go.”
The demolition of his workplace is one of the many changes included in Southwark Council’s 15-year scheme, which launched in 2010 and ignited a process of rapid gentrification. Once complete, the project will have created several tower blocks (some of which are already built) containing 5,000 new flats – some priced at over £1 million. In 2016, a £20 million leisure centre opened just off the roundabout.
Southwark Council claims that these changes provide huge benefits to the community. But Al Waris and many other local traders are experiencing first-hand what drastic urban “transformation” does to those it is not designed for. It prompts the question: which community?
The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is one of the last vestiges of the old Elephant and Castle. Built over 50 years ago, it connects to the Northern Line and uniquely serves the area’s Latin American community with shops and restaurants – including La Bodeguita, a Colombian restaurant famed for its croqueta and bandeja paisa. Elephant and Castle has been home to a large Latin American community since the 1970s, when many came to the city from Chile and Argentina to flee political unrest. Southwark is now the only London borough to recognise Latin Americans as a distinct cultural group. In the last ten years, however, many Latin Americans – as well as other ethnic minorities – have struggled to continue living in Elephant and Castle as the council demolishes social housing and private rents creep up. House prices in Elephant and Castle have risen by 76 percent in the last decade, according to Hamptons International.
In 2018, Southwark Council voted to demolish the shopping centre, potentially displacing over 100 vendors who have worked there for years. After a controversial process in which some councillors resigned, property developers Delancey won the contract, committing to turning the land on which the shopping centre sits into a “new town centre”. Phase one is already complete, and saw the creation of 374 new flats, as well as the new leisure centre and a Sainsbury’s supermarket.
Phase two and three involve the building of a further 979 new flats, 330 of which will be “affordable rent” housing (defined as up to 80-percent market rent) or “social rent” housing for those on low incomes. A new university campus for the neighbouring London College of Communication will also be built on the site. After an inevitable delay due to coronavirus, the shopping centre vendors have been asked to leave by the 24th of September, with demolition taking place soon after.
Back in 2018, all vendors were promised relocation (although this is disputed by Delancey and Southwark Council). In a recording of a council subcommittee meeting in 2018, secured by campaign group Latin Elephant, a councillor asks whether there will be space to rehouse the traders. After a tangent, Nick Wolff, the principal strategy officer at Southwark Council, confirms this. “So, across the piece, there should be sufficient…” he tails off. Another councillor chimes in: “The answer was yes, I think.”
This has not happened, according to Latin Elephant. Vendors who applied for relocation, many of whom were promised this, say that they have not been offered a suitable new location for their business. Some have been working in the area for over ten years and see the project as a calculated decision by Southwark Council to change the area’s demographic. Indeed, this is the same council who, in a 2002 report about the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate, said that its existence was “a barrier to releasing the area’s potential”.
Al Waris is one of these vendors. I speak to him weeks before the demolition is set to take place, on a blustery day when very few people appear to be shopping. We meet next to his stall selling sunglasses, hats and scarves.
“I've been trading in Elephant and Castle market since January 2005,” he says. “It's a very stressful time for all the traders. These people are very hard-working people, they have families to look after, but there's no support for them.”
Al Waris says that he is able to apply for an £8,000 relocation loan in instalments from the council and the Elephant and Castle Town Centre relocation fund, but with many loyal customers in the area and business costs far exceeding this amount, it’s not much help. “I have a very good relationship with the local communities, with the local customers. They are very keen for us to stay here as well,” he says. “Basically, we have nowhere to go.”
While the exact number of traders in the same situation as Al Waris is disputed, it is thought to be somewhere between ten and 40.
A spokesperson for Latin Elephant said: “For the past five years, we have advocated for an inclusive development for the local community in Elephant and Castle. Sadly, developers Delancey had other plans initially, but together with the traders and other local groups we have managed to gain significant improvements to the scheme.”
“However, with only weeks before the proposed closure of the centre, we are disappointed that our concerns about the lack of affordable units for independent traders was not addressed in full by Delancey and Southwark Council,” they added, “since to this day, around 40 traders have nowhere to go.”
Delancey denies that any vendors who were eligible for relocation have not been offered a suitable new home, and also denies that all traders were promised relocation. In a joint statement with Southwark Council, the developer said: “The Elephant and Castle Town Centre project team have been working closely alongside Southwark Council and its advisors, Tree Shepherd, to ensure all qualifying independent traders can relocate from the existing shopping centre ahead of the long-planned closure on 24 September 2020.”
“We are aware of the various uncorroborated statistics that have been published through social and other online media. These are incorrect. We can confirm without question that all qualifying businesses have been relocated or offered relocation options. Many of the businesses being cited by third parties did not qualify, did not apply to move or they have already left (in some cases a long time ago).”
Delancey and Southwark Council go on to say that 70 traders qualified for relocation, and 61 “valid applications” were made for space in properties closest to the shopping centre owned by the council. Of these 61 businesses, eight market stall holders and two kiosk traders are still, as yet, to find a new home. “Any transition of this scale presents significant challenges, not least around the disruption caused to existing traders and residents as the changes take place,” they add. “Extensive interventions and processes have rightly been put in place to ensure any negative impact on these groups can be mitigated as far as possible.”
Although Delancey is clear on its criteria for relocation, many market traders say that they have not been offered somewhere suitable to go.
“It's weird to leave now because this is the only source of my income,” Al Hassan, another trader of ten years, says. “It's frustrating whenever I think about we are leaving September 24th. My heart goes ‘pop, pop, pop’ like something is missing.”
“I feel so angry. Some people just came for two years and got space. Some people have been here for one year, they got space. Some people have been here for 21 years, they don't have space,” he continues. “Just put yourself in our position… I can't express the way I'm feeling.”
After working in Elephant and Castle for a decade, how has Al Hassan seen the area change? “See this place?” he gestures to a closed-off passageway next to his stall. “It used to be a tunnel. It used to be crowded. Instead of people passing up the way, people use this one. Since they blocked that entrance… the Elephant is finished.”
“I think they are doing this for the middle class, the rich people,” he adds. “For the working class, I don't think we have the situation here. They know what they are doing. Honestly, they know what they are doing. They are doing that because it makes Elephant and Castle more expensive.”
Southwark Council isn’t the only local authority to be accused of what some have called social cleansing through redevelopment schemes. In response to central government cuts, many London councils have turned the areas they oversee into machines of profit geared towards affluent tenants rather than for the people who live there, often using private property companies to fund the gaps. This is only set to worsen thanks to coronavirus and the soaring, unexpected expenses that have left many councils at risk of bankruptcy.
Whether the number of Elephant and Castle vendors without somewhere to relocate is ten or 40, for Al Hassan, one thing’s for certain. On the 24th of September, any profits Delancey and Southwark Council make will come at his expense.
“They are forcing us out by the changing they make,” he says, shaking his head. “That is what is happening all over London, even in Peckham. The changes they make, everything makes you walk away.”
“I don’t feel like I belong [in Elephant and Castle] anymore.”