A concrete jungle sprouts green shoots

When, at some point next year, the two kilometres of underground walkways that run beneath south London’s Elephant and Castle complex are finally decommissioned, residents and visitors will be able to cross the road at street level for the first time in nearly 40 years. There could hardly be a more powerful symbol of an area rising from the depths.

The subways and the development came with them – badly constructed buildings, soulless housing estates and a community divided by poor layout and heavy traffic – are the result of 1960s-era planning that sounded fine in theory but proved disastrous in practice.

Today, the area is at the start of a £1.5bn regeneration that hopes to put right the mistakes of the past and recreate the vibrancy of the old Elephant and Castle in 21st century terms. “There were some aspects of the 1960s experiment which were very good,” says Richard Thomas, the local councillor in charge of the programme, “but the two big mistakes were the domination of traffic and the homogeneity of the housing.

“It became a place where people lived because they’d been moved there by the [local government] authorities. There weren’t enough living there because they loved it and had invested in it.”

In its heyday, from the late 19th century to the second world war, the Elephant and Castle area was so lively it was known as “the Piccadilly of south London” but the devastation wrought by Hitler’s bombs put an end to all that. Influenced by modernism and working to the then London County Council’s “New Sights of London” scheme, planners set out to create “a city that will be higher in the air and more spacious on the ground, with traffic and pedestrians travelling at different levels”. They designed an enormous traffic gyratory system, a labyrinth of subways, a large enclosed shopping mall – the first in Europe – and the 1,200-unit Heygate social housing estate.

But the Brave New World vision never materialised. The concept was user-unfriendly, inflexible and aesthetically unappealing. The area gradually sank into disrepair and, as the facilities grew shabbier, the environment felt increasingly hostile. As other once down-at-heel parts of London became gentrified, Elephant and Castle remained stuck in its time warp.

It was, Thomas explains, the sheer scale of the problem that was so daunting. “You couldn’t do it piecemeal. It was all or nothing. You can’t demolish an estate, for instance, until you’ve rehoused the tenants. I still wake up some mornings thinking: ‘Gosh, this is an enormous task’.”

Even when Southwark Council, the local government body that controls the area, decided that the only solution would be to start afresh, there was a false start five years ago when its development partner pulled out.

Now, though, all seems set. The choice of new partner – the field has been narrowed to two – is due in June and from then work is expected to accelerate. The revamp of the 170-acre site, one of the largest in Europe, will be based around six “character areas” and include 5,300 homes, 75,000 sq metres of shopping space, a series of landmark buildings, a pedestrian-friendly town centre with a new civic square about the size of Trafalgar Square, two parks, two schools, a museum, a cinema, a market square and an improved transport interchange.

The current shopping centre and the Heygate estate will be demolished and traffic re-routed out of the core area. Quality design and sustainability will be a consideration throughout, say the planners, with innovative measures to reduce energy consumption. More than 4,000 new jobs are expected to be created. There are also plans to upgrade existing open spaces and neighbourhoods, working with other local organisations and agencies.

Although the entire Elephant and Castle scheme is not due for completion until 2014, work has already begun. The first group of tenants from Heygate has been moved into a new showpiece building that, like all the schemes, will have affordable and private housing side by side. South Central East – the first phase of a project that will eventually include 280 residences in five contemporary buildings – is fully occupied.

Oakmayne, the developer, was one of the earliest into the area. “Pioneering might be too strong a word but I suppose we were taking something of a risk,” says chief executive Martin Lent. “But even though this area had been overlooked for so long, I always thought it was only a matter of time before it took off. It’s a mile from central London. This is a new chapter.”

Another project in the pipeline is Oakmayne Plaza, which will have more than 200 homes as well as a 214-room hotel, a cinema, shops and the O-Central building, where prices start at £295,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Another developer, First Base, will replace the old London Park Hotel with a high-rise designed by architect Richard Rogers to provide 470 homes and a new home for the Southwark Playhouse. “One of the mistakes of the 1960s was that there wasn’t enough architectural diversity so you got all those monotone slabs,” says First Base director Richard Powell. “This time there will be a number of architects, so there’ll be differences of style, scale and materials.”

The regenerated central area will have a cluster of tall landmark buildings, the first of which will be the 43- storey Strata. The 147-metre tower will be topped by three wind turbines. A five-storey pavilion will house more than 400 apartments, with about 100 designated for shared-equity housing. Work has already begun to demolish the office block on the site and the first phase sold out off plan within 24 hours, even though completion is not due until 2010. Prices for the 139 units in floors 11 to 22 ranged from £207,000 for a studio to £305,000 for two bedrooms.

“The demand was quite amazing,” says Fiona Halsey of the DTZ estate agency. “It was asking price only. We’d compiled such a large database [of potential buyers] that it had to be a question of first come, first served. But this is going to be the first great iconic building in the area and it will have a huge impact. It’s not a nice area now but it has three years to change so people obviously think it’s worth a 10 per cent deposit.”

Most observers agree the area is ripe for take-off. “It’s the final quarter of central London,” Thomas says.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP whose constituency includes Elephant and Castle, adds: “It’s always been a prime position, equidistant between the West End and the City, but it was never seen as desirable. It was that combination of south London having the reputation of being on the wild side and the fact that it was solidly working class. The idea now is to create a much larger and more mixed residential community.”

Management consultant Sophie Clissold, 37, settled in Elephant and Castle eight years ago after moving to London from the UK’s Midlands. Friends were horrified when she spent £162,000 on a three-storey, Victorian, terraced house but she knew it was the right decision.

“I didn’t want an hour’s commute or a £25 cab fare after a night out, and
I knew this was the only such area I could afford,” she says. Neighbours in her cul-de-sac have become friends, her house has more than doubled in value, and she is now one of four voluntary local resident directors on the Elephant and Castle Regeneration Trust, an independent advisory body.

“Our role is to ensure local people’s voices don’t get lost and that the council isn’t seduced by developers and their shiny images,” she says.

Retired printer Henry Quennell, 70, who has lived in the area all his life, also worries about the pace of change and its effect on the neighbourhood. “The [shopping centre] is a shambles [and] certainly needs redeveloping,” he says. “But I’m very nervous about these skyscrapers. I’m not sure they’re learning from past mistakes. This used to be a nice place to live when I was growing up but they turned it into a concrete jungle. Also a lot of these City types who pay big rents are off again after six months or a year. You only get good neighbourhoods when people stay around a long time.”

Supporters of the regeneration remain confident, however. “I think it’s good that the project is council driven because they can keep control over what they want [and] it’s not just going to be left to market forces,” Hughes says. “I’m generally very optimistic. By the time this is finished the Elephant and Castle will be an address people rejoice in having.”

Elephant and Castle Regeneration Team, tel: +44 (0)20-7525 4922. www.elephantandcastle.org.uk

First Base, tel: +44 (0)20-7851 5555. www.firstbase.com

Oakmayne, tel: +44 (0)20-7407 3667. www.oakmayneproperties.co.uk

DTZ, tel: +44 (0)20-7710 8116. www.dtz.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.