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Elephant in the room is profit (and Labour)

If you want to understand what New Labour Mark II looks like, then goings on at Southwark Council give you a real indication. The south London borough is one of the capital’s poorest. Yet tonight, the planning committee will rubber stamp a £1.5 billion deal with a global property corporation that provides just 71 social rented units out of 2,300 new homes.

Anticipating the gold rush, developers Lend Lease have already started marketing apartments in a tower block that will be built in the run-down Elephant and Castle area. Prices start at over £320,000 and rise above £1 million for flats with panoramic views of London.

“With zero affordable housing of any type, all of its 284 units will be luxury flats for the open market and some with access to a secluded garden on the roof of a 4-storey building beside the tower. We have yet to see the plans for the drawbridge, moat and boiling oil!,” say campaigners.

It is part of the so-called master plan for the regeneration of the area after 13 years of delay. Local campaigners, who have just five minutes to make their objections plain tonight, are bitter about the deal that has gentrification written all over it. About 300 local residents have submitted objections. All have been disregarded.

The campaign group 35 per cent points out that Southwark Council is actually in breach of its own planning policy which would require about 400 social rented units in the scheme. There are properties for rent – but they won’t be affordable for most residents in the borough.

Representatives of local groups who have objected to the plan have published the points they would like to make but can’t possible achieve in the allotted five minutes.  Apart from the lack of affordable housing, they are angry that the scheme is car-friendly and anti-environmental in many ways.

Over 600 car-parking spaces are proposed despite council policy requiring it to be car free. As they point out, the Elephant has the highest possible public transport accessibility with excellent tube, train and bus links so there is no real need for private cars. A new public park will, in fact, be privately-run and managed.

They point out that the area around the base of a tower block “is an example of how the public realm can become marginalized through the impact of tall buildings” and add: “The proposed cafes around the green space may not be affordable to all local people, and will therefore fail to create a truly human sense of place and inclusiveness for the neighbourhood.”

But with thousands of local people living in sub-standard housing, or on waiting lists, it is the housing element that has drawn most anger. In 2010, the developer signed a binding contractual agreement with Southwark, which guaranteed that 25% of the new homes would be affordable. Half would be social rented, providing a minimum of 288 new social rented homes out of the 2,300 total. That number has fallen to just 71 – and the council is ready to give the green light.
Even though the viability of the scheme is described as “problematic” in the report to the committee, the council is determined to push ahead. Despite the fact that there is no renewable energy in the scheme, no local jobs target, a reduction in community facilities and scant regard for cyclists, Southwark will give its approval.

The shocking, outrageously commercial nature of the project is right up New Labour Mark II’s street. This is the an example in practice of the “One Nation Labour” that Ed Miliband rattles on about. As Southwark shows, Labour is the developer’s friend first, second and last. It’s a public-private partnership where the public loses all round.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
15 January 2013

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