Boris Johnson is due to rubber-stamp planning permission for yet another tower block of luxury flats in Elephant and Castle, south London. In anticipation of this move our group of squatters and local residents, under the name of ‘Self-Organised London’, took the building from under Boris’ watch to return it to the neighbourhood in direct action against the gentrification that we see around us and the wider housing crisis. (It has since turned out that the public hearing due to take place was cancelled on Monday, the day before we moved in.)
Boris’ ‘takeover’ of the planning application from Southwark council is just one instance of many of the undemocratic process of ‘regeneration’ that is ravaging Elephant and Castle. The mayor’s intervention came two years ago after Southwark council denied planning permission to developers Oakmayne for a 41 storey tower building of flats. Oakmayne had failed to comply with several local development policies including 35 per cent affordable homes and the height of tall buildings (although this has not deterred Southwark council in the past whose rip-off deal for the Heygate estate was revealed recently when the council leaked a secret document online).
The planning application has just 65 ‘affordable’ flats of a total of 335 flats; with their definition of ‘affordable’ anyway being meaningless to the majority of the Elephant’s residents. The mayor has the power to ‘take over’ a planning application, making him final decision-maker, if it may impact on his London Plan. So far, he has used these powers on five previous occasions, granting planning permission in every case.
As yet another garish development goes ahead that shows complete disregard for democratic process and the real needs of the residents of Elephant and Castle, Elephant residents and squatters have taken over the old 1960s office block and turned it into a community centre for locals and those from further afield. As sky-high rents, demolition of social housing, residents’ displacement and the forthcoming housing benefit changes tear apart our diverse and organic communities we hope to create a space where we can meet and organise together against gentrification and the wider housing crisis and for our communities’ needs.
The community centre will run a range of activities, and be a space where people are encouraged to initiate their own, including community dinners, film screenings, discussions and workshops, open mic nights and anti-gentrification walks of the area. People are invited to simply pop by for a tea and a chat.
This open and free space belongs to all the communities of Elephant and makes use of the building which had stood abandoned for years. Yet, despite the existence of perfectly usable buildings such as this one, which may need some care and paint, vast swathes of the neighbourhood face demolition, with bulldozers being ordered to destroy the structurally sound and good quality flats of the Heygate estate.
Glass tower skyscrapers are popping up at an incredible rate, commensurate with the less obvious food banks in the area which are hidden away in church halls. Elephant and Castle is being transformed rapidly and residents’ views are being swept aside to make way for the new residents who will inhabit these glass towers. This is a reality which is being repeated in neighbourhoods all over London (for example, the struggles over the Carpenters’ Estate and West Ken and Gibbs Green Estate) and cities across the UK.
Boris’ decision on the planning proposal for luxury flats at the Eileen House site was due to take place just over a month before his party implements huge housing benefit cuts that will exacerbate the already severe housing crisis in this country. The bedroom tax and housing benefit cap will see poor and vulnerable residents forced from their homes. While Southwark council rolls over to the demands and so-called ‘needs’ of most property developers (their stance against the Eileen House proposal being something of an anomaly) they make no such efforts to protect the rights of their tenants and residents to their homes. There is an irony and cruelty that as residents watch these towers of luxury housing appear – manifesting the truth that there is no shortage of housing, but that access and affordability is the problem – they are dispossessed of their own homes.
Elephant’s communities will not allow Southwark council, developers, or Boris Johnson to ‘take over’ our neighbourhoods. Organising together and supporting each other, we will assert our rights to our homes and we will take back spaces for our communities, starting with Self-Organised London’s newly opened Eileen House community centre.
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