Confessions of a Political Animal

January 15, 2009

Elephantine miscalculations

elephantAh, the Elephant and Castle. Exotic (well, exotic sounding) southern terminus of the Bakerloo line. World-class example of everything that was wrong with the car-centric planning of the 1960s. Site of one of Europe’s largest ever regeneration schemes. Perhaps. Maybe. One day.

The Elephant, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is an unappealing mixture of vast, traffic-clogged roundabouts, slightly threatening pedestrian underpasses, poor quality housing, shabby shopping arcades and badly integrated Underground, rail and bus hubs. The people who re-planned the area after substantial war damage thought visitors would come to watch  cars going round the roundabouts. For some reason, that didn’t happen.

On the fringes of the Elephant is the huge, barrier-block Heygate Estate, one of the most deprived areas of one of London’s most deprived boroughs and itself the subject of a major regeneration scheme– albeit one which shows all the signs of being horrendously badly managed by Southwark Council, who seem to be intent on clearing the blocks earmarked for demolition before enough suitable ‘decant’ housing for residents is available.

The Elephant regeneration, which centres around the creation of a pedestrianised town centre and the construction of new homes and businesses, is, however, in an even worse state. Southwark selected its regeneration partner, Lend Lease, in August 2007. However, the actual development agreement has still not been signed 18 months on. The latest news is that it might be signed in March, but no-one is holding their breath. Given the immensely difficult period that we are now in for major developments, these delays could well finish this vital scheme off.

However, whilst much of the blame for the delays and probable collapse of the Elephant regeneration must lie with the Lib Dem-Conservative administration in Southwark, there is someone else who seems determined to place every possible barrier in the way of the scheme: the Mayor of London himself. On at least three counts Boris Johnson has damaged the viability of the regeneration scheme, with yet a further threat emerging over the last month.

First, there is the seemingly never ending delays in the negotiations with Transport for London over the provision of and funding for a new ticket hall for the Northern Line station, a key part of the regeneration proposals in order to improve interchange facilities and passenger capacity at the cramped station. To be fair, these negotiations commenced under the previous mayoralty, but more than eight months after the elections we seem to be no closer to a deal. By all accounts, the failure to arrive at a final settlement on the details of the new station is what is causing Lend Lease cold feet and is now the main issue preventing a deal being signed. As Chair of TfL, the buck for this must stop with Johnson.

Second, Johnson’s transport ‘supremo’ Kulveer Ranger (and I use the word ‘supremo’ lightly here) decided to tear up the worked-out plans for the replacement of the southern roundabout with a traffic light controlled junction, which would allow for the removal of the intimidating subway system and free up land on the surface for public spaces. The rationale for this seemed to be Mr Ranger’s pursuit of a hierachy-free transport network. Rather than countenance any possible inconvenience to motorists, Boris chose to put a key feature of the regeneration proposals at risk. The lateston this is that TfL will make a decision on the road layout in ‘the spring’. Anyone who has ever dealt with politicians will tell you that any promise of timing based on the seasons isn’t worth the paper its written on. So, still more delays, thanks to Boris.

Third, we had the cancellation of the Cross-River Tram scheme, which would have run through Elephant on its way from Camden to Brixton and Peckham. Now the tram probably isn’t that essential to Elephant itself: after all it is served by two underground lines and a major rail artery. But the Elephant does serves as a bus-head (it that even a word?) for the areas that the tram would be serving, replacing often sparse and over-crowded bus services from some of the most transport-deprived areas of London. These new rapid mass transit corridors from the Elephant’s hinterland would have linked the regeneration project, including the jobs it is intended to create, with areas of high economic exclusion and unemployment. So by losing the tram, much of the social justification for the Elephant regeneration disappears. And with very little extra capacity available for squeezing out of the Northern and Bakerloo lines (although, admittedly, the Elephant’s  rail route will benefit significantly from the Thameslink Programme), the new homes and businesses at Elephant would put a probably unbearable strain on existing transport infrastructure.

And now, we learn of a new threat to the regeneration project emerging from City Hall. In December, the Mayor published the draft proposalsfor securing the planning gain portion of the funding for Crossrail. Now obviously Crossrail is a highly worthwhile scheme and it is only correct that developers who benefit from it should contribute towards its very high cost. This is a position that was shared by both this and the previous mayoral administration. But it is in defining who benefits and who should pay that a rather crucial difference emerges.

My understanding (and also that of the London Assembly Liberal Democrat Group) is that the previous administration proposed charging a levy on new office space within 800m of the planned Crossrail stations. Effectively this would have mean most of central London north of the river, Docklands and then sporadic bits of east and west London. Fine: there can be little argument that demand for office space and the market rental value would rise in these areas due to the arrival of Crossrail. However, Johnson thinks differently. For outer London, he is keeping the 800m zoning, but in central London the charge (set at £213.30 for every m² of new office space over 500m²) is now going to be blanket across what is called the ‘Central Activities Zone’. The zone is defined in the London Plan as the areas of central London where more than 50% of property is devoted to commercial uses, which produces an area (map here) covering the City of London and parts of 9 other boroughs.

And therein lies the problem: one of those boroughs is Southwark, whose north-western tip, including the Elephant, falls within the Zone. The idea that Crossrail, which will chart a course roughly across the middle of the north of the river portion of the Zone, will provide any material benefit to the Elephant regeneration is, at best, laughable: the nearest station will be more than 3km away. Yet suddenly, the already ropey budget for the regeneration scheme is thrown into jeopardy because of a multi-million pound demand for extra section 106 cash to pay for infrastructure improvements elsewhere. Sir Simon Milton, Johnson’s deputy mayor for planning is quoted here as saying that

imposing the levy on the CAZ spread the cost and simplified it.

In short, its a typical bit of Johnsonian counter-redistribution, of the sort that we have seen with scrapped congestion charges and increased bus fares. In order to knock a couple of quid per square meter off the levy that developments in the City and West End will have to pay, the cost will be ‘spread’ around a bit into deprived areas such as the Elephant and Vauxhall. And if this proves to be the final straw which leads to vital regeneration schemes falling by the way side, what of it? Couldn’t they read the clear enough signs that major regeneration doesn’t feature highly on the City Hall agenda any more?

Intriguingly, the Crossrail press release

The Central Activity Zone (CAZ) covers Westminster, parts of Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City, Lambeth, Kensington and Chelsea and Wandsworth.

Perhaps they couldn’t believe it either.

Its probably a bit too soon yet to write off the Elephant regeneration as dead. But it isn’t being helped by Boris Johnson constantly plunging every knife at his disposal into its barely twitching body.

Advertisements

1 Comment »

  1. […] written before about the running fiasco that is the Elephant & Castle regeneration project. This is probably […]

    Pingback by New Standard – same old news values « Confessions of a Political Animal — July 3, 2009 @ 4:03 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: