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Elephant & Castle housing delay "not acceptable" admits regeneration boss

Delays to the building of new social housing intended for tenants of the Heygate Estate are "clearly not acceptable for residents", regeneration supremo Cllr Paul Noblet told a town hall committee last week.

Southwark Council's cross-party overview and scrutiny committee held a meeting last week to investigate progress on the 1.3 billion Elephant & Castle regeneration programme.

Lend Lease deal

Asked for an update on the planned deal with developers Lend Lease, Cllr Paul Noblet (executive member for regeneration) reiterated that "working together with Transport for London is probably the most tortuous aspect of the deal".

The committee also asked Cllr Noblet whether he remained confident in Lend Lease's commitment to the Elephant in the light of their well-publicised funding difficulties at the Olympic Village.

"I don't have any questions over their commitment and ability to raise the finance for this project," he replied.

The committee heard that work is currently under way on a "revised masterplan" for the Elephant, but project director Jon Abbott was at pains to insist that this is "not a rip it up and start again exercise".

Cllr Noblet confirmed that all parties are "working very much towards December" for the signing of the final agreement with Lend Lease, but this timetable is dependent on agreeing costings for work to the Northern Line tube station with Transport for London.

"I don't think that the scheme should pay for the backlog in investment in transport assets at the Elephant & Castle," said Jon Abbott.

Southern roundabout and subway removal

The committee heard that Transport for London had concluded that Southwark's preferred redesign of the Elephant & Castle/Newington Butts/Walworth Road intersection as a T-junction with surface-level pedestrian crossings – planned for more than two years – would have an unacceptable impact on traffic flows.

A revised proposal from Transport for London – likely to be in the form of a signalled roundabout – is now being worked on.

This was confirmed last week by TfL commissioner Peter Hendy, who wrote: "The southern roundabout at Elephant and Castle is an important node on the Inner Ring Road. The scheme for this junction was re-examined to ensure that all had been done to smooth traffic flow, while retaining benefits for cyclists and pedestrians and in terms of the urban realm.

"As a consequence, TfL has developed a more balanced solution to meet the requirement, which is now being worked into a detailed design for discussion with Southwark Council and key stakeholders."

Credit crunch

The committee discussed the impact of the economic downturn on the regeneration plans for the Elephant.

Cllr David Hubber noted with concern the recent cut in the level of affordable housing at the 360 London development on the site of the former London Park Hotel and asked whether other developers would be likely to seek similar concessions.

Cllr Veronica Ward asked about the lack of progress on the Oakmayne Plaza site on New Kent Road. "Clearly they are having trouble raising the finance for the scheme; hence the revised planning application," replied Jon Abbott.

Heygate Estate and 'early housing' sites

Heygate tenant Helen O'Brien and former tenant Jerry Flynn made representations to the committee asking for a full investigation of the council's failure to built the so-called 'early housing sites' – several of them in SE1 – intended to provide new homes for existing Heygate tenants.

The council selected housing associations in 2005 but the first planning applications are only now being submitted.

"If they were built we wouldn't be in the mess we are now," said Mrs O'Brien.

Mr Flynn added: "You can't blame it on the credit crunch because there wasn't a credit crunch three years ago."

The council now says that it wants to clear the remaining tenants from the estate for "community safety reasons" and commence demolition of some blocks next year.

The reality is that many Heygate tenants have already been rehoused within the council's existing housing stock and a relatively small percentage have indicated that they intend to exercise their 'right to return' to the Elephant area so the original estimate of new homes required is now obsolete.

Cllr Noblet confirmed that he had stopped calling the development sites "early housing sites" in view of the late running of the scheme.

Five sites – including New Kent Road, St George's Road and Library Street in SE1 – are now in the planning system.

Cllr Noblet attributed the delays to "unfortunate circumstances".

"It's clearly not acceptable for residents, and I'm sorry that that's where we are," he told the committee, adding that the current five sites would serve as "templates" for a future conveyor belt of housing developments.

"It's the huge regret of myself and the administration that we didn't get the conveyor belt going by July 2007," he said.

The question of the delayed Elephant housing sites was also raised at last week's Council Assembly meeting. "This administration should hang their heads in shame," said Labour's Cllr Paul Bates.

Even Lib Dem loyalist James Gurling, chair of the borough's planning committee, has described the delays to the new housing as a "travesty".

Council leader Nick Stanton defended the council's policy to move remaining residents from the Heygate Estate: "The Heygate is not fit for human habitation," he told councillors.

In heated exchanges in the council chamber, Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate Kirsty McNeill accused the ruling Lib Dem/Tory administration of a "failure of empathy, justice and common sense" in its dealings with Heygate tenants.

Housing boss Cllr Kim Humphreys conceded that the process had been "bumpy" but insisted that "it is not safe to allow people to live there".

Small businesses at the Elephant and the shopping centre

Jon Abbott updated the scrutiny committee on measures being taken to support small businesses at the Elephant & Castle, with whom he admitted that the council has had an "uneasy relationship".

He said that the recent confirmation that the shopping centre will remain standing until 2012 had provided a degree of certainty that made it easier for businesses to plan and invest.

A Towntalk website has been set up to promote businesses at the Elephant and the council is in discussion with shopping centre landlords St Modwen about investment in new signage and proposals to repaint the building.

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