Early concepts for the redevelopment of the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre were shown in public for the first time at Southwark Councilís cabinet meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
As expected the Labour cabinet agreed in principle to enter a development agreement for the shopping centre site with its owners St Modwen and a three-way co-operation agreement with the council's development partner Lend Lease and St Modwen.
We first reported in February the possibility that the shopping centre would be refurbished rather than demolished – effectively abandoning the council's masterplan intention to extend the Walworth Road across the shopping centre site to meet New Kent Road.
"All of us in the cabinet know how important the shopping centre is to the regeneration of the Elephant & Castle," said Cllr Fiona Colley, cabinet member for regeneration.
"If we don't transform the shopping centre, I think the majority of people would feel that we haven't regenerated the Elephant & Castle at all."
Council leader Peter John admitted that the cabinet's decision to cooperate with St Modwen on plans to retain the core of the existing building represented a big change from previous statements made by the Labour Group.
"Members will recall that prior to the election last year we said that demolition was the only show in town as far as the shopping centre was concerned," he said.
"It's taken me a lot of persuasion to get to the point of even considering anything which is potentially short of full demolition."
Tim Seddon, London & south east regional director of St Modwen, addressed the cabinet to outline his company's early proposals for the 3.5 acre site.
"We realised that we could achieve dramatic change without going as far as demolition," he said.
"We felt that by using the air space and adjacent land that is both in our ownership and the council's ownership that we could achieve the level of transformation that we were seeking."
Mr Seddon showed the cabinet some early conceptual sketches for the development which included:
• stripping back the existing building to its core
• a new shopping centre extended across the current 'moat'
• expanding the shopping centre into the new space created by the removal of the southern roundabout
• two levels of retail linked by lifts and escalators
• eliminating the ramps and stairs at the entrances to the centre
• a 'significant extension' to the western end of Hannibal House
• a new entrance to Hannibal House on the pavement opposite Metropolitan Tabernacle
• a taller residential block opposite Strata
• a taller residential block next to The Coronet on New Kent Road
• other leisure facilities such as a cinema
He said that the redevelopment would cost "hundreds of millions" of pounds.
Asked about the timescale, Mr Seddon said that a planning application could be submitted in September 2012 and most of the current tenants of the shopping centre have leases which end in 2014/15.
He insisted that the company is being careful to refer to the scheme as a "transformation" and is avoiding the use of the word "refurbishment" to describe what is planned.
However, the word "refurbishment" in connection with the shopping centre first entered the public domain in a document published on St Modwen's own website in February.
Cabinet member for resources Cllr Richard Livingstone conceded that he had been sceptical about the idea of retaining the existing structure.
"I must admit that when I first heard the word 'refurbishment', I did cynically ask 'What colour are they painting it this time?' so I am very glad to see something that is quite different."
Steve Platts, the council's head of property, insisted that the council's masterplan for the Elephant & Castle has not been abandoned, and that the redevelopment of the shopping centre would still open up new north/south/east/west routes and improve the interchange between different modes of transport, as well as providing surface-level road crossings.
"We feel that we can still deliver on those principles we promised earlier in the project," he said.
Southwark Liberal Democrats have continued to criticise the Labour councillors' handling of the issue.
"Labour Southwark have shown that they can't negotiate their way out of a paper bag," says Cllr Paul Noblet, the party's regeneration spokesman.
"The deal they want to sign today is a massive disappointment. Local residents have been promised a brand new shopping centre as part of the regeneration of the area and Labour have simply failed to deliver.
"The developers must have seen Southwark coming and are now laughing all the way to the bank."