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Locals will be "robbed" by Elephant & Castle regeneration warns Peter Tatchell

London SE1 website team

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell was among the speakers at a public meeting last week which brought together many of those concerned by the impact of housing developments connected with the Elephant & Castle on open space in North Southwark.

Albert Barnes House
This scheme next to Albert Barnes House in New Kent Road will replace the current grassed area and ball court

Last December Southwark's planning committee gave the go-ahead to the first tranche of five so-called 'early housing sites' which will see local lawns, gardens and ball courts replaced by new housing blocks to help meet some of the housing shortage created by the planned demolition of the Heygate Estate.

Last Friday's packed meeting at the Browning Community Hall in Walworth brought together many locals concerned about the chipping away of precious open space when the overall plans for the Elephant & Castle core area – where the Heygate and shopping centre currently stand – have not yet been made public.

Peter Tatchell, who was Labour's candidate in the 1983 North Southwark & Bermondsey by-election that brought Simon Hughes into the Commons, is now a Green Party parliamentary candidate in Oxford.

"I don't think the council or the developers have set out their plans clearly or concisely," he said.

"The booklet they produced is absolute rubbish. It's got these fancy pictures with artists' impressions and doesn't tell you exactly where all the different things are.

"It certainly doesn't tell you how many social housing units there are now compared to how many social housing units there are going to give us in the future. And why not? Because we're going to be robbed.

"Basically, in this mega billion-pound development, the local community are going to lose out. If you look at what they are saying, we know that there are about 1,030 rented council homes on the Heygate Estate at the moment.

"The council is going to guarantee a minimum of 1,100 rental units by replacement. So that is a gain of about 70 units.

"70 units for a multi-billion-pound development. I think – at the very least – we ought to be asking for an extra 500 or 600 units given the huge housing waiting lists and the huge amount of money developers are going to make out of this scheme."

Tatchell also warned that the forms of housing proposed risk repeating past mistakes of "dehumanised" housing estates.

"I don't think they are the ideal of 21st-century people-centred housing. This is not the housing style of the future."

He also called for the Elephant and Castle to be a true exemplar of environmental sustainability: "We need to ask for the best," he said, evoking the spirit of the old Bermondsey Borough Council in the early 20th century which was responsible for many town planning innovations.

He ended his speech with a rallying call for a regeneration of the Elephant and Castle that is "fair, just, social and inclusive".

Cllr Jenny Jones AM – who explained that she was there to learn about people's concerns – acknowledged many of the "fantastic" green measures in the council's regeneration plans for the area such as the combined heat and power plant which would help to ensure that homes had affordable running costs.

She urged local residents to keep fighting to protect precious recreation areas: "Once you've lost that open space ... it's probably gone forever," she said.

"Public space is good for us not just for exercise and because it looks good; it actually means that crime is lessened because you have a civil policing experience – the more people there are walking around, the less chance of opportunistic crime such as burglary."

Helen Firminger, director of Bankside Open Spaces Trust, told the meeting how her organisation had been formed in 2000 to work with residents and the council to improve the area's small parks by getting people involved in caring for their local gardens.

"We were formed in happier times when the threat to our small open spaces in the north of Southwark was lack of investment," she explained.

She explained how BOST had managed to ensure that all of its green spaces had some kind of formal protection from development apart from the Diversity Garden in Library Street which is due to make way for a housing development.

Luke Miller from the Friends of Nursery Row Park – who helped to organise the meeting – pointed out that the Elephant & Castle (which is split between four council wards) lacks a single voice that speaks for the community as a whole.

The meeting also heard from representatives of local tenants' and residents' groups which had been concerned about the impact of planned early housing sites in Leroy Street, Harper Road, New Kent Road, St George's Road, Townsend Street and Nursery Row Park.

Play space will be lost at five of the early housing sites, green space at four sites and trees felled at nine locations.

The way forward?

Peter Tatchell told the meeting that – as an alternative to the piecemeal approach of building new housing on lots of small plots – it would be quite possible to demolish the Heygate Estate in phases and build new housing on that site.

He told the story of how the Rockingham Estate Play Association adventure playground at Dickens Square came into being in the early 1980s through a community campaign aimed at Southwark Council and the GLC.

Tatchell also raised the prospect of direct action at council meetings. "Maybe that's the way to make them sit up and take notice," he said.

• Anyone interesting in attending follow-up meetings or getting involved in the campaign should email [email protected]

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