The truth about "regeneration" in London: I can’t afford to live where I grew up
By Elsie McDowell
I will never be able to afford to live where I grew up. It’s true that I don’t know what the future will bring, but given the state of the British economy, I doubt that I’m going to become a millionaire anytime soon. And thanks to the rocketing cost of housing in the corner of London that I call home, I would need to be a millionaire to carry on living here.
But this is more than just a story of rising housing costs: it’s about the crucial question of who gets to live where, and the future of Britain’s capital city.
Southwark, the south London borough where I have spent my entire life, is in the grip of a particularly cruel crisis of affordable housing. We have a council housing waiting list of 16,500 and council housing stock decreased by 18,000 between 1994 and 2020. Despite this, Southwark council has been engaged for many years in two controversial “regeneration” projects: knocking down one of western Europe’s largest housing estates, the Aylesbury, as well as the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, to make room for mainly privately owned flats. This is not regeneration. It is gentrification.
The term gentrification was coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the influx of middle-class “gentry” into working-class areas of London, displacing the original residents. How fitting – and chilling – that a modern-day fight against gentrification is being fought in the very same city.
Gentrification is not a passive process. The “regeneration” of the Aylesbury, for instance, took place despite a residents’ vote in 2001 in which more than 70% voted against the council’s plans. Four years later, the council decided it would get rid of the estate anyway, with the slow demolition process still under way. The regeneration of the Heygate is expected to be complete in two years. I am an elected representative in the Southwark Youth parliament; I care deeply about my community and I love many things about Southwark, not least its incredible diversity. But Southwark council’s decision to demolish the homes of largely working-class, often minority-ethnic, residents and replace them with sanitised apartment blocks where a flat can cost more than £1m, all while having the audacity to claim that it is creating the new “life and soul of London” – as one billboard puts it – is not only harming said community, but erasing it.
The website for the new Elephant Park, which sits in the former Heygate estate, paints a beautiful picture of a bustling inner London junction with a thriving arts sector, but fails to mention that in order to build this new “green heart of central London”, 1,260 council homes had to be knocked down. It was as if Elephant and Castle’s “prime location” meant it was simply too good for its working-class residents. What makes south London so special is its diverse mix, producing unique cultures and communities; that is simply being lost by forcing working-class residents out to make room for a luxury central London neighbourhood. And they are being forced out: according to a 2021 report, only 82 socially rented homes in the area had been provided to former residents of the Heygate who were on secure tenancies, out of a total of 3,000 residents.
It would be unfair to say this situation is entirely the fault of Southwark council. Margret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme massively decreased the country’s council housing stock – 42% of the capital’s former council homes sold through the scheme are now being privately let. Since the beginning of the austerity era, which started with the Conservative-Liberal coalition government in 2010, there has been much less money for councils to use to replenish this housing stock: London borough councils had their core funding cut by 63% between 2010 and 2020, despite a population growth double the rate of the rest of the country in that same period.
But to say these are the only causes of Southwark’s housing crisis is to let the council off the hook. Other London local authorities have managed to regenerate their ageing council estates with far more care: as the 35% campaign notes, Islington council refurbished the entire Six Acres estate, which was built at the same time and with the same materials as the Aylesbury estate, without displacing a single one of its 473 households.
Southwark might point to the council housing it is building elsewhere in the borough. And detractors of these estates will say that they were run-down and epitomised the failings of social housing. But – as far as I’m concerned – they were run-down in part because local and national authorities allowed them to be. We must not forget that getting a flat in the Aylesbury was once desirable. What happened? Neglect from above meant social housing became segregated housing.
Urban regeneration is not inherently bad; the problem arises when it is not done in the interests of the people it is supposed to be for. The regeneration of Elephant and Castle has undoubtedly had some benefits, not least the new library and leisure centre. But these services mean little when few of the residents who need them can afford to live nearby.
Walking around Elephant and Castle now is like walking around a graveyard; I see nothing but the ghost of what once was. Of course, some of my frustration comes from seeing how change has made the place I grew up unrecognisable. But ultimately it is about something bigger: how a London that exists purely for the wealthy is not London at all.