Four years after Lend Lease was selected as Southwark's partner for the Elephant & Castle regeneration, the Australian developer has started its first public consultation on its plans for the scheme. Project director Rob Deck talks about what's happening.
A year has passed since Southwark's Labour cabinet voted to sign a regeneration agreement for Elephant & Castle and we are approaching the fourth anniversary of the previous Lib Dem/Conservative administration's decision to select Lend Lease as the council's partner.
Now for the first time Lend Lease has a local presence in a shop unit on the ground floor of Chatelaine House in Walworth Road. This week local residents are invited to visit the 'consultation hub' to learn more about the masterplan process.
"We're not here to say 'this is the masterplan we are proposing to implement'; we're here with the launch of the key principles which we see as important to taking the masterplan forward," says Rob Deck, Lend Lease's project director for Elephant & Castle.
"We are interested in hearing people's views on what those principles should represent in terms of a masterplan outcome."
Local residents can be forgiven for being cynical. Over the past decade and a half there have been countless 'new dawns' for Elephant & Castle and lots of consultations. What's different this time?
"That's a fair question," says Rob Deck. "Let's be honest: it is a difficult environment we are still in.
"We've never got this far before. This is the first time we've achieved this point in the process, and the fact that we are taking an on-site presence demonstrates our commitment to making this happen.
"We are very serious about it and we are putting a lot of investment into this phase of the programme in terms of the outline planning application for the Heygate phase and the detailed application for Rodney Road.
"If we didn't believe there was a viable scheme that's possible, we wouldn't be doing that.
"We do believe that's possible, subject to us getting some sensible outcomes on transport, which I think we are starting to see in more sensible dialogue with Transport for London. There are still challenges there, clearly.
"We're very much cognisant of some of the challenges and we are not saying it's going to be a straightforward process but we need to be pragmatic and realistic."
Rob Deck explains: "What we've been looking to do is to reconnect and restore the grid that existed before the Heygate was developed in the 1960s and 1970s and to create something that is much more open and transparent; that feels like a welcoming and inviting place where people want to spend time and not just a place to hurry through to be somewhere else.
"That's been one of the challenges of Elephant & Castle as a place. It's been a transport interchange; it's not really a place people want to spend time. Clearly we want people to want to live here, not just hurry through.
"It's all about place-making and creating great parks and public spaces.
"It's about ensuring that there's a good distribution of retail use, residential use and business use and that there is affordable housing distributed throughout the scheme in a very democratic way."
The developer promises that the new housing will be "tenure blind" so it will not be possible to discern from the architecture which of the 2,500 new homes are private and which are social housing.
The initial ideas shown in the current exhibition include shops facing New Kent Road, as well as a secondary shopping street parallel to Walworth Road with affordable retail units for non-chain stores.
"We've got Make as our masterplan architects for the scheme and they will continue to develop the masterplan for the Heygate phase."
"Yes, there will be some tall buildings. That comes with the increased density that we've got for the site. We're effectively doubling the density from what was on the site originally.
"We're working with the council and other experts in terms of how we arrange [the tall buildings] so we respect the heritage views and have appropriate massing to blend with … the buildings surrounding the site."
Despite the extra density, Lend Lease is aiming to build on only approximately half of the land (compared to a target of 40 per cent non-built land in the regeneration agreement).
The scheme promises plenty of opportunity for architects to make their mark on the area. dRMM has been appointed to design the Rodney Road phase and within the Make masterplan there will be a range of interpretations on each bit of the site.
"We have some dozen or so other plots throughout the scheme," explains Rob Deck. "Our intention is to appoint other architects to develop each one of those.
"What we don't want is for it to look uniform and as if one hand has been designing it all. It's similar approach to what we have done at the Village in Stratford where we appointed 16 different architects.
"Here, we will look to ensure that we utilise a range of different architects with residential experience to put high quality housing on the site."
We hear a lot of noise from politicians about the transport improvements needed at the Elephant & Castle such as extra capacity at the tube station and a new layout for the northern gyratory. How much importance does Lend Lease attach to the outcome of this political tussle between Southwark Council, Transport for London and City Hall?
"It's very important for us," says Rob Deck. "Whilst we are responsible for just the Heygate and the Rodney Road phases … there's no doubt that we see that our role as a significant developer in the area can extend a lot further.
"Our responsibility might be those things, but our influence and our ability to make a transformational change to some of those things does extend to [the tube station and the northern roundabout].
"Getting those things right will make it a better place and that will make it more attractive for people to come and be there.
"The underpass system under the current northern roundabout isn't the ideal solution. There are lots of things that could be improved there and we'd like to have a role in helping to influence those outcomes."
Lend Lease promises to turn the fortress-like Heygate into an outward-looking site with plenty of through routes and public spaces. But those spaces won't be publicly owned and so activities allowed on the public highway, such as political protests, could well be restricted.
Private management of quasi public space has come under increased scrutiny in recent times, including the recent London Assembly report Public life in private hands. Many will be keen to know how Lend Lease plans to address these issues at Elephant & Castle.
"It's a good question," says Rob Deck. "We've certainly got work to do there yet, so I wouldn't suggest that we have the answers resolved. We are working through our estate management strategy for the scheme.
"There will no doubt be robust management regimes around those types of things that will ensure that there is an appropriate level of scrutiny and security to police those areas.
"We'll work with the council, as our partner, to ensure that we integrate with their processes."
How long does Lend Lease's commitment to the area last? Will it build and move on, or does it expect to have an ongoing interest in the area.
"That's to be determined," replies the project director. "Certainly we'll set up the management company to be such that it can be operated in perpetuity.
"We're going to be here for some 15 years developing this scheme so certainly for a good period of time we will be involved and it's an open question whether that extends beyond the time when we sell the last of the apartments in the scheme."
"There are places where we have kept involvement for a period of time. What we like to see is a sustainable long-term management regime that works without us having to be there as the developer. That's what makes successful communities."
If the development is going to take 15 years, there will surely be plenty of time for temporary projects to make use of the land. Guerrilla allotments have already caused a stir, but will Lend Lease be receptive to creative ideas for the site?
"I have to say that right now it's not our land, it's the council's, but we're working closely with the council on what might be done such that in this immediate period we get some active uses that enable the community to make use of this space," says Rob Deck.
"There are some uses such as nurseries and garden areas that can be managed by people like the Walworth Garden Farm, as well as cultural uses, sporting uses and some temporary retail uses that could happen."
Walking along New Kent Road today you would never know it, but the Heygate is packed with mature trees. The Elephant & Castle Urban Forest is a new campaign to protect the trees and raise awareness of this unlikely green oasis. The future of the trees is likely to be a contentious matter as the redevelopment moves through the planning process.
"We're looking at all of that and that's one of the things that we are going to be talking to people about as part of this consultation," says Rob Deck.
"We need to be realistic and pragmatic about just what has to be done to improve the place.
"We won't be able to save every tree on the site. Neither would it be sensible to try and do that, because we would effectively be rebuilding what is already there.
"We certainly have a strong respect for the existing mature trees on the site. There are large parts of the site – on the perimeter in particular … where it's entirely logical that we retain quite a large number of those trees.
"Inside the scheme, we are looking at where we can locate parks … but we do need to make sure that the masterplan that we develop doesn't just design its way around trees to the point where there is no logical legibility to it and we end up with something that is a compromise."
The regeneration agreement between the council and Lend Lease included provisions covering the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre site, but in the past few months it has become clear that the building's owner St Modwen wants to develop the site itself. How will Lend Lease ensure that its development ties in with the shopping centre scheme to make a coherent whole?
"We're working very closely with St Modwen and the council on that. We do have some ideas for how we might create better connections."
"There's work to be done there with Network Rail who own the viaduct itself. There's an opportunity to improve the retail element underneath there and find ways that the existing traders can still trade on the site in other places – or in the same places just in better facilities.
"There are ways that we can improve the connection on the south end of the viaduct near the Walworth Road, potentially opening up one of those arches to provide a better connection at that point into the shopping centre."
Another key development over the past few months has been the establishment of the Elephant & Castle community forum, an invitation-only consultative group that first met at the end of May. There have been some criticisms of the forum and a perceived lack of openness. How does Rob Deck respond to those worries?
"I think we needed to understand just how wide the interest in those forums might be," he says. "Clearly we didn't want to have it such that people that people didn't feel that they could get in the door, and that hasn't transpired.
"We want to make sure that we have got a broad engagement with as much of the community as possible. We've got some 140 groups that we have identified.
"I think that the process will now change and we will continue those forums, but we are recognising the need to drill down into more specific areas of consultation on specific themes and we are establishing liaison groups that will start to do that in conjunction with the forum.
"The forum is one of a number of different consultation approaches that we've got. We're still attending community council meetings, we're still attending tenants' and residents' association meetings when asked to do so and we're keen to engage with other groups on a one-on-one basis."
• See the exhibition at the Elephant & Castle consultation hub at 182 Walworth Road SE17 from Wednesday 20 to Saturday 23 July 11am-6pm (late opening till 8pm on Thursday).
• Visit the relaunched Lend Lease E&C website: www.elephantandcastle.org.uk
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