Grand redevelopment plans that come at the expense of existing communities have for many years been all too well-known a theme in London—from Haringey to the Heygate. But worryingly universities are getting in on the act.
Prestigious institutions such as University of Arts London (UAL) and University College London (UCL) have teamed up with property developers, making use of their public standing to whitewash gentrification.
In Southwark, UAL has entered into a partnership with the tax-avoiding property firm Delancey on a new plan to redevelop the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre—currently home to 70 local and mostly BME-owned businesses—into luxury flats. In exchange UAL’s London College of Communication (LCC), based across the road from the shopping centre, will get a new building on the site.
The development will create nearly 1000 new luxury apartments, but only a paltry 33 homes have been included in the plans at affordable rents. No clear relocation plans have been made for the businesses and market traders on the site of the shopping centre and no guarantee of any right to return has been made, with only 10 per cent of planned new retail spots available at affordable rates. Like many councils, Southwark has a rule that all new housing developments must have at a minimum 35 per cent of new housing available at a social rent rate. But Delancey has found a loophole that allows them to use their own definition and cut this to only 3 per cent—this loophole is the argument that a new university campus is an invaluable asset to the community.
The Southwark Council planning committee narrowly voted down the development plan by four votes to three on 17 January, but Delancey made clear subsequently in a public statement that they will contest the validity of the vote at a council meeting on 30 January.
UAL made clear in meetings with Students’ and Trade Union representatives that they stand by the plan despite the vote. Delancey “are proud of the proposals”, which “are ambitious, innovative and offer great benefits for a wide range of people who want to live, work and learn at The Elephant”, while UAL emphasised the importance of ensuring the LCC is retained in the area so it can continue its various outreach projects in the community.
While UAL present themselves as being at the heart of the community in Elephant and Castle and make much of commitments to social justice and widening participation in their prospectus and on their website, many people are worried that this plan will directly drive working class and BME communities out of the area, through closing down businesses in the shopping centre and the market outside of it, while making houses in the area unaffordable. Meanwhile Delancey are set to make £154m in profit from the sale of these luxury apartments.
For Southwark locals this plan brings back painful memories of previous regeneration schemes in the area. Beginning in 2011, the Heygate council estate was demolished in stages, later to be replaced by Lendlease’s Elephant Park luxury development, while its 3000 residents were “decanted” out of the borough. The development was scheduled to meet Southwark’s 35 per cent social rent rule, but Lendlease found a loophole and by the time the final flat was sold in 2017 not a single social rent home had been made available.
The last decade has seen a slow transformation of Elephant and Castle, not to mention the rest of London. Social housing, affordable retail and community facilities have been replaced by gleaming luxury apartment buildings, independent cinemas and chain coffee shops. Regeneration in this form, even when delivered without active displacement, too often excludes residents there before, who find themselves priced out of their communities.
UAL’s new LCC campus is only the latest in a series of regeneration plans proposed by London’s universities in conjunction with major property developers. In 2011 UCL announced plans to build its new £1bn Stratford campus on the site of the Carpenters Estate in Newham—home to over 700 residents who would all be “decanted” from the area.
Although UCL and Newham council presented the plan as a huge opportunity for the area—part of its wider regeneration scheme for the area that started with the Olympics site and was followed by the gigantic Stratford Westfield shopping centre—the plans were met with huge community resistance and UCL was forced to axe the scheme in 2013 after being publicly criticised.
But five years later UCL are back in Stratford again, this time hand in hand with Delancey. In 2011 the company and the investment arm of the Qatari ruling family jointly bought the Olympics 2012 Athletes’ Village in Stratford from the Government at a £275m loss for the taxpayer. Renamed “Here East”, the old Athletes’ Village will soon house UCL’s new “UCL East” campus, as well as Loughborough University in London and a host of digital companies.
Jamie Ritblat, CEO of Delancey, and his father John Ritblat, previous CEO and current Honoury President of the major developer British Land, sit on the boards, councils and estates planning committees of King’s College London, the London Business School, the Royal Academy of Music, the International Students House, the Wallace Collection, the Southbank Centre, the British Library, and the Tate Foundation.
Connections between developers and universities have become commonplace with universities, such as UCL, directly overseeing the planning of developments that have the potential to displace local communities. But whatever strategy they choose to adopt, it seems clear our educational institutions have become a central part of the property development and gentrification process that some regard as tearing apart the social fabric of London.
Sahaya James is the Campaigns Officers at Arts SU, UAL’s Student Union, a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts National Committee and is standing to be president of the NUS