The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, once a symbol of hope and regeneration, could be on its last legs. Built on a site that had been heavily bombed in World War Two, the precinct opened in 1965 and was praised for its design and ambition. But in six months’ time, the centre – which is home to a vibrant Latin American community – could be demolished as part of a wider redevelopment project for the area.
When first constructed, the Illustrated London News admired the top floor, “roofed with glass, which can be drawn back in sunny weather to provide an open-air concourse” and the Greater London Council cited it as the “future of shopping, business and recreation in south London”.
But to its critics the shopping centre was an expensive error, more of a white elephant than a main attraction, and over the past half-century the building has slowly decomposed.
However, it has its fans, and if it goes, the livelihoods of many independent traders could follow.
“They don’t care about us,” said Ana Castro, a young Colombian who owns a clothes shop crammed into the tiny space underneath a first-floor escalator.
“They want big brands. That’s why it’s unfair. You have money, you have power; you don’t have money, you have nothing.”
The feeling of powerlessness repeatedly arises with some of the two dozen traders who work in the shopping centre.
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In January it was given a surprising stay of execution following a marathon seven-hour council meeting, which felt like a form of slow bureaucratic torture for those who sat through it until 01:30.
For two years, traders have been fighting every detail of the regeneration. A decision could come later in March.
Only 10% of the new shops would be at an affordable rent and many fear they won’t even be able to pay that.
The traders’ leader is Emad Megahi, a softly spoken 50-year-old Egyptian who runs a printing shop about 20 seconds’ walk from Ana’s.
“It’s almost like a lightweight fighting a heavyweight,” he said while drinking a cup of tea.
“We feel that we worked hard for over 10 years, and some traders for 20 years, and somebody’s just going to come and demolish what you’ve worked for.”
He makes the swishing noise of a guillotine as his hand flies across his neck. “And then you have nothing.”
Above: Paul Boissevain, pictured in 1960, was an architect for the Willett Group. He demonstrates a model of the group’s plan for the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which was chosen by London County Council.
Below: The CGI mock-up of new plans for the area. Southwark Council is deciding whether to demolish the shopping centre and build 1,000 new homes.
On the same floor is another Colombian, Lucy Villanizar, a gregarious hairdresser, whose characterful salon is full of dog-eared books, fading posters and framed diplomas.
“It’s very sad, because I’ve been here for 25 years,” she said.
“I don’t want to go very far from here. My feelings, my memories, my friends are from round here.”
Lucy’s worry is that if she’s moved too far her customers won’t follow, a fear Emad shares: “We want to fight all the way to the end to stay here, because I built a big client base in the past seven or eight years and I’m not going to lose that.”
The building is less than a mile from the Thames, yet no other shopping centre in central London is as quiet, or as cheap: A hamburger at Jenny’s restaurant costs a mere £1.60, and shops happily advertise clothing for no more than £5.
And despite its dilapidated appearance, the centre was once a revolutionary building.
It partly owes its existence to the World War Two bombs that blew the area to bits.
It was 20 years before the government found money to rebuild Elephant and Castle, and the developers of the day abandoned any notion of restoring it to its old look.
So along came plans for the first covered shopping centre in the UK.
But the developers were not experts at running shopping centres, said the LSE’s Prof Tony Travers.
“They found they couldn’t fill it and it was relatively early known as the White Elephant, even though it was this state-of-the-art, brand new shopping centre,” he said.
To compound matters, the centre fell victim to 1960s urban planning philosophy.
A traffic gyratory meant many pedestrians could only reach it by walking through murky subterranean walkways.
That, followed by the capital’s post-war population decline, meant rents were on the floor when the Latin American community decided to make the shopping centre its home in the early 1990s.
“They find everything,” said Lucy. “The language, the food, the culture, the fun, the jokes. Everything is here.”
The sense of community is so strong that a charity called Latin Elephant exists in nearby offices across solely to protect the culture.
The traders worry this community will be scattered like confetti in a breeze if the demolition happens.
The shopping centre’s present owner and developer, Delancey, has worked with the council and traders on a “relocation strategy” so each can move locally, but members of Southwark Council’s planning committee said last month that the strategy didn’t protect them adequately.
The traders took a financial blow in 2014 when the neighbouring brutalist monolith, the Heygate Estate, was knocked down.
It meant several thousand people who lived next to the shopping centre simply weren’t coming any more.
Emad says his footfall halved.
And following the arrival of Delancey, traders found their rents steadily increasing, some say by as much as 50%. “It’s just a constant struggle,” Emad said.
“If you put all these ingredients together at the same time within the space of two years, it’s enough to bring any business down. We’re quite lucky that we’re still here.”
Delancey said it was charging significantly below market rents for the area.
Every trader has wildly different outlooks on their uncertain future.
Emad is “totally optimistic”, Lucy worries but hopes for the best, and Ana prays to God.
One floor down from them is Jamal Uddin, an Afghan who arrived following the US invasion of his country in 2001.
He once had two shops, but the drop in custom forced him to shut one. He said: “What are we going to do? How are we going to survive? The rents have gone up, the service charge, everything has gone up.”
When asked where he expects to be in three years, he said: “Probably in the job centre. There’s no other option.”
Until then, under the looming spectre of the demolition, the traders are working flat out to make ends meet.
Jamal hasn’t had a day off in seven months, Ana works 60-hour weeks, and Emad works seven days a week, often for 12 hours.
But Emad doesn’t regret his decision to move to Elephant and Castle 10 years ago.
“I’ve learnt so much from it. I’m actually inspired now to study law, and particularly planning and contractual law.”
Such knowledge could prove useful to some of the traders – for whom English is often a second or third language – as they work their way through the jargon-laden intricacies of a legal contract.
At the end of January, in a brisk 10-minute meeting, Southwark Council delayed its final decision until March.
Lucy was there to hear it, after a sleepless night. She left the council’s offices still facing the unknown.
Delancey says it recognises the concerns raised by the planning application, that it’s since held a series of meetings with council officials and that it believes there are “positive resolutions” to address the issues raised.
The council says it doesn’t want to see local businesses forced out of the area.
Mark Williams, its cabinet member for regeneration, said Delancey had been asked “to consult extensively with local residents and businesses before coming back to planning committee”.
If the application succeeds, traders might only have until September to get out before the wrecking ball swings.