Time to Demolish the Heygate Estate?
The fate of the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, was sealed in 1997 when Blair gave a landmark speech at nearby Aylesbury Estate, offering his assurances that Labour would deliver renewed hope and prosperity to its supposedly miserable inhabitants, whose social and economic disadvantage had given them the misfortune to live on London’s archetypal sink Estate.
Pressure to Demolish Heygate Estate
From the moment of his speech all the Elephant estates became locked together in the public consciousness as dangerous, even lawless. The die was cast: the Heygate was to be knocked down and the area redeveloped with a public plaza and tram system. Meanwhile, Southwark Council began rehousing the residents of the Heygate further out in the borough than the conveniently situated Elephant, and where possible, pursued an agenda of persuading residents to replace their secure council tenancies with less predictable housing association contracts, in developments with colourful facades.
My bus journey to school took me past the long flank of the Heygate where the imposingly brutalist architecture of grey concrete and angular walkways as it appears immediately after the Elephant roundabout etched forbiddance in my mind, and until recently I took pains to avoid it. After 25 years I ventured into the estate to be struck with an enormous sense of waste, and a dispelled sense of fear.
Delay to Demolish the Estate
Only a few residents remain in the boarded up estate as they hold out for reasonable offers from Southwark Council for their properties. One resident I spoke with was offered just £160,000 for his 3-bedroom maisonette; surely no equivalent, centrally-located property can be purchased for this negligible sum?
The Heygate is made up of a series of blocks facing each other with large inner courtyards, gardens, and communal greens in a totally unexpected, urban location. The longer the council tarries with its demolition, the more time nature has to reclaim the overgrown, once tended gardens, now filled with weeds.
Heygate Estate is Squatted
I spoke with a team of guerrilla gardeners who have squatted vegetable plots in abandoned gardens for as long as it takes for Southwark Council to enforce evictions from the estate and start to demolish Heygate Estate. One gardener, Jen Jen who has waited for 16 years for an allotment in the borough has a modest, well-tended plot from which she hopes to harvest potatoes.
Elsewhere there was a troupe of free-runners practicing on what must be one of the most extraordinary sites in the city. This strange, abandoned landscape has been reclaimed.
Struck by an enormous sense of waste, I looked up at hundreds of abandoned satellite dishes. A staggering amount of concrete will be pulled down to leave a big hole in the Elephant, until yuppie flats and Starbucks move in. To demolish 40-year old buildings that are structurally sound and house thousands of people is criminal for climate and offers no solution to the estate’s supposed social problems.
London Councils think the solution to social problems is to knock down, rebuild, and disperse council tenants. Yet without investment in these communities the problems are merely being shifted elsewhere. Investment and proper maintenance would have brought decency and respect to the Heygate . But then perhaps it was already there, only I didn’t take the trouble to venture past the façade.