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Heygate Estate’s Slow Death

When people browse through this blog, many must wonder what the photo on the top with the grey building is about. It is a shot of a 9 hectare wide social housing site in Elephant & Castle in south London, called the Heygate Estate.

This massive council estate was designed by the architect, Tim Tinker, and was constructed in 1974 to house more than 3,000 people. As you can see from the photo here below, the design consisted of four wings of tall buildings with shorter constructions in the middle which were all connected by concrete walkways. This was the solution the government had come up with in the 1970s when there was urgent demand to house thousands of workers.

With time, the Heygate Estate started owning a bad reputation for being a ‘Muggers Paradise’ and the hub of other anti-social behaviour of crime and violence. This reputation worsened as the British government geared more and more towards regeneration programmes and further away from social housing. The local council soon announced that due to poor security and low energy efficiency keeping this estate was no longer sustainable and for this, since 2008 they began to rehouse the residents to other homes in the borough.

This rehousing process has been painful where people who owned dwellings in Heygate Estate were forced to move out and the majority of residents were moved to distant places, which is a big lifestyle change when considering that Elephant & Castle is situated at the border of London’s Zone 1 and 2. Most windows and doors of these buildings have been boarded up but at night you can still see lit a couple of lights from the handful of residents that have been fighting for their right to remain there.

The Southwark Council’s plan is to remove all residents, secure that the buildings remain empty and demolish all of them in order to work on this site from scratch. In 2011 the demolition process began by bulldozing one part of the estate. The taller buildings are scheduled to be imploded and the whole demolition process is to be completed by 2015.

Once the site is cleared, it has been decided that the architect Make of Lend Lease will start building according to his master plan which in total with cost £1.5 billion and will include 2,500 dwellings, 60 shops and 16 cafes and restaurants. What is concerning is that of these 2,5000 new homes only 25% are planned to be under an “affordable” scheme, which makes clear the local authority’s determination in gentrifying the area. Lastly, this redevelopment project is to be completed in 2025 hence for those former residents of Heygate Estate who received the Right to Return from the council it is again unrealistic to think that they will be able to make use of that right after a time gap of 17 years.

The Heygate Estate within South London communities has been an on-going subject of discussion and protest. Residents who fought to remain in the estate consulted architects and planners and claim that refurbishing the site would only cost £35million. There are plenty of architects who have shown interest to work on social projects using the buildings as well. And yet, the government decided to go the private way.

We cannot judge the natural evolution of cities when more and more low-income community areas get transformed into the habitat of the more wealthy. However, as in many things, the way you go by the process is what matters. Is it legally viable to move a social housing resident assigned to one building for years to somewhere very distant without consent? What is the point of mixed housing if it is more and more used as sugar coating for letting developers build high-end accommodation with just a spoonful of social housing residents here and there?

The Heygate Estate is going through a slow death. When more of its buildings will be demolished the event may be scenographic but in practice it will mark the destruction of a community of 3,000 people that had thrived for over 30 years. The chosen fate of this estate is symbolic of how once again government stood by the side of private interests rather than its citizens’ needs.

Ayako Iba

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