Reasons behind Elephant and Castle’s current and ongoing gentrification

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The Elephant and Castle development framework established by the Southwark Plan, part of the greater London Plan, aims to serve as a guide for the future development of Elephant and Castle. The aim of the plan is to ensure the regeneration of Elephant and Castle by 2014. An estimated investment of £1.5bn will be spent on new retail and open spaces, improved transport, new and replacement homes, new commercial and educational facilities and a new civic centre for Southwark.

The regeneration will essentially focus upon a series of character areas (Southwark Council, 2004). The regeneration as such, indeed it is the stated aim of the plan, will radically transform Elephant and Castle over the next few years. This in itself constitutes a gentrification process, with the end-game likely to be a more up-market version of present Elephant and Castle. The physical, economic, social and cultural impact of gentrification (Hamnett, 1984) upon local inhabitants is likely to be significant, particularly in terms of higher house prices and a growth of middle-class services (trendy cafes, bars, delicatessens, health and fitness clubs etc).

In the Elephant and Castle development framework, Southwark Council focus on providing new buildings and facilities, including new homes, shops, restaurants, leisure, hotel, cultural and educational facilities. A second major theme of the plan is the provision of public spaces, which includes a new market square and upgrading of existing spaces. The final major aspect of the regeneration plan is improvements in transport, which are to include a new Northern Line. The overall regeneration process will establish six character areas: Walworth High Street extension (north and south); The Civic Square; The Railway Arches and Market Square; The Town Park; Heygate Boulevard and St Mary's Churchyard. The planned major regeneration constitutes a significant visible transformation of Elephant and Castle. Hamnett (1991) declares this physical transformation contemporary metropolitan restructuring. At first glance, the gentrification of Elephant and Castle should benefit home owners and local entrepreneurs (property developers to restaurateurs). However, the flip side to this is that first-time buyers may find themselves unable to buy in the area.

The gentrification process is very much a subjective topic and research into why and how gentrification occurs has been marked by the theoretical and political opinions of the researcher. During the 1980s, the debate was divided between those who focused on the economics of the gentrification process and examined relationships between flows of capital and the production of urban space (production) and those who were focusing on the characteristics of the gentrifiers and their pattern of consumption within the broader dimension of urban culture in a post-industrial society (consumption). The works of Smith (focusing on supply of gentrifiable property; the rent gap etc) and Ley (focusing on characteristics of gentrifiers; new middle class ideology etc) characterize early analyses of the gentrification process.

In Smith's 1979 paper “A back to the city movement by capital, not people”, the economic bias in the gentrification debate emerged. Smith argued that post World War II there was a movement of capital to “develop suburban, industrial, residential, commercial and recreational activity” due to low ground rent (Smith, 1986). This led to a decline and abandonment in inner city properties, a fall in the price of inner-city land relative to rising land prices in the suburbs and, ultimately, created opportunities for land developers, landlords and occupier developers to reinvest where this rent gap was sufficiently profitable. Ostensibly, Smith argued that gentrification occurs when capital returns to the inner city, resulting in opportunities for residential relocation and profit.

Hamnett (1991) opposes Smiths' argument by suggesting that gentrification involves people in addition to capital flows. Munt (1987) similarly opposed against Smith's production-side argument by proposing that gentrification cannot take place without the existence of a pool of gentrifiers. Ley (1987) criticizes Smiths' rent-gap theory by stating that after (some time)it has still not been made empirically accountable”. The alternative to the production-side argument places more emphasis on the characteristics of the gentrifiers and a demand for inner-city property. This demand is attributed to occupational and economic changes resulting from a move towards a post-industrial, service-based economy (Ley, 1980). Munt (1987), in a study on gentrification in Battersea, found that the changing employment structure of central London since 1971 proved a major impetus to gentrification, as “an increase in professional and managerial employment….increased demand….on selected inner-city residential areas”. In this sense, gentrification has an economic basis. However, people, not capital exclusively, are examined. The importance of the property market as an investment option is well documented in the press and media, and is important for both producers and consumers and can be a major force driving gentrification (Mills, 1988).

The emergence of the baby boom generation and its demand for housing in London has been considered a major factor leading to gentrification (Munt, 1987). In a new service-based economy, gender divisions have been declining and the increase of women in the work place has led to social and cultural changes, including a conscious decision to delay marriage and childbearing (Bondi, 1991). The increase in single women professionals in gentrified areas is an increasing feature of many inner-city neighbourhoods in Western societies. There is also a sense that women, liberated by higher education are attracted to inner-city areas as a result of their rejection of suburbia (Williams, 1986). Butler and Hamnett (1994) describe gentrification as the consumption of inner-city housing by middle-class people who have an identifiable class and cultural formation, one of whose major identifying characteristics centres around the occupational identity of its female members”. This new middle-class wanted to live in inner-city areas to be part of a community of like-minded people. The gay and lesbian population have been significant in the gentrification effort. Knopp (1995) has attributed this to the desire for economic and political power as well as sexual freedom. Similar to the feminist argument, gay identity can be expressed more freely in the inner-city in comparison to relatively confined suburbia.

The social and cultural impact of gentrification is also often manifested in the “ostentatious display and exhibitionism” of the gentrifiers (Munt, 1987). The aesthetics of gentrification (Jager, 1986) is a visible expression of ascension up the social ladder. This aesthetic façade serves as a magnate for further gentrifiers; “Imaging a city through the organisation of spectacular urban spaces became a means to attract capital and people (of the right sort) in a period of intensified inter-urban competition” (Harvey, 1989). Inner-city living is given a cultural meaning by marketing and advertising (Mills, 1988). The popular TV series Friends, for example, encapsulated for many the virtues of city life. Bridge (1995) asserts that “the influence of education might help explain the existence of the gentrification aesthetic in terms of the acquisition of ‘good taste’ through middle-class background and/or a middle-class (higher) education”. However, a desire to imitate an ideal lifestyle, such as that portrayed in Friends, may be of more importance than education.

The 1980s were characterized by competition in the gentrification debate. However, similarities in the arguments have led to increasing efforts to integrate the production and consumption arguments. Lees (1994) provides a rationale for complementarity by ” (attempting) to overcome duality not by looking for a new universal theory, but by comparing and informing one set of ideas with another.(allowing) political economy, culture and society to be considered together, enabling a more sensitive illustration of the gentrification process”. Research into gentrification today is generally somewhat more integrated. Proponents of the production-side of the argument (i.e. Smith, 1986) accept the necessity for allowing some role to be ascribed consumer preference, whilst Hamnett (1991) argues that theories on the demand and supply side should be seen as complementary rather than conflicting. Clark (1992) recognized that there was a theoretical relationship between the two.

Consequently, a gradual convergence of theoretical argument and empirical research has supported the need for an integration of gentrification, although these attempts, so far, have not proved entirely successful (Lyons, 1996).

Assessment of the impact of Southwark Councils regeneration plan for Elephant and Castle upon local residents is a subjective exercise. Gentrification, as envisaged by the construction of new buildings and facilities, provision of public spaces and improvements in transport may attract new business and stimulate private investment in the area. Economic decline and the recession of the 1990s in the UK appear to have receded and paved the way for an ambitious £1.5bn investment programme which fits with Smith's economic view of gentrification. Local people may benefit from this investment, i.e. employment, aesthetic improvements etc. However, gentrification and the emphasis in the UK on home ownership are making the first-time house buyer a rare breed. Increasing rents, land value and affordable housing will have an impact on the social fabric of Elephant and Castle for a long time to come. Though this process has been somewhat continuous since the 1960s, gentrification following recession appears to have an increased vigour. Increases in the cost of living are not generally matched by increases in salaries and the working classes are generally most affected.