‘Regeneration’ is too often an unfair fight between local people and global finance

On Tuesday a London council decides over a 20-storey tower in Brixton – a tale familiar to cities from Manchester to Sydney

[‘Scaring the living daylights out of people’: The local lobby and the failure of democracy, featuring historic “goings on” in East Devon, also by Anna Minton, is also relevant. – Owl] 

Anna Minton www.theguardian.com

Taylor McWilliam, the Texan property developer, friend of Prince Harry and DJ, has been no stranger to gentrification battles since he bought large swaths of Brixton, in south London, with the backing of a New York hedge fund.

One of the most multicultural and vibrant parts of London, Brixton has been at the heart of the UK’s gentrification struggles for more than a decade. A hard-fought community battle to save the famous glass-covered indoor markets eventually resulted in listed status, which staved off demolition, on the basis of their cultural significance as one of the principal centres of the Afro-Caribbean community.

More recently an equally heartfelt campaign to save small businesses in the railway arches failed after the £1.5bn selloff of thousands of arches around the country by Network Rail. After the sale to the Arch Company, which is part of the US private equity firm Blackstone, the majority of the businesses in the Brixton arches were forced out by rising rents.

Since he bought Brixton market in 2018, McWilliam has rarely been out of the news, with campaigners claiming the tourist-destination image of the market is undermining local businesses and the character of the area. This summer he hit the headlines when the campaign to save Nour Cash & Carry from eviction unexpectedly went global after a protest during an online charity concert featuring a DJ set by McWilliam, in front of an audience of more than 1,000 people.

A much-loved family business, Nour has been saved, but McWilliams is once again the focus of huge local opposition, this time against plans to build a 20-storey tower, designed by the British Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. Council officers have recommended that the tower go ahead on the basis that it will regenerate the area and provide jobs and a new public realm.

Yet prior to the council’s forthcoming decision on Tuesday, more than 1,000 objections had been lodged, including from the local MP, ward councillors and a 7,000 strong petition against the scheme.

McWilliams, with his partying and royal connections, is the perfect target for community anger. But the story of a colourful developer at loggerheads with local activists obscures the bigger picture, which is the effect that global finance, in the shape of hedge funds, private equity and global property development companies, is having on places such as Brixton. Although McWilliams announced that he had bought Brixton market through his company Hondo Enterprises, the legal owners are two special-purpose vehicles backed by the New York hedge fund Angelo Gordon, while the fate of the Brixton arches was determined by US private equity.

Earlier this year, Lambeth council appointed Tom Branton as director of regeneration, giving an indication of its vision for the area. Branton has previously worked for Southwark council, as project manager of the controversial Elephant & Castle regeneration scheme, carried out in partnership with the Australia-based developer Lendlease. He moved on from the council to work for Lendlease, where he was development manager on the same project, Elephant Park. Built on the site of the demolished Heygate estate, Elephant Park includes nearly 3,000 luxury apartments, of which only 82 are social housing. Of the properties built in the first phase, most were sold to foreign investors.

Branton later went with Lendlease to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to work on the Tun Razak Exchange, described as an Asian version of Canary Wharf.

Lendlease and Branton describe themselves as experts in “placemaking”, a process said to bring regeneration, housing and jobs to rundown parts of the city. Critics claim it displaces local people and reconfigures places into bland clusters of luxury apartments, shops, restaurants and perhaps an art gallery or university.

Elephant & Castle, King’s Cross and Greenwich Peninsula in London, and the centres of cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol include all these elements alongside an increasingly privatised “public” realm, policed by security guards, where access and behaviour are closely monitored and surveilled. This model of development, which is common to the deregulated economies of North America, Australia and the UK, often appears in former industrial or waterfront areas, featuring docks and old warehouses that lend themselves to hip new uses in the creative industries.

In Australia, Lendlease is responsible for Sydney’s giant waterfront Barangaroo project. The type of “placemaking” achieved by global property finance forces out local communities through rising rents and property prices, and airbrushes local culture from existence. Historic England’s objection to McWilliam and Adjaye’s tower is that the development would “markedly detract from the strong sense of place that Brixton already has”.

Despite the gentrification struggles of the last few years, Brixton still has a sense of place and a soul that many areas would love to emulate, and which the local community is desperate to protect. Adjaye has described the scheme as an opportunity to “give back” to the community. Now local ward councillors would like to invite him to come and meet local people to hear their views.

• Anna Minton is the author of Big Capital: Who is London for? and is a reader in architecture at the University of East London

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