Can The Latest Gentrification Plan For South London Succeed Where Others Have Failed?

Photo: Charisse Chikwiri
Catford, guarded by a large black feline that overlooks its centre, is located close to Peckham, Brockley and Forest Hill in southeast London. It’s one of the last areas in the city to face the controversial effects of gentrification, notorious for displacing indigenous communities and stripping areas of their character.
Have the gentrifiers learned anything from previous mistakes? And will Catford finally get it right?
To me, the words 'south London' spark an image of independent ethnic food stores, Morley's chicken, cheap nail salons, Afro-Caribbean hair shops and a strong sense of community. Of all the areas in the capital, south London feels the most like home. It’s not perfect and variety isn't what it does best, but you’ll always have the essentials and you’ll always feel like you can let your hair down.
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As a result of gentrification projects and new developments, areas like Peckham, Brockley and Forest Hill have become divided. The polarities between the working class and the affluent are visible, almost in a tug of war with each other. When stepping out of Peckham Rye station, for example, you’re immersed in the centre of it all; the contrast between the independent businesses on Rye Lane Market and the Bussey Building for all your underground music and culture needs. Then you have Peckham Springs, the perfect after-work/evening drinks spot with an art gallery, adjacent to the several Afro-Caribbean hairdressers along Rye Lane.
These hairdressers have expressed their concerns about being relocated away from the centre as part of the council’s plans to regenerate the area. In a Channel 4 documentary, Destiny Divine salon manager talks about needing to be in a place where their customers can easily find them, especially having been in the area for so many years.
According to Zoopla, the average property price in Peckham stood at £528,932 in September 2017, in comparison to Catford, where the average price is £417,550. I am among the many who have moved to Catford because a lot of housing here is still spacious and reasonably priced. I am a student who pays my monthly share of £534 for a three-bed with two reception rooms, a large kitchen, bathroom/shower and a generous garden. In London, this is honestly a dream. The journey to central London is only 25 minutes via rail and, with a proposal for the Bakerloo line to be extended to Lewisham and the council’s plans to attract “large investment in the provision of a diverse range of services, commercial space, opportunities and housing,”  there is no doubt that the area will continue to garner the interest of Londoners looking for somewhere to settle.
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Catford is an opportunity for Lewisham Council to pioneer the inclusive work of bringing new life to an area without sacrificing its soul. It’s all well and good looking into building a centre “fit for the 21st century and beyond” but, first and foremost, the lives of the people who exist in the here and now must be respected and protected.
At its very worst, the effects of gentrification are devastating. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is an example of what happens when councils don’t pay enough attention to the lives of low-income families. The Independent obtained planning documents that read “due to its height the [Grenfell] tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east” and so “the changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.” The cladding was signed off and put in place to make the building less of an eyesore, despite the fact that it was not fire-retardant and majorly contributed to the spreading of the blaze. So we see the aesthetic desires of the affluent prioritised over the lives of the working-class families who called Grenfell Tower home.

Of all the areas in the capital, south London feels the most like home. It’s not perfect and variety isn't what it does best, but you’ll always feel like you can let your hair down.

I spoke to the team at Lewisham Council, to ask these important questions in regards to the plans proposed for Catford. In response, the Mayor of Lewisham Borough, Steve Bullock told me that he is “determined to ensure that the new jobs, new homes and new development in Catford benefit local people and there is a huge amount we can do to make that a reality.”
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Bullock’s willingness to respond to my questions was refreshing – almost as refreshing as the 2016 launch of the Commonplace website, which has allowed "thousands of local people” to have their say in shaping the vision for Catford’s future. Commonplace is an online interactive map where you can drop a pin and leave comments for the improvement of a specific area. However, I only found this website because I was searching for it. So I asked the council how this is being made known and accessible to the community, especially to those who perhaps don’t have access to the internet or aren’t “tech savvy”. Bullock replied: “We are working to make Lewisham the best place in London to live, work and learn and we know that won’t happen without local people playing a leading role in changing their communities for the better, online and offline. We’ve promoted Commonplace through Twitter, Facebook and a weekly email we send to 40,000 residents.”
Regarding offline community engagement, Bullock says: “Hundreds of people have attended community meetings in local businesses and have taken part in surveys about the future of Catford that we run in the shopping centre and at big events like People’s Day. From late September there’ll be face-to-face community events taking place every month as ‘Team Catford’ set up stall in the local library, the civic centre, the popular Little Nan’s Bar and on Catford Broadway to talk to the local community. Feedback gathered through forms, conversations, emails and tweets will lead to one of the most inclusive community engagement programmes in London.”
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This response was music to my ears; exactly what we as the people hope to hear. Especially coming from a team who, with one exception, are all also Lewisham residents.
However, proposing and actually putting in place are two very different things. I also spoke to some of the local residents and independent business owners in the area, to hear their side of the story.
Joy opened Joy’s Health Sanctuary in February 2017; the shop sells fresh juices, a range of organic health foods and herbal remedies. Many local residents visit Joy’s shop to ask for health advice, and this is where you see the communal bonds created between business owners and residents. Although Joy lives in Brockley and arrives in Catford every morning to open the shop, she “didn’t know about the regeneration plans for Catford.” We spoke about the effects of gentrification in Elephant & Castle, where she used to run a market stall, and how “the people went to all the meetings and had their input” but ultimately had no real say in the final decisions. Perhaps the council’s face-to-face events for the inclusive community engagement programme will save Catford's residents from a similar fate. Or perhaps they're just for show.
Photo: Charisse Chikwiri
Another independent business owner in his 40s, who will remain anonymous, shared the same fears. He told me that he felt “weary about the effects of regeneration and gentrification”, especially since the yearly rate for his own store has gone up by £2,500. When he tried to contact the council for relief, he was told that there was nothing they could do and that it was in the hands of the Valuation Office Agency, whom he rang “six times in one week” without getting through. “It feels like playing a game of tennis. Independent businesses in Catford are struggling and closing down because of the increase in rates,” he said, gesturing towards The Lighthouse Vegan Café that used to be open on Catford Broadway.
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The narratives of these two business owners don’t tally with the mayor’s words when he says things like “we own the majority of land in Catford town centre, which gives us a lot of control over the type of development that happens here” and “we are working hard to give local people the skills and opportunities they need to earn a living and fulfil their potential. We’ve opened affordable workspaces for Catford residents to run businesses.”
If all that the council has proposed comes to pass, Catford could become south London’s leading example of an area that is revitalised by regeneration, not diluted. A space where south Londoners can feel free. We won’t have to choose between our cultural identity and access to more variety in food, shopping and creative leisure. This could be a utopian ideology but, certainly, there’s room for progressive change.
I have hope but, given the history of gentrification in London, I have become cynical, as have all the Catford community members I have spoken to. I am also very weary of the entitlement that comes with moving to an area and expecting it to change accordingly, despite the needs of people who have birthed and raised generations prior. Only time will tell whether history will repeat itself. It’s early days for Catford.
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