Deborah Orr: Who benefits from urban regeneration?

'These areas are privatised and the socially excluded, far from being "lifted out of poverty", are excluded all the more'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Peckham Experiment is looking overly experimental because its entire front has gone missing. This is a source of some sadness, because we've just travelled a decent distance to have lunch in what is clearly, apart from the obvious shortcoming, a most desirable eaterie. All the accoutrements of a most stylish restaurant are plainly visible, from the beautifully finished décor to the neatly stacked, modish seating. Everything is in place, give or take a wall or two. Lunch, under the circumstances though, is well and truly off.

Luckily, this is not quite the difficulty it might have been, say, two or three days ago. Apparently, an exciting new coffee shop has opened virtually this very minute, just around the corner, and there is, rumour has it, food there too. We strike out to inspect the premises. Petitou looks extremely lovely indeed.

There are reburbished Victorian tiles gleaming on the walls, a subtle but not baffling clue to the joint's not-quite-forgotten past life as a local butcher's. The tables are finished with a coppery sheen, and the pillars between the expansive, happily secure, windows, are sheathed in deep, rich top-dollar mirror. The rest of the fittings, and the tables outside in the sunshine, are hewn out of reclaimed pine.

These tables, and the assortment of elderly and attractive seats around them, are being moved about by curious customers. Bent double, they are inspecting the stone and tile mosaic in the restaurant's forecourt, which offers an abstract rendition of the streets in which we stand. Various local landmarks and long-standing businesses are represented in specially made green, blue or terracotta glass tiles.

The shopfront itself is teak. In a couple of days, The Peckham Experiment will have a teak shopfront too, and an artwork forming its front doorstep. So will every other shop on this parade. In the meantime, every building on this stretch of street has scaffolding on it. The merry business of expensive, exemplary regeneration is seducing all in its pretty, rousing, artistic path. The excitement and the sense of inclusion is palpable all along the street. The alchemy of transfiguration has infected all the residents.

I've been through Peckham many a time, but I've never stopped off here before. I can't say I imagined or dreamed that such an enclave existed in this notorious, troubled south London community. But stretching out around these streets are rows and rows of outstanding and elegant period homes, some clearly refurbished, others rundown, but still beautiful.

This place is on the brink of a boom, on its way to becoming what passes for utopia in the annals of late capitalism. Oddly, the area is no stranger to ideas of social utopias. The Peckham Experiment itself, the flagship of this neighbourhood's change, is named in honour of a past local project which encouraged the locals to take pride in their community and help each other, in return for co-operative shops, free education, and so on.

In this Peckham experiment, the locals are fully included, indeed enthusiastic. It helps that they include among their number such artists as Antony Gormley, who has his atelier here on the street, and the painter Tom Phillips, who has a studio with Gormley. They have certainly given focus and impetus to the efforts of Southwark council, as well as much time, skill and vision. What is happening here is arresting and thrilling. And yet ...

Last night on television there came a story from Peckham that is more familiar to us. On Tonight With Trevor McDonald, Anthony Elliott, the building inspector who cradled Damilola Taylor in his arms as he died of his injuries in a filthy stairwell, gave his first interview. On the same programme, the parents of the murdered 10-year-old revealed that his Nigeria-based grandparents still have not been informed of their loss.

More than six months have passed since Damilola's death, months which have seen 15 arrests in connection with his killing, although no charges have yet been made. Charges are said to be imminent, although the file on the crime as yet remains under the consideration of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Here is a quite different sort of community spirit, just down the road from the Peckham Experiment.

This spirit is one of fear and hopelessness, in which young criminals can find themselves shielded even when they have committed the most awful of crimes.

In the aftermath of the killing of Damilola Taylor, there was much commentary about the state of the community in Peckham, and much pointing out of the fact that huge amounts of money had already been spent on regeneration, with much more to come. Articulate local community leaders claimed that much of the regeneration was "the wrong sort", and did not really address the kind of difficulties that families such as the Taylors faced.

And indeed, while there is much other work being done on housing estates in Peckham, the interesting thing about the model of regeneration being followed in the area which houses Petitou and the Experiment is that it is closely aligned to the kind of private regeneration that has been happening organically in many London areas, and in other cities throughout the country, for some time.

The process was once called gentrification, and has always been property-led.Inner-city areas which had become rundown but which retained spacious period housing attracted middle-class families looking for palatial premises at a low cost. As they moved in and refurbished their homes, so other like-minded people became attracted to the area, as did the sort of businesses which could service these new communities.

Islington and, earlier, Notting Hill are prime examples of such spontaneous recolonisation. Likewise, the new boom areas, such as Hoxton and, across the river, Bermondsey, benefited from a shift in population as people found that the sort of property they wanted, at low prices, existed in the area. The areas benefited particularly from the artistic communities which set up home around them, in a similar manner to the phenomenon we are now seeing in Peckham.

There is no doubt that the handsome housing around the area of Peckham, which is undergoing such spectacular regeneration, will appreciate in value as the entire area is improved. For the people who live in these houses, that news is good. But there are other, less encouraging consequences of this type of regeneration, whether it happens spontaneously or not.

The problem is contrast, as can be seen in the contrast between the story of the Peckham Experiment and the story of the brief life of Damilola Taylor. While it is true that attracting the middle classes into areas does, in some respect, benefit the entire community, there are ways in which it can polarise it.

So while Islington is now one of the most expensive and affluent parts of London, bristling with restaurants, cafés and purveyors of designer goods, there remains no decent provision for state education. To a huge extent these areas are privatised, and the socially excluded, far from being "lifted out of poverty" are excluded all the more.

The contrasts in London become greater and greater. In my own area, also in south London, there is a spirited regeneration programme underway, recently boosted by the winning of an Urban II grant of £6.5m from the European Community. Another part of the deal is that the area in question must, by proven measures of various kinds, guarantee its status as being among the most deprived and excluded in Europe.

At the same time as this money has been hard-won, less than half a mile down the road, a brand new riverside penthouse apartment has just gone on the market £4.25m. So here is another amazing contrast.

A single individual, it seems, is prepared to shell out a huge amount of money to live in a community whose ills are acknowledged by Brussels to be so in need of such sums that Europe's purse has opened to it. The question is, will some of the £6.5m be invested in teak shop fronts in an attempt to get the big spender to spend a few more of his voluminous quid locally? Or will the regeneration trend continue as it has. Rich and poor leading increasingly separate lives but more and more cheek by jowl?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments