London's regeneration game

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The Independent Online

It is, we'll all agree I'm sure, important for local residents to feel included in local government. That's why my heart always lifts when Lambeth Council's full-colour newspaper plops through my door. This month, I was particularly keen to browse though the dazzlingly white, reassuringly hefty pages, in search of the article that would officially inform me that all of the one o'clock clubs in the London Borough of Lambeth were to be closed down forthwith.

It is, we'll all agree I'm sure, important for local residents to feel included in local government. That's why my heart always lifts when Lambeth Council's full-colour newspaper plops through my door. This month, I was particularly keen to browse though the dazzlingly white, reassuringly hefty pages, in search of the article that would officially inform me that all of the one o'clock clubs in the London Borough of Lambeth were to be closed down forthwith.

Sadly, such an article did not appear to be worthy of inclusion, which is odd, because it certainly is of concern to many parents in the borough, parents whose council tax pays for the high- grade paper on which the council celebrates its successes. Anyway, the story (gleaned unofficially via my childminder from the denizens of the one o'clock clubs, who will lose their rights, they have been warned, if they speak to the press) is that the one o'clock clubs were, until recently, run by the parks and recreation department, but were recently turned over to the education department. The education department, in its wisdom, has decided that the one o'clock clubs "serve no educational function", and so they are going.

My son, however, has learned quite a lot in Lambeth's one o'clock clubs - primarily about playing with other children and sharing with them. He has also learned about tidying up after himself, as the people who run the club we go to tend to be firmer and less indulgent than I am. He has also learned that the wider world can be friendly, nurturing and creative. Our one o'clock club, in Larkhall Park, SW8, has certainly never suffered from over-funding. But the decorative work undertaken by the staff and pupils is an education in itself.

While it is my son, rather than me, who has led the way in insisting that we visit the club, it also provides an important refuge for mothers, particularly the type who are alone with their children all day, and in a small home on a limited budget.

I looked too, in my Lambeth primer, for news of the local adventure playground. This playground, as I have mentioned in these pages before, has for a long time been abandoned and derelict, a neglected resource in an area that needs such resources.

Therefore, when work on clearing and mending the playground began early this summer, there was much excitement in the household. A card proclaimed an open day, and along we all went. Here we learnt that the refurbishment was not being undertaken by the council, but by a group of young locals who had been granted a three-month lease, but no funding. They raised some money on the open day, and have continued to improve the playground.

They have also attracted the interest of two local residents who also happen to be the architects behind the Millennium Wheel. They are submitting a design for the complete rebuilding of the playground free of charge, in the hope that this project will be given permanent status and funding. The only problem is that the land on which the playground sits is quite clearly a prime developers' site. It is rumoured to be worth anything up to £25m. Could that be why Lambeth is not interested in promoting this heart-warming story of local initiative in its newspaper?

Oddly though, I note that one local adventure playground is mentioned in the paper. This is a brand new one, to be built about a mile away from the existing one. There will also be a brand new nursery - good news for all those parents who are without recourse to one o'clock clubs. Now it will be easier for them to get out to work and leave their children all day.

These good and worthy projects are part of a much larger one - one that Lambeth Council is very keen to boast about indeed. This is a £440m plan to regenerate the Lambeth Walk area of Lambeth - right on the river, at the Albert Embankment.

It involves a public-private partnership between house-builders Wimpey and St George, and the council. A council estate with 900 homes - the Ethelred Estate - and a half-full secondary school will be demolished. In their place, over 14 years, a high-density urban village will be constructed. It will provide 3,100 homes and a smaller school alongside the goodies already mentioned, as well as a sports pitch, a cyber centre, a park, a community cultural centre, a health and fitness centre, and a supermarket. It is currently the largest brownfield proposal in the UK.

Curiously, the residents who are set to benefit from all of this have become Project Vauxhall's harshest critics. Led by Ricky Rennalls, who heads up Save Ethelred Homes, they are now complaining bitterly. The problem is that, despite the vast expansion of residential property generally, there will be not the original 900, but only 600 council homes in the brave new village.

Further, the new homes will be smaller. In other words, while all of the residents of the Ethelred Estate have been assured that they will have a guaranteed right to be rehoused in the village, clearly more than 300 families will not be, while another 200 will have to accept homes with fewer rooms - unless they buy privately. There will be 2,500 extra private homes available, in an area that presently has none.

The residents' anger has caught the attention of Ken Livingstone, who says that unless the project beefs up its commitment to affordable homes, he can direct the borough to refuse the application. Even so, this is a drop in Lambeth's ocean of plans to "regenerate" this area - plans that invariably involve driving out the poor and inviting in the rich.

Residents have been told of four sites to which they may be decanted, for example, although it has come to light that these places will not be available for several years, if at all. They are usually much smaller than the flats they are replacing.

Further, Lambeth claims that current open space, in which the area is recognised as being deficient, is being matched or improved. In fact, it is being cut by 50 per cent. This failure is particularly grave as Lambeth is also keen on a neighbouring project, to built a multiplex over Spring Street Gardens - an ancient open space which would be sorely missed.

Further, there are accusations of financial inducement. All residents are being offered £2,000 cash in compensation and being told that they will be pushed to the top of all waiting lists (28,000 households are currently on waiting or transfer lists in Lambeth, while 950 households are in temporary accommodation). As well, 88 leaseholders are being offered interest-free loans from the project (public funds) if they buy new homes from Wimpey and St George anywhere in Britain.

So why does Lambeth Council remain so committed to Project Vauxhall? Not because of the contents of a confidential report by the independent assessors Frost Associates: "We believe that the project is a typical speculative private house building venture. It must be expected that the supply of units will be turned on and off in accordance with market conditions, and that the provision of benefits to the council will become entirely dependent on market conditions."

Rather, it is because they are ambitious. They do not want to help the deprived residents who live along the south bank of the river between the South Bank Centre and Battersea. They want to transform it into a luxurious area with a new kind of resident altogether.

They may think this is regeneration. But instead it is cynicism.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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