‘The Souq al-Halal was a teacher, and people there learned. Ever since it closed, everything has been like flour scattered to the wind’ –
Shamran al-Oteibi, in ‘The Trench’
It’s not often you’ll find us start one of our blog posts with something so literary but you have to begin somewhere if you want to maintain good and beneficial horizons. There is a chapter or two in The Trench by Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif about the forced removal of the city of Mooran’s Souq. A souq is a popular market and a social place of meeting up. The Trench is a part of Munif’s five book set about what he describes as ‘the Encounter’ between the discovery of oil in 1938 ‘somewhere on the Arabian peninsula’ (it’s Saudi Arabia he’s writing about) and the subsequent rapid over-development of the region. Oil is money, as we all know, and money takes very little time here to expand and distort beyond recognition local cultures and economies that have developed over thousands of years of history. Munif’s books are about the power of (making) money and more so the ability of those with money / power to change environments and social landscapes beyond recognition.
Munif was very specific when he titled his series the ‘Cities of Salt’ to refer ‘cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive’. Sadly we see the same in the endless creation across London of new identikit developments of posh homes and chain stores. Seen one and you’ve seen them all. Put them in water though and they would dissolve they are so flimsy and alienated.
Up The Elephant! You can Save Your Market! Save Your Souq!!
And so we’ve been quite active in the Up The Elephant campaign (alongside many other awesome local people) to try to save what we think is the network of the vital sparks that make up the local area in relation to the very social and economic function of the Shopping Centre. Simply put these sparks are all the traders in the Centre. Each week we feel sadder as more and more traders leave and places shut down. The more we go there, the more we know how much of a drastic and irreplaceable loss this will be to the kind of community we feel we come from – poor, working class and proud of all those who use the Centre and all those who trade out of it – from the market traders in the Moat to the kiosk businesses on the two floor and all the independent shops.
‘Many businesses highlighted that since the Shopping Centre was earmarked for redevelopment there has been a gradual running down of the centre due to a lack of maintenance. Surveys revealed that although the environment of the Shopping Centre had been run down through limited maintenance, rental rates and services charges remained the same and in some cases increased:
– “I used to make £2000/week and now I am lucky to make £1000 but my rates and rent remain the same.”
– “They broke the glass of my shop while cleaning. They have only put tape on it. No one has come to repair it. People now think their [possessions] are not safe here.”
From ‘Socio-Economic Value at the Elephant & Castle Report’, August 2018 coordinated by Latin Elephant
From the moment they bought the Shopping Centre in 2013 Delancey have been running it down. For Delancey, The Elephant has always been about making as much money as possible and bugger the consequences. Whatever they talk up in fancy looking brochures and cynical ‘consultation’ exercises, you only have to look at their neighbouring development Elephant One on Elephant Rd to see just where there priorities lies. Not only have they chucked up three towers of expensive private and student flats that you couldn’t pass a piece paper between they are so close but the quality and look of the buildings are shoddy. The promised Market Square to host displaced traders from the Shopping Centre, that was agreed with the Council in the Section 106 Planning Agreement, has now been un-promised and withdrawn. Same old story! Nothing for us locals and all for the better off.
Developers Don’t Believe In Anything But Profit…
And so back to Abdelrahman Munif. What struck us from The Trench is the tale of how the Souq al-Halal, the market of Mooran, despite its old social function simply becomes in the way of development and the making of big money. There are many great quotes we could choose that have a kind of resonance with what we feel is at stake at The Elephant Shopping Centre. Here is one longish one:
Mooran was reconstituted time and time again….its joys and sorrows and fears began here, as did its thoughts and news…In the market, jokes and stories were told and carried to Mooran, after which short journey they were changed and embroidered…In the market titles and nicknames were given to people which came to be used more than their names; in the market, the people gossiped about one another and spied carefully on everything around them and learnt all the news and even most of the hidden secrets…so the market had been for as long as Mooran existed…if every state and city has its rulers and rich and powerful men, every city also has certain people who epitomise the life of the city, who set it apart from other cities and from other times…All this was a part of Mooran’s history fast vanishing from its people’s memory. And just a few years into Sultan Khazael’s reign Abu Ghoreifa announced, through Juweiber-al-Duweihi, Mooran’s town crier…that beginning from the following Thursday the market would be held in Awali; and that they were to pass it on. Owners of shops in the market found this out from the police, who ordered them to move out.
With only a small work of imagination and some cultural shifts, if you substitute Elephant & Castle for Mooran, the story could be similar. Similar not the least because the destruction of the Elephant Shopping Centre can only be understood as two conflicting interests – the community versus profit. It’s a cliché but so very painful in its truth. But also because of the very human side of the story – not ‘regeneration’ or the inevitability of ‘change’ or even of ‘progress’, or of bricks and concrete, these Cities of Salt but the actual measurable social effect of destroying this community. We have tried again and again on this blog to describe precisely what effect the demolition of the Shopping Centre will have on the area and local people. We’ve tried because we felt like if the Council could for once hear the actual subtlety of the vital social relations that are made locally from this space then they might work a bit harder to support the traders. But, surprise! – this has not been the case despite some initial support for Up The Elephant by local councillors as part of the recent slight Left shift of Southwark Labour. Anyhow, we’ve always said it’s up to the community to fight its own battles and nothing has changed.
In The Trench the characters Shamran al-Oteibi and Saleh al-Rushdan are elderly men who have lived their whole lives in the hustle and bustle of the Souq. They have made the market as much as the market has made them. They saw the men with suits and flashy cars arrive one day at Souq al-Halal and as canny and wise men they knew the future was damned ‘They haven’t spared anyone in the market – it’s all ‘How are you! And How do you do! God knows what is going on’. We feel the same when any property guys in suits turn up at The Elephant. We feel that traders at The Elephant are like these Souq old-timers – Nicole in her kiosk, Emad in his shop, John in his coffee van, Alan in the market, Mohammed in his store and so on – people who have invested so much in the community fabric that is a massive part of life in The Elephant.
Munif is writing the story of Oil as a key driving force of global development. We are telling the same story with oil cash seeking land as the central local struggle between us and the men in suits. Just as Munif uses the idea of ‘The Encounter’, we at the Elephant have long understood what the arrival of the men in suits from Lend Lease, Oakmayne, Delancey means. At the same time the men in suits have no understanding and little interest in who we are and how we live. We see people engaged in living often very hard lives and how these lives are also maintained in a relationship with what’s in The Elephant. The men in suits see only the built forms in which we live those lives. When they look upon a desert oasis ripe with sweet water and fruits, they can only see land ripe for the levelling and building of luxury flats and shopping malls.
…But The Council Believes In What Exactly?
We’ve long been critical of the Council’s Love-In with Delancey, who are more or less a series of offshore-registered shell companies in a global financial romance between the country of Qatar and various financial investment funds. Since 1939 Qatar has also become the richest countries in the world due to its riches in oil and gas. It takes the profits from the sale of those commodities and invests those billions of £££ of profits all over the World in many things but particularly in property development and particularly in London. In Southwark, the famous Shard is 95% owned by the State of Qatar and locally the Elephant One development on Elephant Rd and the Shopping Centre plans are part-financed by the Qatar Investment Authority, the singular financial vehicle of the State of Qatar. That State has been described as ‘an authoritarian state with strict judicial constraints on freedom of expression. Detainees are subject to beatings and cruel treatment while a great many immigrant workers are trapped in conditions of forced labour’. In Qatar and especially in its capital city Doha, migrant workers make up almost 90% of the population and are employed under the Kafala labour system that ties a worker to a labour sponsor whose ‘consent is required to change jobs, leave the country, get a driver’s license, rent a home or open a checking account‘.
If you want a snapshot of things, although of course very welcome, a new law in 2018 allows the millions of migrant workers to leave Qatar without permission from their employers! Before that they weren’t allowed at all! Despite these supposed changes, labour practices in Qatar are still described by Amnesty International as ‘inadequate and continuing to leave migrant workers at the hands of exploitative bosses‘.
As ever then we question the Council’s supporting role as Planning Authority in all this:
• Why would a Labour council do an inordinate amount of Delancey’s bidding for them when the very heart of Delancey’s development schemes are based on supporting offshore tax avoiding on a grand scale and a dubious authoritarian regime? We aren’t arguing for the Council to sniff out ethical global property companies as there aren’t any but Delancey and the Qatar Investment Authority? Council bigwigs, those self-described ‘old-fashioned municipal socialists’ are surely having an ethics deficit, we think! Or is ‘municipal socialism’ here still at the expense of migrant workers there?
• Why do they like helping along so many towers of overpriced or luxury flats? It’s a mystery! Do they really think that more of these types of predominantly unaffordable homes are ‘solving the housing crisis’ as Council Leader Peter John says? Do they believe in ‘uplifting’ The Elephant because they themselves are exactly the kind of people who like deli’s and artisan bakeries and faddy coffee shops? When they say ‘regeneration is good’ are they just looking in the mirror and planning still on ‘bringing a better class of people’ to The Elephant.
At The Elephant the community campaigns were so strong that the Council could have used this as great leverage against Delancey to get for the community so much more but they didn’t. Despite we having Delancey on the defensive, the Council pissed it up a wall and passed Delancey’s shoddy non-Council policy compliant planning application on July 3rd and so forward to demolition. What a carve up!
Tree Shepherd’s Bought-In Role In Delancey’s Demolition Plans
Back at the Shopping Centre, unlike at the Souq al-Halal, there are no police uprooting the market traders. The uprooting is slower and done differently based on the promises of Delancey that they will be nice and do right by the traders and replant them somewhere else locally. But what guarantees are in place to help these people remain where their life and livelihoods are?
Tree Shepherd is a private consultancy appointed by Southwark Council as an ‘independent’ business advisor for the traders. But this was yet another trick played by the council and the developer, since Tree Shepherd is paid for by Delancy as a way of showing ‘commitment’ to the traders in the relocation process. But in reality Tree Shepherd works as an undercover agent who barely engages with trades only to pass on useful information to Delancey – How can the advisor remain independent when their funds come from the developer who intends to kick out all traders and demolish the Shopping Centre? As we understand it they are paid about £165,000 by Delancey, so if were cynical we would question how does that help them remain ‘independent’. As an advisor their role is to be help the traders with their relocation and/or compensation but in over a year their work can only be measured by how they have helped… Delancey!
Despite the Council acknowledging some 130 small independent businesses in the so-called ‘red-line’ of the development – including market stalls, kiosks, shop units, arches, etc –, following the appointment in June 2017, Tree Shepherd established a list of only 24 businesses who could ‘benefit’ from their services. 18 months after their appointment –with an increase in funding during 2018-, the situation continues to be same, if not worse… They told us ‘We’re working with 30 traders mainly and keeping an additional 70-80 informed on what’s happening with the planning etc’.
One of the first things Tree Shepherd did when starting their job was to undertake a survey that basically collected useful data for Delancey on traders. They used that data to see what expectations traders had, how much they were selling and, most importantly, if they were willing to stay in the area. Ask an open question like ‘do you want to stay in the area?’ and when some of them answered they wanted to stay but were worried about rent increase in the new places – Tree Shepherd used this information to then claim that not all traders are willing to relocate, and this information was used by Delancey in their ‘relocation update’ to argue that not all traders might need assistance.
Above: Cafe Nova in the Elephant Shopping Centre – closed after 17 years. Cafe Nova was a social enterprise giving regular work to disadvantaged folks. We asked Tree Shepherd ‘will they be helped to relocate locally?’. No answer to date.
Their modus-operandi consists of Tree Shepherd of every now and then scheduling meetings with traders to either inform them of how the process is taking longer than expected and that they should be patient; or make them fill in forms with no valuable outcomes; or taking them on ‘tours’ to see empty garages, building sites or planning drawings of how some potential units (still not delivered nor with planning consent) and at one point actually tweeting out photos of these visits until traders complained; or simply making traders waste their time. What’s the purpose of these meetings? Box ticking exercise: registering the meeting so then the Council and Delancey can brag about how many times they have assisted the traders.
But things get even worse since Delancey was granted initial planning permission by Southwark (the scheme still needs Greater London Authority approval for a full planning consent) on 3rd July. As traders have raised in more than one opportunity to local Councillors, Planning Officers and GLA authorities, Tree Shepherd has a serious lack of personnel, their staff keep changing, the opening times on the drop-in centre at Unit 231 constantly change, they are not properly advertised and is now down to two days only, as if it were a reflection from Unit 215 by Delancey (now open only two days a week as well). None of this adds up in their favour, in our humble opinion.
Research done by the excellent Latin Elephant shows that the main problem is that ‘only 471 square metres have been made available for independent traders by Delancey. Even though traders currently occupy 4,005 square metres of floor space. This equates to the displacement of the majority of those businesses’. There also seems to be a qualifying process for relocation when we think ALL traders should automatically qualify for relocation. You could say Tree Shepherd might be, consciously or not, acting as a gatekeeper on who will get relocated to a new trading place in The Elephant and who won’t and this is some ways will be dictated by Delancey who certainly won’t want most traders in their new posh development. Certainly Tree Shepherd and Delancey are clear that ‘businesses must be suitable for the mix and diversity that the Operator thinks will work’ as they told the traders recently. Funny then how they describe themselves as ‘Tree Shepherd works with local authorities and developers to help bring the benefits of this regeneration to local people. We work with local people who want to start a new business and with existing small businesses who are faced with the huge challenge and uncertainty caused by relocating their business’. For traders, the huge challenge and uncertainty has been years in the making and many traders are just shutting up shop worn out by the daily stress of their ‘regeneration’.
The latest from this awful saga comes in the form of ‘superpowers’ conferred to Tree Shepherd by Delancey –with Southwark’s approval! As part of their ‘relocation’ proposal, Delancey is suggesting the relocation fund (which is still a mere £5,000 per trader) to be administered by Tree Shepherd – isn’t that an open conflict of interest?! On top of that Tree Shepherd will have discretionary powers to veto traders for relocation based on the ‘viability of a business plan’; ‘trader’s ability to perform and progress’, and ‘ability to run a successful business’ – Once again, if the independence of the advisor has been questioned since it was first appointed, how can the traders rest assured they are not being stabbed in the back?
Regeneration Seeks Amnesia (Again)
Like we said a few years back about the siting of Lend Lease’s pop-up container park The Artworks on the old Elephant Park and Heygate site, regeneration doesn’t want to deal with the long histories of how people have made their local area, fought for things they want and don’t want and have also negotiated problem after problem be that from within the local community or from outside. What ‘regeneration’ seeks is for everyone to forget. Change is coming! Forget The Heygate. Forget the Elephant Park. Forget the Shopping Centre. Forget it all and embrace the new! Like Munif says about the Souq al-Halal – ‘All this was a part of Mooran’s history fast vanishing from its people’s memory’. Like we also said ‘whose regeneration?’. This wearing down of local traders or the picking of council estates one by one or the more and more luxury developments springing up could be described as a ‘slow violence’, a great and pertinent phrase coined by writer Rob Nixon for his good book ‘Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor’. The social effect and cost of this violence is seemingly invisible but happens grindingly in the everyday lives of us. Not only is such a grind ever present in working class communities, within those neighbourhoods that suffering is also fractured and intensified ‘along fault lines of ethnicity, gender, race, class, region, religion, and generation’.
Rob Nixon says it is ‘a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all…I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries’. We see this as a very apt description of the disastrous legacy that London’s ‘regenerations’ will leave on working class communities. ‘Regeneration’ is the unasked for slow violence of a process of taking what’s ours (council homes, public spaces) and displacement (moving us out of our communities) that “smooths the way for amnesia, as places are rendered irretrievable to those who once inhabited them’.
There is fine passage in Munif ‘s ‘Cities of Salt’ that concerns the arrival of an American ship some time after the discovery of oil at the oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun. The oasis had been rapidly developed into the city of Harran and slowly settlers come and colonise the area. When a massive ship arrives at the coast with 100’s of new and brash settlers, local people suffer a kind of forced amnesia:
‘This day gave Harran a birth date, recording when and how it was built, for most people have no memory of Harran before that day. Even its own natives, who had lived there since the arrival of the first frightening group of Americans and watched with terror the realignment of the town’s shoreline and hills the Harranis, born and bred there, saddened by the destruction of their houses, recalling the old sorrows of lost travelers and the dead-remembered the day the ship came better than any other day, with fear, awe and surprise. It was practically the only date they remembered’.
Up The Elephant
We made a poster a long time ago. It read ‘Local people can you help unlock the economic potential of The Elephant & Castle by pissing off please?’. This is what they want but we are staying put. We will not forget ourselves! Up The Elephant!
Keep an eye out for new Up The Elephant campaign actions and initiative very soon. A legal challenge has been set in motion – read all about it here and do object online, takes about 3 minutes. Objection is on the same link above:
We’ve pushed Delancey and the Council for significant gains on social housing and we are pushing hard for the traders too. We maintained actions and protest in the streets and we are working too behind these public expressions of support for the Shopping Centre. All welcome. Get involved. We can win this!
(Note: The section in the above text on the role of the ‘social enterprise’ Tree Shepherd has been expanded into a fuller version of ours and others many criticisms of Tree Shepherd and is posted here)