BY SAM COURTNEY-GUY
Traders have hit out at town hall chiefs and developers as up to 40 of them look unlikely to be moved to new premises while a £1billion development is built.
Shop owners are fuming at town hall officers who have told them they will not get relocation support after the demolition of the decaying 54-year-old Elephant & Castle shopping centre.
Southwark council has recognised 79 businesses as eligible for spaces on the new site in response to a Freedom of Information request in March, and officers appeared to assure councillors at a December meeting that at least that many could be rehoused.
Just 36 offers have now been made. Southwark and developer Delancey claim to be helping the rejected traders find other options, but they have been accused of failing to apply their selection criteria fairly and sidelining ‘undesirable’ businesses.
The Mayor of London’s office gave final approval for plans to demolish the complex in December after it secured an unprecedented level of support for traders affected.
The site will see 979 homes built alongside a new station, leisure and office facilities and a new building for the University of Arts, London.
A document circulated to traders last year suggested their financial records and “competitiveness” would be prioritised, followed by efforts to house them in similar sized units, maintain diversity and favour long-standing businesses.
Ecuadorian-born Alejandro Ortíz, 54, whose kiosk Los Colorados has stood at the foot of the centre for more than 20 years, said he had been rejected despite sending in complete financial records and a business plan.
Businesses just a couple of years old had been offered relocations, he said, leaving him feeling discriminated against.
Mr Ortíz called on the Mayor’s office to step in. “They are supposed to take care of us,” he said. Around 20 businesses have been left off Southwark council’s list of those eligible for relocation despite being told they will lose their retail spaces, according to campaign group Latin Elephant.
Two belong to Colombian-born Johanna Alvarez, 30, and Ecuadorian-born Lisette Pico, 23, who have spent a combined 14 years operating from one of the railway arches set for demolition.
The women say they were ejected from a recent traders’ meeting held jointly by Southwark council and Delancey to address traders’ concerns.
The pair were made to leave by Delancey representatives despite assurances from a councillor that they were welcome, according to Ms Alvarez. Security staff from the centre had been drafted in wearing plain clothes rather than their normal uniforms.
In the arch next to Ms Alvarez’s store, Colombian cafe and nightclub venue Distriandina has been offered a relocation unit.
The owner’s son, Mateo Quintero said his family was pleased by the news, though uncertainties remained over whether their late-night licences would be carried over.
He said news that Delancey will allocate £125,000 to neighbouring club Corsica Studios to comply with new mayoral soundproofing rules made him feel as though Latin American businesses were less welcome.
“I don’t think anybody has spared a thought for diversity, which is this place’s strength,” said Alan Dobson, who has run a vinyl record store on the site for more than five years.
“It doesn’t have to be like this – there’s a right way to do it.” A number of businesses are struggling to cope with the continued uncertainty, while some, like the Palace bowling and bingo venues, have now closed.
Amul Patel, 57, (main picture) manages the centre’s longest-standing business at 30 years of operation, Pricebusters. He is forced to keep a skeleton supply of stock, squeezing his margins as he can no longer buy in bulk.
Mr Patel said the lack of clarity over when demolition would start had cost him the right to compensation in the event that no unit big enough to sustain his business could be found, as Delancey could no longer offer leases.
“We have to take whatever we are given or go down the drain,” he added. A judicial challenge which could force the council to review its planning decision has been launched and has raised through crowdfunding.
Not everyone is fighting the redevelopment. “Things have to move forward,” said John Otagburuagu, owner of Black Cowboy Coffee, though he acknowledged he was in the minority.
He put down his success in securing a relocation offer to a larger unit to his efforts drawing up a strong business plan.
“Delancey don’t owe me anything,” he said.
Customer Libaan Igal, 33, has been visiting the centre for 15 years. “Change is good,” he said. “I don’t believe in giving something for nothing.”
Councillor Kieron Williams, cabinet member for jobs, skills and innovation, said: “Elephant’s independent traders are a vital part of the local community. That a large proportion have now been offered affordable units meters away is a really important step forwards.
The priority now is to find homes for the rest, in locations that work for them. I’m determined to make sure they get the support they need. We’ll be keeping the pressure on Delancey to deliver against its responsibilities to traders.
Our council support to help traders explore the other relocation options that are available in the local area continues. As does Tree Shepherd’s one to one business support.
The shopping centre’s businesses bring so much to the area, they are all open for business now, and we want to keep it that way.”
A spokesperson from Delancey said: “We are working with the traders to find suitable relocation options and are doing all we can to support with the process.
Our main priority is finalising the offers so that we can give traders the certainty they need to plan for the future. As each tenant has its own individual needs, it’s important we work this through properly to ensure we can provide bespoke support.
We are looking forward to updating the community once these conversations have been finalised with the traders.” An afternoon of music and festivities tomorrow from noon-3pm will celebrate the current occupants and raise money for the fight to get new premises for the traders.
Cllr Kieron Williams said: “Support will be available for every trader in the centre. Some who moved in after planning permission was granted will not get the same level of support as others, but there is support for everyone.”
Delancey also have a fund, totalling a minimum of £635,000, to fund the relocation costs of the 79 eligible traders, such as conveyancing and legal expenses.