OLD KENT ROAD: WHAT A FEELING! CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!

Oh Old Kent Rd. Old Kent Rd. Damn! It’s just not a place you should fuck with. Of our manky generation, we heard of, or were at, the Dun Cow, the Frog & Nightgown, The Gin Palace, drinking with soul boys then later House and Garage heads. Wild Irish republican parties on Swanley House, Kinglake Estate in the early 90’s. Squatted parties at The Metro Club that’s now the Nigerian mosque or at the squatted terrace on Malt St demolished for the ASDA. Watching half-decent hippy band Ring at the Domville Grove Free Festival in probably ’85. The Ambulance Station squat in the old Fire Station opposite big Tescos was damn well good and lots of good indie band or experimental music gigs. Of course, squatting looms large in this history because of the amazingly organised work of the Squatters Network of Walworth offices at 362 Old Kent Rd. Later when they were reborn as Southwark Homeless Information Project at 612, there was the communal meal and meeting every Tuesday. Baked potatoes and baked beans once a week and planning squatters aid and advice. Spent time resisting evictions on Friary Estate Or Coopers Estate or Rockingham Estate. So many estates and there were just so many empty flats as the Council was shit at getting new tenants in. Usually squatters got along with tenants and worked together but some times they didn’t. No drama.

Remembering too the haunted Thomas A Beckett pub and boxing gym above but never went there unlike Henry Cooper, Muhammad Ali and David Bowie oddly enough. Or see the Drive-In KFC or the huge inflatable Ronald McDonald atop the McD’s at 518 OKR in the early 90s. You can see the pumped up Ronald in Patrick Keiller’s totally top film London (1994). Or borrowing African music LP’s from North Peckham Library and taping them and finding a love there in those vibes. Remembering Carters Tool Hire or South London Pistons. We didn’t remember the model of the man who lifted his hat on Carters & Sons men’s outfitters and men’s hats. Way before our time but then just the other day we went past the famous London Chroming Company that’s still there. Just about. Or there was the beautiful concrete Clover Diaries sign at 201 Old Kent Rd now gone with the demolition. Or The Word Turned Upside Down pub and how happy that made us because the name signals the song and the awesome Christopher Hill book from 1972 full of Levellers and Ranters and Diggers from Civil War England 1649 and the books subtitle ‘Radical Ideas During the English Revolution’. Sweet!

Then there was the Old Kent Rd Gasworks and the famous gasometers and that amazing history of working people organising early trade unionism there around 1889. Or what about the crazy concrete flyover at the other end of the OK Rd? Or the massive Bricklayers Arms railway freight depot? We remember the night of January 17th 1991 when the first UK-backed bombs rained down on Baghdad live on the telly. We were out with a spraycan at 2am painting up on all the hoardings around as yet undeveloped sites. On the fence around the place that would become B+Q we let rip and sprayed ‘No War But The Class War’. The same on the old coach site at Verney Rd. That was us then living on the Bonamy Estate just off the Old Kent Rd in 1990, a site for sore eyes and petty badness. Tales that we can never tell. The estate was sinking into the ground. Half derelict by the time we lived there but it was a home. By 1992 we had moved on. Walworth. Switched gears. Absolutely brilliant. Here endeth one or two people’s version of OKR historical fragments. Yours will be probably be a whole different but just as varied…

KNOCKED ‘EM DOWN ON THE OLD KENT RD

So much of what we described above had gone in, what you could call, the first wave of developer frenzy circa late 90’s to mid 2000’s. Demolition of all those great landmarks and oddities along the way as you rode the bus up to The Elephant. Those days were a bit more simple for the Old Kent Rd as it was still the most famous of the cheapest brown cards in Monopoly with a land value pegged forever at cheapo cheapo £60. It was a long and linear local working class neighbourhood with shops locals need and, you know what, it still is. Constantly changing but always affordable. Genuinely diverse in population, it’s incredible. Check out this recent piece by our fave food writer Jonathan Nunn on the rapidly emerging multi-ethnic ‘restaurant communities’and café businesses keeping it real along the top end of the Road. It’s a super piece and unafraid to talk political economy alongside plenty pho and boureks: ‘The communities on the Old Kent Road have fought existential threats for years rather than months — resisting gentrification, sustained immigration raids, an inhumane immigration policy that keeps restaurants struggling to find chefsthe ever-looming regeneration of the area, the greed of landlords pricing them out’.

But by the 2000’s with Southwark Council going for broke to rejig the area under the guise of ‘regeneration’ the area was ennobled with the title ‘An Opportunity Area’ aka The Kiss of Death. Read that sentence again as ‘Everything Must Go!’ and so it became Official. By 2010 there was the Old Kent Rd Area Action Plan that identified 36 potential sites of new housing all up and down the Road. By 2017 the plans had mushroomed, gone loco and become enormous. The new plans for the Old Kent Road now promised us local types 20,000 new homes and 5,000 new jobs. A lot of this was premised profit-wise on the development of two new Bakerloo line stations somewhere near Tescos and then one more at Asylum Rd. Property developers who had been wining and dining top Council bods in swanky brasseries for years were now trembling over dessert at the thought of all that money raining down on them. The only problems were that any promised ‘affordable’ housing would not be in any way ‘affordable’ and what to do with all those people who were actually still grafting here there and everywhere along the Road.

The incredible Vital OKR folks wrote the ‘Old Kent Road area is home to nearly 1,000 businesses that are integral to London’s dynamic economy. Here there is a vibrant civic life and a remarkable diversity of enterprise. This place is thriving, providing work for around 10,000 people. We want the miracle to be recognised, celebrated, embraced and nurtured’. Now ain’t that the truth. Anyone who lives close to the Old Kent Rd knows that the streets and industrial estates down the bottom end of the road are a traditional working landscape. What do you see? Well, business after business in light industrial units. People working. Things being made. Deliveries going out. These kind of areas ain’t pretty although in their own way they are! They are what they are though – places of employment vital to both workers and London as a site of industry and business. They are just-in-time services such as printers, logistics and couriers, studio space provides a home for burgeoning bespoke manufacture and arts and craft production plus light manufacturing spaces. Despite some paper thin reassurances that any new development would respect the 1000 businesses, it’s clear to see that the OKR plans are more about creating a ‘Central London’ housing zone of more of the same 1 or 2 bed luxury flats with some ‘affordable’ houses clustered round the new towers. Vital OKR’s research shows that ‘currently vacant and available land equates to only 1.25% of the Opportunity Area, where as existing economic uses account for over 30of the current land use’. Vital OKR advocates a sensible policy of zero net loss of industrial land in the London Borough of Southwark.

MASSIVE PLANS FOR FUTURE SLUMS SIGNED OFF BY SOUTHWARK

As a clear indication of what is to come, we can point to the fate of a few particular development plans. Where as in the late 80’s the Council policy was to cluster big box chains in Retail Parks along the Road, with the new Gold Rush in the Wild West Old Kent Rd, those sites are now destined to become mostly housing despite those retail parks being actually super useful for local people who take the trip to Argos, B&Q, Currys etc. But no, says Southwark, they must be developed as housing with a sprinkling of commercial premises at the edges. At Southernwood Retail Park, the one by Tescos, the plans are for ‘a mixed-use development of 725 residential units, with a hotel, cinema, shops, restaurants and offices’. It’s a monster development completely out of character with the low level housing and shops around it. The plans for Malt Street near to Asda are even more enormous with ‘a mixed use development, including 1,300 homes and 7,000 sqm of commercial space’ being planned. There are many questions being asked by planners and architects and also local critics like us (and other campaigners!) about how actually socially useful and sustainable these high tower are. Lynne Sullivan from a Sustainable By Design write that ‘these towers are often privatised vertical cities that essentially operate as safety deposit boxes for foreign investment. Towers can’t replicate the vibrancy of public realm or the liveability of streets. They have more negatives than positives and there are better density models’. Large towers without massive infrastructure investment in reducing huge pulls on externally generated energy produce huge detrimental environmental effects. Frightening also is that life expectancy for new high towers ranges from 40 to 60 years only. Imagine knocking down a structurally sound pub built in 1888 to construct a new building with an estimated life of just half of the old pub’s existence.

For sure, no one is arguing here that London doesn’t need more housing but two things strike us:

1) See everything we ever wrote in the last ten years about how these development plans make big promises for local people re: ‘affordable’ housing or new social rented units or community gains and how these promises aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Already 35% Campaign are reporting that Berkeley Homes, the developer at Malt St, is making noises about reducing the ‘affordable’ housing percentage even though there are already serious concerns that promised social rented flats will be delivered as the more expensive ‘affordable rent’ tenure.

2) Again, as we’ve repeated to the point of brain fever, that once you bring in loads of expensive housing to an area the knock on effect is like a slow to medium tsunami of displacement. By this we mean that expensive housing raises local private and commercial rents and people and businesses are forced to move out. If we take Peckham as a case study, we can see that the arrival of the Overground was one of the reasons why private rents went ballistic and why new developments are arriving as if overnight. The arrival of the Bakerloo will be just the same at the OKR. We must also be vigilant about the fate of the Ledbury Estate right on OKR which was subject to rehousing of tenants as the towers were structurally compromised. Although after much pressure from Ledbury Estate Action Group, Southwark have promised to keep the blocks as council housing, with development pressure on and the massive land values of the Ledbury site, we should all hold Southwark to that promise.

A response to the Council’s Old Kent Road Draft Area Action Plan by the awesome OKRPeople Network wrote We feel that overall the AAP does not adequately reflect the specificity of the Old Kent Road area. The Plan’s vision of the future is unimaginative and “cut-and-paste,” as evidenced by the claim that the OKR will become “increasingly part of central London.” The OKR is distinctive, and the aim of the AAP should be to enhance this distinctiveness. A thriving industrial base, genuinely affordable (social) housing, sustainable and diverse communities, migrant and ethnic businesses, a community-oriented cultural offer – these are the elements that make the OKR what it is, that make it attractive to the people who live and work here, and that give it a purpose in the wider London economy’.

They also point out that ‘the biggest housing need in Southwark is for genuinely affordable housing, which is to say social housing. According to the Council’s own assessment, 79% of Southwark’s housing need could only be met by social rented housing, and 21% by intermediate housing’. There is already a ton of intermediate housing in the borough as this is what has been making up a lot of developments commitments to ‘affordable’ house construction under the current planning regime policies. Importantly OKRPeople write that the ‘Area Action Plan should thus make social housing construction its priority, and yet there is no clear commitment to the number of social housing units that will be built, or to how they will be financed’. This is a top point as the corrupt state of ‘The Economy’, itself somewhat of a fiction that we’re supposed to believe in although it’s entirely out of our hands sadly, does mean that projections of construction and profits are now subject to a major panic in boardrooms across the World.

Will be interesting to see how global real estate markets fare locally as we go into the long expected major recession with mass unemployment and further rounds of austerity. But let’s not bank on this saving the OKR as the real truth is any financial crisis is that those who have the most still gain the most with bailouts and the shifting of their private debts into the public purse. Not only this scenario but the Government’s intended ripping up of current planning regulations in total favour of developers might make our current OKR Gold Rush look like a an afternoon out window shopping at Gerald Ratners!

To save time, the sturdy and committed 35% Campaign have written extensively here and here and here about the coming wave of luxury housing developments and all the intrigue and bullshit that goes with it. Your weekly reminder too that all of this pro-developer malarkey is happily waved through by your local Labour-run Southwark Council.

Any road up, all this as a really long way to say that we wanted to make sure whatever happens that there is a solid record of what is here and there now. So we took a lovely very hot summer day walk from the Peckham side of the OKR (Bianca Rd / Latona Rd) to the Rotherhithe side (Ilderton Rd via backstreets by the Gasometers) and snapped away like crazy! Just like our recent page on Bermondsey where we are tried to capture those commercial sites that will undoubtedly be knocked on the head in favour of posh flats, we are doing the same here but on a much much larger scale. Along the way, we found empty sites and sites now taken over in the meanwhile by, first numerous evangelical churches and, more recently, artists, artists studios and art businesses. It remains an amazing terrain to mooch about. You should do it.

Not much to say to end on, except that when London is just one large landscape of luxury towers dominated by the mostly dire subjectivities of new build homeowners then we can only wonder what on Earth we are doing here. Like our opening fragments of some of our histories along the Old Kent Rd, there is so much here that we should be defending. Not only shops and stuff but really our way of life. Different ways of life among us all for sure but as a working class neighbourhood there is something we all have in common. Simply put the rich will fuck us. As said above, Oh Old Kent Rd. Old Kent Rd. Damn! It’s just not a place you should fuck with.

Text by Southwark Notes

 

Further Reading:

Southwark Notes
www.southwarknotes.wordpress.com

35% Campaign
www.35percent.org

Vital OKR
www.vitalokr.com

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