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  1. Britain’s Lost Spaces
16 February 2021

Goodbye, Catford? When planners label your childhood haunt an “Opportunity Area”

One of the last affordable places in south-east London faces the same fate as its rapidly gentrifying surroundings.

By Francisco Garcia

Until recently, Catford was simply a place where people lived – one of the last bastions of affordability in a rapidly changing south-east London.

My own memories of the area are glazed with a very specific nostalgia. I spent much of my childhood in my gran’s pokey flat on Faversham Road, a 15-minute walk from the town centre. The routines were rarely thrilling, but they were ours, in a place that made few claims to wild excitement: picking up her pension at the bank, food shopping at the market and the occasional, slightly furtive, weekend KFC.

The scale and speed of “regeneration” over the last decade or so has been profound and – many would add – merciless. It tends to play out along similar lines, from Elephant and Castle, down to Peckham and east over to Deptford and Lewisham.

Capital flows in, high-rise new builds spring up with paltry numbers of genuinely affordable units, private rents rise, and many long-term residents are priced out. Collateral damage set against a bold, rapidly gentrifying, future.

Somehow Catford – a broadly working-class sprawl across the middle of the borough of Lewisham – has mostly resisted this fate. At least until now.

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Catford town centre has its own specific charms. There’s the slightly shabby figure of the old Broadway Theatre and, most famously, the giant fiberglass cat that looms over the Rushey Green approach to the 1960s shopping precinct. It’s a place without much room for pretension; a solid half-suburban outpost on the fringes of inner London.

Yet even its most passionate admirers would admit Catford is hardly an urban idyll. Arrival to the town centre is dominated by the traffic and pollution of the South Circular, while the old shopping centre and Milford Towers, the housing estate that perches above it, have both seen better days.

The area never made much claim to be a “destination”, though the September 2019 opening of Catford Mews provided a much-needed cinema (Lewisham had been the only borough in London without a public cinema since the closure of the Catford ABC in 2001) and did helped liven up the town centre’s nightlife.

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[see also: What will urban planning look like after coronavirus?]

Things are changing. Over the past ten years, what has become known as the Catford Town Centre Framework has come into being, with the help of pricey architectural consultants Studio Egret West. The 131-page document is the outline for a £500m total redevelopment of the area over the coming decades, with Catford identified as “a location for major growth” and an “Opportunity Area” in the Mayor of London’s London Plan.

The document is undoubtedly ambitious, presenting an outline for thousands of new homes as part of a radically green and revamped town centre, minus the old concrete shopping precinct and housing estate. Sketches show smiling locals striding down Borough Market-style thoroughfares, teeming with life and local boutiques. It’s Catford, just not as anyone has ever known it.

The plans have attracted significant local scepticism from the start. There have been budgetary controversies and concerns about a rushed public consultation period, which ended on 5 February.

Strong community feelings have also been stirred at the prospect of high-rise residential developments contained in the framework, which would radically alter the area’s distinctive, low-density character (such a development could prove as unpopular in Catford as another did in Brixton).

There are other causes for concern. Who is this gleaming new Catford for? To call Labour-run Lewisham Council’s record on regeneration mixed would be generous, says Cheryl McLeod, a long-time Lewisham resident and spokesperson for the local community group Catford Against Social Cleansing, who pushed to extend the consultation period disrupted by the pandemic, and consistently poses awkward questions about the framework to the council.

“[I’d call] it a broken record,” she tells me over the phone. “When I watched police hold back local residents as the trees were torn down at Tidemill Community Gardens [in Deptford], it was a graphic reminder of the real priorities.”

Lewisham, like local authorities all over London, is in the middle of an acute housing crisis. There are almost 10,000 households on the council house waiting list in the borough and there’s a desperate need for new, genuinely affordable accommodation. But will the framework provide them, in Catford, where the average house price has risen by 14 per cent over the last five years?

Councillor Paul Bell is the cabinet member for housing and planning at Lewisham Council. In a statement via email, he writes that “[the council] is working towards a target of 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes delivered through developer-led projects with 70 per cent of this target at social rents, accessible to local people on lower incomes… this could see almost 945 homes for social rent in Catford town centre.”

This sounds promising, McLeod says, “until we explore what this means in practice”.

Lewisham Council has often used the term “social housing” interchangeably with the costlier “London Affordable Rent”, she says. “This is a term from City Hall and the Greater London Authority. Shelter [the homelessness charity] and others say that this level rent is not social rent at all. It is too high to be classed [as such].”

And, although the Catford framework is ambitious, it is a non-statutory document establishing a “shared vision” (as Bell puts it in his email) rather than any concrete plans, which remain a way off and are presumably liable to significant change and pressure from developers to whittle down social housing commitments in the name of “viability”.

Take the section which aims to create one of the greenest town centres in London, undoubtedly a welcome initiative in a borough with a well-publicised air pollution problem. The recent past suggests this might be empty rhetoric.

“Let’s look at the Barratt Homes development by Catford station,” McLeod says.

In 2009 the controversial developer secured the contract to develop hundreds of homes on the site of the old Catford Greyhound Stadium, a ten-minute walk from the town centre, renamed “Catford Green”. The original plan for the development (which was completed in 2017) included a footbridge from the new flats to nearby Doggett Road, which would have allowed locals to circumvent the noise and pollution of the South Circular.

But in 2018 Barratt Homes told the council that it could no longer build the bridge and would instead pay £1.5m in owed funds directly to the local authority. The developer had still not paid up even by January 2020, with one local resident branding Lewisham Council “pathetic” at a meeting over its failure to take legal action.

[see also: Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate and… Newington? Inside the rebrand of a “left behind” Kent suburb]

The money was eventually paid in April 2020, and Lewisham Council says the funding will be reallocated for “pedestrian improvements around Catford and Catford Bridge stations to create a safe and welcoming space”. The promised footbridge has been deemed “unfeasible”.

A spokesperson for Barratt London said “unfortunately, despite lengthy discussions, we were unable to establish a solution with Lewisham Council to build the bridge within the budget” of their agreement. “However, the remaining money was then paid to the council and put towards other improvements in the local area.”

The bridge episode has set a worrying precedent in the borough. “This was a specific promise that was broken,” McLeod adds. “When I look at that, it’s a blueprint about how not to do regeneration. There’s better that can be achieved for the centre of Catford.”

For McLeod and others, all the fine words in the framework would perhaps hold more weight if the borough’s recent history did not also contain controversial and widely derided developments such as the Lewisham Gateway, a cluster of residential skyscrapers that loom over the old market centre of Lewisham and contain little to nothing in the way of genuine social housing. Instead, the development offers a small proportion of London Living Rent properties for “low and middle incomes”.

The “Deptford Landings” (run by Australian developers Lendlease, of “Elephant Park” infamy) development in nearby Deptford is another cautionary tale. Building work was halted on the site in November 2020 after sales declined to a trickle, with less than a quarter of the planned 1,322 homes built. Now, a whole stretch of land lies empty. This cannot be blamed on the Covid crisis: the downturn in sales predated the pandemic. Perhaps this is unsurprising when an unremarkable three-bedroom flat will set buyers back £711,000.

Local concerns about redevelopment are not simply a case of long-time residents being resistant to change or unable to countenance a different kind of future for Catford. The recent history of regeneration in the borough does not augur well. Fears about aggressive gentrification, which has altered communities beyond recognition in Lewisham and beyond, are hardly ill-founded.

Time doesn’t stand still, just as no area remains unchanged forever. “But regeneration should genuinely include the residents of Catford,” says McLeod. “That’s our priority.”

Francisco Garcia is a freelance writer. His book “If You Were There” will be published in Spring by Mudlark/Harper Collins UK.