Communities in Transition: Bermondsey

Communities in Transition: Bermondsey field trip, 8 October 2013

Future of London’s Communities in Transition series kicked off on 8th October with a field trip to Bermondsey to learn about the area’s regeneration from those most closely involved in it.

Bermondsey Square
Bermondsey Square

We started at the Shortwave Cinema, part of the Bermondsey Square development at the south end of Bermondsey Street. Bermondsey Square was completed in 2008 after a decade-long process. The brief for the project was defined with input from the community and has led to the inclusion of an independent cinema (Shortwave) and space for the Friday morning antiques market, which has traded on the site since the 1950s, to remain. Chris Brown, CEO of Bermondsey Square developers Igloo Regeneration, gave credit to Southwark Council for allowing this type of community involvement in the development brief, which he noted was highly unusual at the time, but in his view has contributed to Bermondsey Square’s success.

Inside the Shortwave Cinema

Igloo were keen for Bermondsey Square to contribute to the neighbourhood, and with this aim set up the Bermondsey Square Community Fund, funded by the occupiers of the commercial space in the square. The Fund is open to applications from local groups and has been used to support events which promote the area and encourage greater participation and mixing between the square’s tenants and other residents and businesses around Bermondsey Street. The fund supports the highly successful Bermondsey Street Festival, as well as an annual coach trip to the coast for local tenants.

Steve Platts, Director of Regeneration at London Borough of Southwark spoke about the history of Bermondsey and the changes that had taken place since the 1960s. After WWII, Bermondsey became run down as local industry moved to outer London and was not replaced. Planning policies continued to favour industrial use long after its decline was apparent, and prevented the conversion of industrial and warehouse space for housing and commercial use, despite clear demand.

In the 1970s, many properties were occupied as live/work spaces by artists and people working in the creative industries, which started a drive toward improvements in the area. The use of empty industrial buildings for live/work brought life back into the area and reduced the number of derelict buildings in Bermondsey, making it a more attractive proposition for residents and businesses.

While Southwark Council set up a conservation area to protect historic buildings and arranged for grants from central government’s Urban Programme to bring some buildings back into use, Steve stressed that the area’s regeneration has been largely market-driven, with the council taking a back seat and assisting where it can. The council’s main role has been to try to maintain the mix of uses that has arisen in the area, which Steve argued is key to the area’s success, with a healthy mix of commercial, office, cultural and residential uses.

What was clear from the initial presentations was that regeneration has been a long-term process in Bermondsey. The council provided an environment in which a variety of uses and housing types could be established, but allowed the area to develop at its own pace and in its own style. This gradual approach has given the time and space for community groups to become involved and formulate their own ideas about how they would like the area to develop.

Michael Davis speaking at White Cube

Our next stop was at White Cube gallery, which opened its Bermondsey branch in 2011 and has become emblematic of Bermondsey’s reputation for thriving artistic spaces. At White Cube we heard from Michael Davis, former Chair of the Bermondsey Street Area Partnership (BSAP) and long-time resident in Bermondsey. Michael talked about the history of BSAP and its role in guiding the area’s development. The Partnership has worked with Southwark Council to secure public realm improvements, such as better paving and lighting and improved open spaces. The organisation has also arranged events, such as the Bermondsey Street Festival, to encourage residents to take advantage of local businesses and open spaces.

We were joined at the gallery by White Cube’s Paul Stevens, Finance Director, and Honey Luard, Head of Press and Publications. They spoke about White Cube’s initial plan to use this unattractive warehouse space purely for storage of artworks – but after discussions with BSAP among others, they decided to open gallery spaces as well. White Cube is the latest in a long line of cultural institutions to locate in Bermondsey (another being Zandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textile Museum across the street). White Cube made a conscious effort to provide accessible public space leading onto Bermondsey Street, while fitting in with the street’s scale and historic appearance. Michael Davis argued that the location of so many cultural institutions in Bermondsey was an important contributor to the area’s lively feel and desirability as a place to live.

John Paul Maytum speaking at Whites Grounds

From the White Cube, we moved on to the Whites Grounds Estate, a 115-home estate managed by Leathermarket JMB. The Leathermarket JMB (Joint Management Board) is a Tenant Management Organisation which was founded in 1996 to take over provision of services to several estates in the vicinity of Bermondsey Street, after residents became unhappy at the cleaning and repairs services being provided by the council. In the early 2000s the JMB took over full management of the estates under Right to Manage legislation.

The JMB is resident-run and has worked hard to improve the estates’ public spaces for those who live there. John Paul Maytum, Chair of Leathermarket JMB, and Andy Bates, JMB Manager, showed us the raised gardening beds used to grow vegetables (built with help from contractors working on the nearby Crossrail site), and told us about events and activities the JMB has arranged to bring residents together, such as a sculpture workshop organised with an artist living on one of the estates. The JMB has also worked closely with the council, BSAP and Igloo to improve the areas around the estates. These improvements give residents an increased stake in their neighbourhood, something John Paul and Andy are keen to support as the social mix in the area changes  through gentrification.

Vegetable planters at Whites Grounds
Vegetable planters at Whites Grounds

A key concern for the JMB is the protection of genuinely affordable housing in the area, based on tenants’ ability to pay. As the area becomes more successful, it has become harder for the JMB to provide housing. To this end, John-Paul told us about plans the JMB has been discussing with Igloo and Southwark Council to develop housing on unused land around the estate. Chris Brown, one of whose Igloo projects is community led development, commended this initiative of a community organisation taking the lead on developing new housing, rather than a developer or local authority. It is hoped that housing developed in this way will respond more closely to resident’s needs and while addressing the demand for greater social housing capacity.

One thing that all speakers agreed on was the importance of co-operation and dialogue between community groups, the council, and developers. While Steve Platts recognised the key role community groups had played in the area’s success, Chris Brown noted that organisation was key, and the strongest communities grew out of structured and well-led community organisations such as BSAP, the Leathermarket JMB, and the Team London Bridge BID. Speakers also agreed that while such organisations can be difficult to run, and while not everyone in the community may share the same goals, they are the most effective way of giving a residents and businesses influence over the development of their community.

Steve Platts and Michael Davis outside Shortwave

Regeneration has not always been smooth in Bermondsey, and Steve Platts drew attention to the difficulty of reconciling thriving nightlife and residents’ worries about noise – an issue that is unlikely to go away, and perhaps one that is unavoidable in an area which embraces, and benefits from, such a range of mixed uses. No doubt we will continue to see interesting developments in Bermondsey, with Leathermarket JMB’s plans to develop housing and the willingness of key stakeholders to find ways to maintain the mix of uses and supply affordable housing.

Future of London’s Communities in Transition series continues on 30th October 2013 with a field trip to Shoreditch, which will focus more on commercial regeneration and the creative/tech sectors. The series examines best practice in locally-directed regeneration, giving public-sector practitioners in planning, regeneration, economic development and related areas an opportunity to learn first-hand from key stakeholders in successful regeneration schemes, in an informal and interactive atmosphere.