The energetic lawyer leading the £2bn regeneration of the unloved Elephant explains how it will be transformed.
Nicholas Taylor is a hard man to pin down. This interview has to be rescheduled three times because he's in continual negotiations with Southwark council. However, Taylor's reluctance to take his eyes off the prize is understandable. This is the last intensive round of talks before Southwark Land Regeneration, for whom he is development director, signs an agreement to carry out the £2bn transformation of a 101 ha area of Elephant & Castle in south London. The ratification date, which has slipped several times, is now set for 15 December, and Taylor is in bullish mood.

"There is now real confidence that we are going to bring the project forward and that it is going to be a very special, major new part of London," he says, judiciously.

The urbane, silver-haired lawyer with the inscrutable expression was a well-known figure in the industry long before he became a developer. As head of the planning and environment division at solicitor Berwin Leighton, where he practiced for 15 years, the 51-year-old negotiated planning permissions for some of the biggest projects of the past decade – the London Eye, the Millennium Dome, Paddington Basin and Portcullis House. He has a soft, plummy voice and talks in a slow, measured manner. However, according to a colleague on the Elephant & Castle project team, "his calm exterior belies a ruthless love of the kill".

Three years ago, he decided to become a developer. "My career has been spent putting major projects together for other people. I decided I wanted to do it for myself," he says. With a client list like Taylor's, the transition was almost seamless. He joined Godfrey Bradman's European Land as a director, and colleagues say he is in his element: "They come from the same mould of workaholism, and are both extremely energetic."

Now the pair are putting together the deal of the next decade and Taylor is looking forward to confounding those who doubted that the Elephant megaproject would get off the ground, or that when it did, Taylor and Bradman would still be around.

When a consortium led by European Land was named preferred bidder in June, some wondered how such an undercapitalised outfit could bankroll this massive, complex project. They asked how a commercial developer best known for its slick Broadgate Centre office development would tackle community regeneration, including the intractable problems of social housing finance, refurbishment and maintenance. Many predicted that Taylor and Bradman would put in place the infrastructure for the project and then asset-strip it, selling development plots on to other developers, as Bradman had done at Paddington Basin.

Taylor is quick to quash this suggestion. "That is not at all the way the deal is structured. We have committed £1.2bn of infrastructure upfront to create this new place, and we are E E going to stay in there for the duration as master developer, to make sure that it is all done properly," he says. "We see this as the mixed-use equivalent of Broadgate. We can make the same leap forward in quality and construction innovation as Godfrey achieved at Broadgate, but for mixed use and with wider social benefits."

To sceptics, the task of transforming the Elephant & Castle – an area clogged with traffic arteries, surrounded by blighted council estates and lacking in public amenities – into a desirable destination, rebranded London South Central, still seems a Herculean task. But Taylor claims the drab, low-grade environment is an advantage. He asks: "Where else in central London is there the opportunity to create wonderful, modern architecture that is not bogged down in difficulty over contextual and environmental constraints?"

Southwark Land Regeneration's scheme certainly features some striking modern architecture in Ken Yeang and Foster and Partners' mixed-use towers. Yet when it was chosen by the council, some wondered if a design-led scheme would translate into a commercially viable project.

Taylor scoffs at the idea: "It is not design-led. I don't think people quite understand the way Godfrey and I manage our teams. We are both keen on creativity, but we are not interested in creativity that is going nowhere. I gave a strong commercial brief to the design team as to what we wanted to achieve here – the balance between social and private housing, offices, work/live, retail and leisure."

We see this as the mixed-use equivalent of Broadgate, but with wider social benefits

Taylor is certainly consistent in his argument. He says he has not been tempted, in the light of London mayor Ken Livingstone's strong support for tall buildings, to make the towers in the scheme higher, because this might detract from the main purpose – to start the face-lift of the area.

"It is quite possible that the towers could be taller. But we need to ensure that the scheme we take forward is one that has the best chance of getting early planning permission," he explains. "It is incredibly important that we do not get carried away with the design excitement of it. Everyone in the community is looking to us to deliver a massive change in their quality of life, as soon as possible."

While European Land's apparent transformation from profit-driven developer into social visionary with a community agenda is no doubt politically expedient, it is also convincing. Taylor says he has spent a lot of time in people's flats on the Heygate Estate, most of whom backed his proposals, including its demolition. He says replacing their homes is his main priority: "It is plain to us that you do not implant something rich and alien in an environment where people in their council homes are left in their current condition. You have to create something where everyone benefits and the whole thing knits together.

"That means spending £1.2bn upfront, replacing 100% of the council homes lost by the demolition of the Heygate estate, refurbishing 3000 other council homes on 11 estates in the area, improving the landscape around those estates and transforming the transport infrastructure."

Taylor seems to have absorbed all the latest thinking on regeneration, and says he wants community development principles to drive every aspect of the scheme: "When we go out to international tender on the development plots, we will provide a draft development agreement for each plot, including requirements as to contracts for local suppliers, job training and employment of local people."

He also proposes to involve the community in choosing architects for the social housing because "in that way we will achieve diversity, and we will help the community to take ownership of the quality and style of the development".

And he is talking to suppliers, including steel giant Corus, with a view to achieving low-cost, high-quality prefabricated construction with higher acoustic standards. "We intend to use our bulk-purchasing power to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve high-quality social housing at no greater cost than ordinary social housing."

Taylor had intended to submit a planning application in November. He has revised this date to September 2001, to allow the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, English Heritage and the Greater London Authority's strategic planning directorate and transport arm to have their say before the application, as well as the locals.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family and where do you live? I live in Petersham and I’m married to Jackie, who spends a lot of time protecting the historic environment of Ham and Petersham from irresponsible planning applications. I have a 21-year-old daughter studying biological sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a 19-year-old son who is doing a foundation course in the clarinet at the Trinity College of Music.
What car do you drive? A 1994 Range Rover
What book are you reading? Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. My daughter gave it to me. It’s about how the development of intelligence and progress in human life has been influenced by our environment.
What is your favourite city? London, because it is such an energising, vibrant place.
What do you do to relax? Ride in Richmond Park. We keep horses behind our house in Petersham. We also have two dogs. And we love music – everything from early medieval to opera and chamber music.