After a series of planning blunders, the area around the Elephant & Castle is crying out for regeneration. With a £1.5bn masterplan in place, it looks like its time has finally come

As well as the Wansey Street development, strikingly fresh and varied architectural designs have been accepted by Southwark council for 10 other housing developments at the Elephant & Castle in south-east London.

The designs are all the work of young cutting-edge and mostly local architects, such as Panter Hudspith, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and Haworth Tompkins Architects.

Of all the areas of inner London crying out for regeneration, Elephant & Castle must come top. It has been pinned to the floor by its monstrous pink shopping centre and a giant traffic roundabout where residents scuttle through with their heads down, partly to avoid the impromptu ponds of rainwater.

No wonder Chris Horn, Southwark council’s development director for the area, condemns Elephant & Castle as “the byword for south London degeneration”. But he is happy for the council to take much of the blame. “We had carpet bombing during the war and carpet planning straight afterwards.”

The carpet planning resulted not only in the shopping centre and traffic tyranny but also in the Heygate council estate, which packs 1212 homes into one of the largest, most oppressive concrete fortresses of the 1960s.

Southwark’s first attempt to make amends was to invite grandiose bids from commercial developers to take care of retail, roads and housing in a single package. That wheeze collapsed in March 2002 after the council and its chosen developer failed to agree a deal.

After that, the council moved centre-stage with the aim of taking on the entire £1.5bn regeneration of the 425 ha area on urban renaissance principles. It commissioned a masterplan from Foster and Partners and then Make, not for comprehensive redevelopment but for key public spaces. It also separated the 75,000 m² commercial element from the 5300 new and replacement homes planned. It is offering the former to a developer, which will be selected this December.

Elephant & Castle is the byword for south London degeneration. We had carpet bombing during the war and carpet planning straight afterwards

Chris Horn, Southwark Council

The council kept the housing part of the equation for itself as much as it could. As far as the Heygate estate renewal is concerned, it is reverting back to its former role as a housing provider. While there is little dispute that the estate should be completely redeveloped, the council has encouraged residents to stay in the area by offering them homes in the replacement housing. It has also involved them in drawing up the brief, selecting architects and reviewing designs.

The council has tackled the Heygate estate redevelopment by acquiring 16 infill sites in the area to accommodate 1000 new homes. The next step was to select housing associations to develop and manage them. Other than Southern Housing Group, which has just completed the first site, it appointed two consortiums of three housing associations, each large enough to tackle several sites simultaneously.

After that, the council drew up a shortlist of 16 architects to design the replacement housing, and targeted local practices. It asked them to contribute to the design briefs and to bid for individual sites. Then it invited three practices from the shortlist to enter an architectural competition for each site. As has already happened at Wansey Street, the housing associations are required to adopt the winning schemes with minimal modifications.

As for the architectural design, Horn says: “We want designs that are responsive to their individual sites yet with an overall coherence. The phrase we use is ‘north Southwark vernacular’ – one which captures the spirit of the old street pattern and warehouses, but uses overtly modern materials and styles.

“The essential thing is to create a living, breathing place,” he concludes. “If we lose sight of that, then we miss the whole point of redevelopment.”

The 11 designs selected are as varied, fresh and exciting as could be asked for. As such, they stand a good chance of converting Elephant & Castle back into a living, breathing place, as Horn intends.