In south London, residents call on Sadiq Khan to challenge Texan billionaire’s plans to build a 20-storey tower block over the famous Electric Avenue.

A group of residents in Brixton, south London, are in the midst of a fierce battle for their neighbourhood’s future.

Taylor McWilliams, the billionaire DJ, property developer and friend of Prince Harry, is no stranger to the gentrification fight in this corner of the Capital. In 2018, the Texan bought Brixton Village for £37m with the backing of a New York hedge fund and has been steadily altering the area’s makeup since.

Recently, though, Hondo Enterprises — the company of which McWilliams is CEO — has submitted plans for a 20-storey office block in the centre of Brixton. On Pope’s Road, the tower would loom over the conservation area of Electric Avenue and obscure the south London skyline.

The historic Electric Avenue, characterised by its Victorian architecture and listed buildings, was the first market street lit by electric lights built in the 1880s. In the 1980s, it was the title of a song by Eddy Grant. But those lyrics — ‘gonna rock down to Electric Avenue/ and then we’ll take it higher’ — now take on a new emotional resonance, as the design for the building is more than twice the height of any in the conservation area, and would cast the rest of Brixton into shadow.

McWilliams caused a stir earlier this year when Hondo served a Section 25 notice to Nour Cash & Carry, a popular grocery-store in Brixton’s Market Row. The family-run business served local immigrant communities with heritage foods for over 20 years when they were told they had to leave their premises by 22 July 2020.

Nour was saved following a social media campaign —  backed by food critic Jay Rayner and celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi — and a petition signed by over 58,000 people.

But now McWilliams finds himself facing further local opposition after his plans for the tower were approved by Lambeth Council in November. The applications committee voted 4-3 in its favour. Local anger is growing. Residents worry that the community of Brixton is rapidly eroding.

Campaigners protest that Lambeth has ignored the 8,000 people who signed the online petition in opposition to the tower, as well as over 800 letters and emails they’ve received from constituents. Brixton’s MP Helen Hayes also called for its rejection, because the application ‘falls far short’, but to no avail.

The SaveNour group have now called on Sadiq Khan to intervene. Protestors uniting under #FightTheTower have asked the Mayor of London to overturn Lambeth’s decision. In an open letter to the Mayor, the group explains how they ‘have no faith in Hondo to understand the value of Brixton Market, respect the people who live here, or communicate truthfully with us.’

They have also added that the emergence of new corporate buildings like the tower’ profit off our displacement’.

However, Hondo has stressed that the new development would do justice to the area and promised jobs, skills, and local people training. They have pledged that the tower will ‘deliver’ 2,000 new jobs in the area, and generate £2.8m every year for the local economy.

But the residents, now backed by Historic England and the Victorian Society, contend that the need for more office space is misguided, given the increase in people working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet in a survey conducted by real estate advisors Savills, up to 89% of respondents believe that physical office space remains a necessity for companies to operate successfully. Locals are also concerned that if the tower is approved for office space, it will introduce an influx of daily commuters, turning Brixton into a ‘transit hub’.

Brixton has been at the heart of the UK’s gentrification conversation for more than a decade. Still, residents argue that the money pouring into the area is not going to local people.

According to the plans submitted in April, the tower will have less than 1 per cent floor space allocated for community use. And in 2020 alone, Norwood and Brixton foodbank saw a 137% increase in people needing provisions. The number of parcels delivered to residents rose by over 11,000 in the year up to September 2020.

The open letter to the Mayor addresses these concerns. ‘The vast majority of Brixtonians were opposed to the idea of a corporate office tower in the heart of their neighbourhood. People asked, why not affordable homes? What do we get in return, beyond a few short-lived construction jobs? Where will the thousands of daily office workers shop, and will they drive up prices, drive out Black businesses, overrun our leisure centres and our transport links?’

But despite the ongoing changes that Brixton is seeing, these people are not going without a fight. Community spirit still drives this neighbourhood. The inhabitants are desperate to protect the soul that has vanished from many other gentrified areas across the country.

As one local resident warns: ‘This is not Canary Wharf’. This battle may be lost, but the war is far from over.

Image provided by Wikimedia Commons

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