How Brixton’s community took on a major developer – and won
Hondo Enterprises has scrapped plans for a 20-storey office block overlooking the famous Electric Avenue
Nestled between two railway tracks near the famous Electric Avenue, Brixton’s Pope’s Road street market is bustling with activity. Sisters Natalie and Marie-Claire prep for the day, chopping fish heads and stirring stew at their stall selling cuisine from across West Africa. Opposite them, Didas and his team of traders unpack boxes of Jamaican herbs, vegetables and spices, arranging them on the stall he’s held here for years. It’s an everyday scene, but this morning the traders have cause for celebration.
Since 2020, a major threat has loomed large over the area – controversial plans for a 20-storey office block in Pope Road from Hondo Enterprises, a developer owned by Texan millionaire Taylor McWilliams that has already bought up significant swathes of the south London neighbourhood, including Brixton Market.
The proposals sparked a passionate Fight the Tower community campaign and, over the last 12 hours, news has been filtering through to stallholders, campaigners and locals that the plans are no more – they have won. Last night, four days before a scheduled hearing with the mayor of London at City Hall, Hondo withdrew its planning application.
“I’m so happy this has happened, because this is really aggressive capitalism,” says Natalie, clapping her hands together on hearing the news. She’s had a stall in the market since January, yet says she was only contacted once, a week ago, for a meeting about the proposed tower.
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In a letter to City Hall, Hondo’s planning consultant DP9 said: “The very long period of gestation over the past two years has had a profound impact on the ability to deliver this much needed jobs and skills boost in Brixton.”
The letter added that Hondo hoped to return with a revised proposal “that is able to deliver lasting benefits for Brixton’s businesses and residents”.
For now, though, it’s a victory for the community following a near three-year battle with both Hondo and Lambeth Council. It began in November 2020 when the council granted planning permission for the tower despite more than 8,000 people signing a petition opposing it, including heritage groups Historic England and The Brixton Society.
Since then, it’s been in planning purgatory: Sadiq Khan backed the plans and then reconsidered his decision, Hondo missed deadlines to consult with the local community, and just days before a scheduled hearing in June last year, the company requested a postponement.
This period of limbo has had a major impact on the community and left business owners and residents worried about their livelihoods. It’s a feeling people in Brixton are all too familiar with, having spent years fighting against the gentrification of their neighbourhood; one that has been shaped by migration and is intrinsically connected with the stories and experiences of the Windrush generation.
I’m thinking about integration, and how we build a Brixton for the future. Rather than a stupid office block, why don’t you give us a multicultural community centre?
“This has been a David and Goliath situation,” said Danai Nardi, an organiser with the Fight the Tower campaign. For her, the campaign was never only about the planning application.
“It is about spaces and people, it’s about our everyday life, and it’s about the happiness of the people around us,” she says. Nardi moved to Brixton 26 years ago from Greece, and has seen the creeping tide of gentrification affect the area, starting slowly in the 1990s and then accelerating rapidly.
According to RightMove, properties in Brixton had an average price of £644,829 over the last year, up 5% on 2020. Properties in Lambeth are now more expensive than they are in fellow south London boroughs Croydon and Sutton.
“Over the last five to ten years, it’s been violent. People from Black and brown communities have already been displaced from the area. It’s happening systematically,” says Nardi, referring to Caribbean families living in multigenerational households being priced out of the area and having to move to more affordable neighbourhoods.
Saving Brixton’s heritage
These are changes that Steadman Scott, who has lived in Brixton since 1967, has observed too. For more than two decades, Scott has worked with young people through Afewee, the boxing gym and football academy he co-founded, based at Brixton Recreation Centre.
Scott is deeply involved with campaigning to preserve Brixton’s heritage, both participating in the recent Fight the Tower campaign, and the campaign to award Brixton Recreation Centre listed building status in 2016.
“This is a multicultural place, and the council has to realise that the people are the heartbeat of the community,” he says. “I’m thinking about integration, and how we build a Brixton for the future. Rather than a stupid office block, why don’t you give us a multicultural community centre? Pope’s Road has always been a family place, so why not have a multicultural centre where everyone can input?”
The dispute over the tower is not the first time Hondo has disrupted the lives of Brixton’s community. After discovering that their much-loved local grocery shop Nour Cash & Carry was being threatened with eviction by Hondo in 2020, Nardi and a small group of campaigners came together to form Save Nour, the umbrella campaign that encompasses Fight the Tower. Eventually, the developer backed down.
There’s also Brixton Market. Natalie says Hondo is not popular with her friends who have businesses there.
“[Hondo] never did anything to improve people's economic lives in the market,” she says.
As we walk through Nour’s new space, also in Brixton Market, Nardi points out the slices of watermelon for sale, recommending it served frozen with feta cheese, before greeting the shop’s manager.
“They just don’t understand how space works,” she says of Hondo. “It’s really important to have a deep understanding of the area, which is not easy, and to study the effect that these changes have on local communities.”
For Nardi and Scott, there are lingering questions that go beyond the tower alone, particularly when it comes to the role of Lambeth Council in supporting the area’s marginalised communities.
“We need Lambeth Council to hold Hondo to account for the way they treat traders, and we need the council to take responsibility for the housing crisis and their management of it,” says Nardi. “This is an ending, and a beginning at the same time.”
Scott wants to see greater recognition of the Caribbean community’s contributions and history in the area, alongside support for youth programmes.
“The importance of the Jamaican legacy being maintained in Brixton will be wiped away by the council not taking responsibility,” he says.
There will be more battles to come, but Didas, the trader, says he feels more relaxed now in the knowledge that the imminent threat of the tower has gone.
“I was hoping that [the result] would be on our side rather than their side, because sometimes the man with the money gets his own way, over what the people want,” he says as he sets up his stall’s banner. “It’s a breath of fresh air to know that the people have spoken.”
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