Elephant Park london
Final artist impression of Elephant Park

An urban district development in London, managed by Australian developer Lendlease, has been strongly promoted as world-beating sustainable, but in recent times those claims have come in for intense scrutiny. Lendlease says it’s on track to deliver the UK’s first Climate Positive development as part of the C40 Cities Climate Positive development program.

Part 1. The urban green flagship

Australian developer Lendlease’s £3bn (A$5.5bn), 9.71ha Elephant Park development in South London, due to complete by 2025, has been widely praised around the world for being a flagship “carbon positive” development under a C40 Cities program that is intended to show cities around the world how to be climate friendly.

Under this scheme, the total emissions from energy, waste and transportation that enter the atmosphere as a result of the development’s operational activity must be reduced as much as possible with the remainder offset to a net-negative level.

The project is backed and promoted by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an organisation set up to “help cities replicate, improve and accelerate climate action”, that connects 90 cities and whose president is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Lendlease and this project have also been praised by no less than Greater London Authority, the UK Green Building Council and by Treeworks.

The UKGBC appears to have taken at face value Lendlease’s claims, since the reference for their approval in the above document appears to be merely Lendlease’s own website. The UKGBC told The Fifth Estate that, “As a registered charity without a green building certification mandate, we base our commentary on the sustainability commitments and targets made public by our members. Without detailed information about all aspects of the Elephant Park project, we would not be in a position to comment any further.”

Lendlease claims to “put sustainability at the heart of its business since its inception nearly 60 years ago”. NextGeneration has ranked Lendlease the UK’s “most sustainable residential developer for the second year running”.

But in some views the final development will be no more sustainable than any other. An ex-employee, who prefers to remain off the record, told me that work on the biodiversity survey was “an exercise in futility designed to placate local people’s justifiable anger. We were all used to bolster claims of community engagement”.

Artist’s impression of the Elephant Park completed site in central London

What is C40’s Climate Positive program?

Elephant Park is one of only a few projects in the world, out of 19 in the scheme, to have been accredited by C40 Cities to partner status in its Climate Positive network.

This demonstrator network supports the development of neighbourhoods and districts that seek to meet a “climate positive” emissions target of net-negative operational GHG emissions. Projects are expected to include energy efficient buildings, low carbon transportation, and waste and water management systems at the district scale.

A C40 Climate Positive Development is a district scale, mixed-use development that is meant to include:

  • Walkability and bikeability
  • Highly efficient buildings
  • Low-carbon energy sources
  • Recycling, landfill diversion programs and, ideally, utilising waste as a resource
  • Close to high quality mass-transit
  • Compact, mixed-use development
  • Expansion of the positive impact into the surrounding community

To go “beyond carbon neutral” and achieve a climate positive outcome, projects can earn Climate Positive Credits by sequestering emissions on-site and abating emissions from surrounding communities. This could be achieved by creating a park within a development, or investing in LED streetlight upgrades in a neighbouring area, energy retrofits for existing housing, and connecting neighbouring buildings into a low carbon district heating network.

Local administrations hosting projects are encouraged to utilise holistic planning, to create policy and regulatory frameworks to encourage climate positive development in regeneration projects, and use their procurement powers to promote climate positive transformation of industrial areas.

C40 Cities says it independently monitors and verifies the claims of developers and local authority partners in its Climate Positive program, according to its Good Practice Guide. But the reality shows this may not be the case.

Although to be fair the development is not supposed to be climate positive until 2025, there’s evidence to suggest ambitions have been very much scaled back since it was first proposed. Therefore, to be net positive, significant offsetting will have to be put in place.

What is the Elephant Park project?

Elephant Park is in the London Borough of Southwark. It is the regeneration of the Heygate Estate, a post-war social housing area, as part of Southwark Council’s response to The London Plan.

Heygate Estate, London

Elephant Park climate neutral?

Amongst Elephant Park’s features boasted about in the publicity are sustainable urban drainage, traffic calming, regeneration, and a new two-acre park, the largest new green space in central London for 70 years.

Leandlease’s Futurehome at Elephant Park: a row of 15 three or four bedroom townhouses in the Victorian style, each costing at least £1.495 (A$2.74) million.

Yes, its Zone 1 homes in central London have been certified to Passivhaus standards. And the publicised aim is for it to be the UK’s first Climate Positive development when complete in 2025. But the reality looks like not being as stated above.

Lendlease’s Master Regeneration Plan proposed that a biomass energy centre would generate 100 per cent renewable energy to make the Elephant & Castle regeneration a zero carbon development with carbon positive homes. It would supply the new Aylesbury estate development next door, and the existing nearby Salisbury and Newington housing estates, making it the largest biomass-fuelled district heating network in London.

These are the features that got it into C40 Cities’ program. But the plans were subsequently dropped by Lendlease, which stated the estimated costs were too high. The scheme had become a “fairytale fantasy” according to the council’s own cabinet member for regeneration.

Instead, Lendlease is now building a gas-fired district heating network that is smaller and will not supply the Salisbury estate, nor is it supplying telecoms, potable water, non-potable water, drainage, gas, fibre-optics and vacuum waste, as previously claimed. The project also does not comply with the council’s 20 per cent on-site minimum renewable energy aspiration set out in its Strategic Policy 13.

Lendlease told The Fifth Estate that it was delivering a net zero-carbon energy centre at Elephant Park, “which is integral to our wider energy and low-carbon strategy”.

‘The Elephant Park Energy Hub, which is in construction, will include a combined heat and power plant using natural gas, offset by grid-injected biomethane, that will deliver net zero-carbon, affordable heat and hot water to residents and businesses across Elephant Park. It will have the capacity to connect into a further 1000 homes across the Elephant & Castle Opportunity Area.”

“An offsite biomethane solution ensures both the greatest CO2 reduction whilst also taking advantage of the existing gas network and infrastructure to limit local disruption caused by additional vehicle movements, odour and noise.”

Observers question why the company did not spend some of the reported £70m (A$128.27 m) profit that they have made on part of the scheme, documented in part two, on the energy centre?

Elephant Park marketing material

Jerry Flynn, who has lived in Heygate since 1974, is one of a group of residents who track the progress of the new Elephant Park development and what he says is a trail of broken promises or U-turn on the 35% Campaign blog.

This website, and the local media have over the years, reported how Southwark Council and Lendlease have consistently blocked attempts by residents to gain accurate insights into the sustainability and social aspects of the development.

They show how the original zero carbon biomass energy objectives of the regeneration have been compromised.

Lendlease told The Fifth Estate that, despite the changes to the generation method and offsets, the hot water and heat delivered to residents and businesses, and an additional 1000 neighbouring houses, will be net carbon zero, and affordable.

On the topic of sustainable transport, the 35% Campaign reports that Lendlease blocked Transport For London’s plans for a much needed cycle route bypass.

And, despite the fact that Elephant & Castle has the highest possible rating in terms of public transport accessibility, Lendlease is building over 700 parking spaces at the Elephant, in what was intended to be an entirely car-free scheme. The original masterplan declared an intention to “give priority to pedestrians and cyclists”.

As for green space, the claim that Lendlease would create the largest new park in London for 70 years has resulted, instead, in a shrinkage of park provision from a total 24,195 square metres of public amenity open space to just 8220 sq m. And land is not even designated open space. Instead it is Privately Owned Publicly Accessible Space. The entire footprint is to be privately managed space.

Lendlease says it has permission to deliver up to 53,500 sqm of new public space across Elephant Park.

“This means that about half of the development will be open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The park at the centre of the development has never shrunk in size and, in fact, the latest planning application we have delivered for the plot to the east of the park has allowed us to increase the size of the park by a further 300 sqm. When the park is complete it will be open to the public year-round.”

Jobs Created

Lendlease also said Elephant Park would contribute more than 6000 jobs – 5000 during construction and 1000 in the completed development. “We are investing heavily to ensure as many of these jobs go to local people. Since construction began, we have employed over 950 local people with almost half of these jobs filled by the unemployed.” 

David Thorpe is the London based author of The One Planet Life, about living within planetary boundaries, Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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  1. I worked for, with & employed LL when I had a commercial retrofitting (design+construction) business for 25 years. I worked in ‘business parks’ & buildings that they’d developed, managed or owned. LL entrusted ‘as built’ doc’s & sub-contractors to me, when requested to execute their LL maintenance of a major complex on their behalf. I competed against LL when they first entered retrofitting industry 30 years ago for 2:1 win/loss, one of the wins was in their own headquarters at the time.
    I was briefed by Christoph Ingenhoven (1 Bligh St) on Barangaroo. It was superior proposal, respecting precinct’s social & environmental scaling. Interestingly, after LL set up on site, they exhibited their winning model alongside r/up Multiplex but not Leighton/Ingenhoven concept. That itself spoke volumes (to me). I was a regular customer (’93-’04) Horizons Bar & Unkai at top of ANA hotel on Sunday evenings where I’d overlook Barangaroo dockland to see ‘sunsets’. I’d spent NYE92 there with Tetsuya Wakuda & friends. Imagine views to west/south west have been obliterated by LL Barangaroo version. Could write a book but it wouldn’t get published. I’m always delighted to see your enterprise growing across broader & specific themes. It’s a wonderful labour of love & hope it’ll be ‘Cradle to Cradle’

    1. OK since the very early days of TFE there’s been a dream lurking annoyingly around. Maybe its time has come. A Wikileaks for buildings. It was always going to be a massive venture needing a big injection of funds, but maybe now the technology can be bought off the shelf. Nerds and boffins? Imagine: people would post insights into the things that didn’t work and why. The tone would need to be balanced and fair. Not litigious! Entries would be moderated so we don’t get trolls or competitors simply having a go. Maybe info would be vetted by experts or let the jury of the people respond. It could be a genuine attempt to explain the gap between the ideal concept and the cool hard light of day (and dollars). Those who design, build, pay for the thing could chip into the conversation. Just a thought…

  2. Interesting to know that Lendlease had adopted ‘sustainability’ before it became a buzzword some 30 years later. ‘Lend’ ‘Lease’ suggests they’re been maybe having a lend of us, in more ways than one.

    1. Hi Ecojag, nice to see you back. I know what you mean about LL. We look to them as leaders in sustainability. They were the first in my mind. So for that reason alone this was a hard story to manage. On the one hand, I see our job as shining a light wherever we can, so we all learn from each other, as fast as possible. It would be great for instance to find out exactly why some ideas were shelved. How can the barriers be overcome next time, etc?
      On the other hand we all know that the first people to do anything new and ambitious are likely to fail or fall short. It’s the nature of the beast. So we don’t want to be over critical. Of course LL is big enough and burly enough to ignore all the critics but others thinking to follow might not be.
      This is a massive, complex project with many parties involved, not the least of which is the local council whose job it is to protect outcomes for its stakeholders. The council is hamstrung no doubt by lack of sophisticated resources. LL is hamstrung by its nature as developer whose job it is to produce profit while also trying to maintain brand for innovation AND sustainability. BUT, if LL doesn’t take such a chance who will? We need to critique in a way that doesn’t shoot down the pioneers. Hopefully, this story strikes the balance. Keen to hear from others… This topic is actually just as massive as Elephant Park and needs more airing. We can call it the Elephant in the Park!