There are tales of long, drawn-out developments and then there is the tortuous saga of Elephant and Castle.

Liz Hamson leader

It is now 20 years since Property Week first wrote about ambitious plans to redevelop the Heygate Estate in south London. At the time, everyone thought that given the rundown nature of the estate, the developer – Southwark Land Regeneration – was pushing at an open door. Little did anyone envisage that it would be a full two decades before the redevelopment finally took shape.

This week, in our cover story, some of the key protagonists recall the highs and lows of the Elephant’s arduous, two-decade journey. It is a tale that is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure – not least because initially, social housing was not a huge priority for Southwark Council as it was in ample supply across the borough, yet virtually all the obstacles the scheme has faced in the years since relate to social housing.

There are still hurdles to jump. While Lendlease is forging ahead with delivery of the wider masterplan, Delancey’s redevelopment of the shopping centre is subject to a judicial review that starts next week. The big bone of contention is, inevitably, the amount of social housing proposed, with the ‘Up the Elephant’ campaign calling for the 116 units being offered to be increased by 42.

The counter-argument has always been that it is not commercially viable to deliver that much social housing, but could it now be more commercially viable than it once was? Some people think it could be. In an exclusive interview, Ganco’s Nowsad Gani goes so far as to say: “The only growth we can see in the next few years is social housing. I’m very excited about it. It’s not only a social thing; it’s also doing something ethical for the community.”

Others are also eyeing up social housing with interest, attracted as much by the long leases, secure income and strong financial returns as its social impact. The question is: what happens when those returns are not so great? That is when you will see who the real social impact players are – and who are just paying lip-service to it.

In the meantime, at least there is something a bit more aesthetically pleasing to eye up. Last week, Goldsmith Street in Norwich was deservedly awarded RIBA’s 2019 Stirling Prize for the UK’s best new building. The 105 homes, built by Norwich City Council for social rent, look great, are environmentally friendly, are loved by residents – and are a far cry from the social no-go zones that some of the badly clad, high-rise schemes of old are.

There are, however, clouds on the social housing horizon. For one, the ability of local authorities to deliver social housing could well be hampered by the government’s decision last week to hike interest rates on loans from the Public Works Loan Board by one percentage point. For another, the sector faces a growing number of strategic and operational risks as a result of issues such as Brexit and increased health and safety requirements following the Grenfell Tower fire, as the Regulator of Social Housing warns in its Sector Risk Profile published this week.

If local authorities do scale back their activity, will the private sector step into the breach? Time will tell.

We may not be on the cusp of a social housing revolution quite yet.