The street lights of Pimlico and Chelsea scatter iridescent patterns over the Thames. Across the water lie some of London’s smartest mansion blocks and best-known landmarks but I am surrounded by 42 acres of urban wasteland: a cement plant rumbles nearby, glowing orange as dusk settles on the city; a great white chimney looms overhead; and beneath me a vast brick shell sits silent, waiting.
For the past 31 years, Battersea Power Station has lain empty and derelict. Inside the roofless turbine hall is a tangle of scaffolding and debris.
Large enough to contain St Paul’s Cathedral, with space to fit Tate Modern on either side, the building has inspired many dreams of regeneration (a rollercoaster; a football stadium) but the ideas have all come and gone. This time, however, it may be different.
I am the first resident of the new Battersea Power Station and my home (for one night) is a show flat perched on the roof. The flat was built by Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC) – and decorated in a studied, post-industrial style – in an attempt to convince potential buyers that the developer is serious about its ambition.
The power station was widely unpopular when in operation, its coal-fired chimneys blamed for contributing to London’s “pea-souper” fogs which blighted locals’ health. Yet in 1977 the building became a global icon when it featured on a Pink Floyd album cover, and after its decommission in 1983, it gained Britons’ affection as a poignant symbol of the nation’s decline as an industrial powerhouse.
The arrival of deep-pocketed Malaysian investors in 2012 turbocharged the redevelopment plans – and they are not the only ones taking an interest in this part of town. The power station and a string of other developments scattered along the southern riverbank comprise Nine Elms, London’s biggest residential construction zone. A settlement that will include around 18,000 new homes is now under construction.
Peter Rees is one of London’s most experienced planners, having spent three decades as the City of London Corporation’s planning officer, and now as professor of places and planning at University College London. He has described the proliferation of new, largely residential, towers along the south bank between Battersea and London Bridge as “a disaster” that is “ruining London”.
So who will come to occupy this previously disregarded corner of the capital? US diplomats, for starters. The American embassy is set to move from Grosvenor Square to a new building in Nine Elms in 2017. And more than 1,000 people have so far bought into the Battersea developers’ vision. BPSDC cites the popular view that London is a series of villages, and they are attempting to create one more: the £8bn scheme will provide 3.5m sq ft of shops, restaurants and offices, as well as 4,000 homes.
Now that redevelopment is finally under way, it is happening quickly. The first residents are set to move into their homes – located in a newly-built block alongside the power station – in 2016.
Meanwhile, the redevelopment plans have become a microcosm of the wider debate over London’s housing market, with critics arguing that expensive apartments bought by foreigners and investors, and then left empty, do not address the capital’s housing shortage. Many of London’s biggest developers argue that without pre-sales, nothing would get built – usually a third of homes need to be sold in advance to make construction financially viable – and foreigners are more willing than locals to stump up their cash years in advance.
As with most of the city’s biggest developers, BPSDC offers its homes to locals first: 56 per cent of the 1,120 homes sold so far have been bought by Londoners, rising to 75 per cent of the 254 homes to be built on the roof of the power station itself. They also market these homes around the world.
“Clearly we’ve got to make sure that all our homes are occupied,” says Rob Tincknell, BPSDC chief executive. “The debate isn’t about foreign owners. Central London is an international place.”
This does nothing to assuage affordability complaints. Homes in two new buildings designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster have just gone on sale. Priced from £495,000 for a studio apartment and £3.2m for a four-bedroom home, affordable housing campaigners argue that the nationality of the buyers is less important than their income levels. “The eye-watering asking price of these tiny flats is testament to a housing market that simply isn’t working for ordinary Londoners,” says Duncan Stott, director of affordable housing campaign Priced Out.
Tincknell counters that BPSDC has sacrificed larger profits to build some cheaper flats in a bid to attract “a good mix of different types of people”. There will be 570 homes to rent and buy at below market prices, making the power station one of London’s largest affordable housing developments. In addition, the first phase of housing, under construction now, is targeted at young professionals. Yet, priced from £340,000 for a studio flat, this is still 10 times the average London worker’s salary.
Creating the right mix is a challenge for Battersea’s commercial property plans too. BPSDC is embarking on a world tour in an attempt to convince foreign businesses, retailers and restaurants to open offices and outlets in the power station. They want to attract companies that are new to London. “We don’t care about only having the biggest tenants with the highest rents possible,” says Tincknell. “We could have put residential throughout the whole building and made three times as much money. But we chose to make it a mix of different uses, because that is what we felt would make it the best possible place to be.”
Battersea has three crucial factors on its side, according to Andrew Jones, a planning adviser at consultancy Aecom who has worked on major urban planning projects around the world: “The heritage, a well-designed master plan and new public transport thanks to a [Northern line] Tube extension all give it a pretty good chance of succeeding,” he says. Mixing homes with retail and office space also helps, because it creates “a 24-hour new place”, adds Jones.
In a decade’s time, if the developers’ plans come to fruition, they will have turned a desolate, windswept corner on the crowded map of London into a new focal point for the city, with tens of thousands of people bustling in and out of its immense halls each day.
Yet, for now, all that seems a long way off. Viewed from the apartment’s rear balcony the next morning, the power station’s broken windows glint in the early light. The cranes begin to move again, and Battersea’s transformation inches forward.
Kate Allen is the FT’s property correspondent. She was a guest of the Battersea Power Station Development Company
A temple to industry
Few people have heard of J Theo Halliday, but from 1927 this Manchester architect was responsible for the design of Battersea Power Station, writes Jonathan Foyle. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was the “starchitect” brought in to smooth the path to its improbable completion, such are development politics. Scott was responsible for the eventual form of the four-chimneyed exterior as finished in 1955, choosing generously fine brickwork from Blockley in Worcestershire, and stepping the cliff-like façades with proportion and rhythm. Yet Halliday was responsible for the finest interior – the surviving art-deco Switch Room, where Fred Astaire meets Wallace and Gromit.
So the power station was not a “set piece” of design. Yet the much admired collaborative result begs questions about its usage and treatment. In 2005, three engineers concluded the existing chimneys could be repaired in-situ. Instead, they are to be razed and rebuilt as smoke stacks that never smoked, reducing long-term maintenance. That replica skyline is to be altered by glass pavilions, while the view from the railway will be lost to serpentine, argentine, apartment blocks. These will at least uphold the tradition of the “starchitect”. Whether they will be as beloved as the temple of industry they mask remains to be seen. Meanwhile, visiting hours to Halliday’s fabulous Switch Room remain unresolved.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain
Photographs: David Sandison; Peter Dazeley
Slideshow photographs: Fox Photos/Getty Images; John Downing / Getty Images; Peter Dazeley; John Broome; Chelsea Football Club; BPSDC; David Sandison
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on London when a new story is published