Could Battersea Power Station really be facing demolition?

The plans for the Battersea Power Station redevelopment scheme, with the real thing behind them, in 2014. Image: Getty.

When I was writing Up In Smoke, my book about the history and sad after-life of Battersea Power Station, most people I spoke to seemed confident that London’s most troublesome building site finally had a future. They might not like what was happening – a blandly aggressive, hyper-dense development of luxury flats and retail – but happening it finally was.

But one interviewee, a man with close knowledge of the power station’s unique problems, wasn’t convinced. And with his predictions looking set to come true, this could spell disaster for the power station itself.

In 2013, the Malaysian consortium that own Battersea Power Station sold their first batch of 865 flats off-plan, raising £675m in a matter of days. That suggested they would have no problem shifting the 4,000 or so more units they were planning to build by 2025.

But not everybody was sure that momentum could be maintained. “Selling that volume of residential in a significantly short time frame is a massive challenge – because every time a block completes, it makes the one before it old-fashioned,” I was told in 2014. “If you bought in the first block, you know there’s another 3,000 units to come, and the new one will be a lot more attractive than the one you are in. People on the site will be constantly competing against themselves for price over 10 to 12 years.”

The good old days: the station in use in 1972. Image: Woolnough/Getty.

I recalled that interview earlier this year, as the first reports of problems at Battersea Power Station began to leak out. In March, City AM said that more than 50 flats had seen prices cut by up to 38 per cent as the market cooled for international investors. The suggestion was that investors were now desperately trying to flog flats as the market hit the top, and the number of resales meant prices were being cut – pretty much exactly what my interviewee predicted. This would have repercussions for new builds now going onto the market, reducing the developer’s cash flow – and cash flow is crucial to the success of such a huge project.

In April, the Guardian reported that some flats were being held back from sale as the developers waited for things to pick up. Meanwhile, the Telegraph wrote that expensive three or four bed flats weren’t selling so may be changed into slightly less expensive one or two beds.

This negative press prompted the development’s chief executive Rob Tincknell to step in. Tincknell is an affable, self-assured man who attended his interview for my book wearing Battersea Power Station cufflinks and sent me home with a branded rubber Battersea Power Station brick in a branded Battersea Power Station tote bag. His job in April was to calm nerves, telling Property Week that everything was fine, even if the market was “challenging”.


Tincknell is probably right – at worst, the developers face reduced profits rather than outright wipeout. But at Battersea nothing is certain and still rumours persist about the development.

That’s not helped by a general feeling that the entire Nine Elms regeneration area is at a tipping point. There are 20,000 homes being built here in a series of riverside towers, and developers are no longer finding them quite so easy to sell. Prices are coming down while some developers are trying to attract purchasers by promising to pay their Stamp Duty.

Londoners have grown used to seeing Battersea Power Station’s developers crash and burn, and the colourful story of these failed plans takes up much of my book. So does it matter if the Malaysians go the same way as the English theme park operators, Irish property speculators and Hong Kong dreamers that went before?

Yes, this time it really does. Ironically, despite the huge amount of work that’s taken place on site, the power station has never been in more precarious condition. It lacks a roof and one wall, as it has for decades; but it now also haws only has one chimney (three rotten ones are being replaced, while the one that stands was reconstructed last year). Before the Malaysians arrived, frustrated councillors at Wandsworth had discussed, for the first time, the possibility of demolishing a building that had caused them no end of grief (albeit, grief which was largely ideologically self-inflicted).

The station as it was in December 2015. Image: Getty.

This would be difficult – the building is Grade II listed. But it’s not impossible, given the amount of time and money that has already been spent trying to find a sensible use for a building that was constructed with only one purpose in mind. Wandsworth could argue that it has tried everything, and without the landmark chimneys, delisting would be much easier to attain. A flat riverside site could be redeveloped in no time.

So here’s the conundrum. If you love Battersea Power Station – and, hey, who doesn’t? – then you need this development to succeed. That remains true, even though by its very nature – the glass flats that crowd the building, blocking views – the redevelopment diminishes the building and the reason it is so popular.

It’s a contradiction that some people can’t face. One campaigner who has defended the power station for decades confessed to me that if, the Malaysian development fails, he may actually lobby for demolition as he cannot stand to see the power station so abused. With the first occupants supposedly moving into the flats later this year, the rest of us have to grit our teeth and hope the Malaysians ride out the storm.

“Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station” by Peter Watts is out now from Paradise Road.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.