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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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