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.