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.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.