What should the UK do with the iron skeletons of Victorian gasworks which still tower over it?

A gasholder looming over the Oval cricket ground in London in 1956. Image: Getty.

There’s a question looming both literally and metaphorically over large parts of London: what the hell should we do with the city’s old gasholders? These hulking metal structures, also known as gasometers, have been an integral part of the capital’s skyline since the Victorian era, yet are now facing demolition because their original purpose (storing gas, duh) is now defunct.

Having gained widespread use during the 19th century, the gasholders’ reign lasted until the 1960s when, with the discovery of the North Sea natural gas reserves, gas began being transported via high pressure pipes. The holders took a backseat, only being used when extra capacity was needed. As the pipes increased in capacity, the gasworks dotted throughout UK cities slowly became obsolete. The National Grid was left with these functionally-pointless, space-consuming monsters – often in what is now prime urban real estate. Think King’s Cross, Kennington, Bethnal Green.

Once aptly described by poet Victoria Bean aptly as a “great grey lung”, it’s the “telescopic” gasometers that receive particular attention. Supported by a giant cylindrical frame, the inner-container would fluctuate in size depending on how gas-hungry the surrounding residents were. By day they would fill up and rise, and then by night they would empty and retract back into the ground.

But the lungs are no longer breathing and all we’re left with is the frame. But blimey, what frames they are. Even for those not intimidatingly enthusiastic about industrial heritage, it’s hard to deny their beauty. Classical columns connected by decorative wrought iron; just what you would expect from the Victorians. Around sunset, when their steel skeletons are silhouetted against the sky in particularly spectacular fashion, it becomes easy to see why there are 12 gasholders with listed status (of which all but one are in London). But developers are fighting for the land; eight of the capital’s other gasholders have been awarded a Certificate of Immunity, meaning they cannot be listed for the following five years – offering property developers assurance to their investment.


So once campaigners succeed in getting the treasured gasholders protected, something needs to be done with them. After all, blocking off huge swathes of land in the heart of a city clamouring for space hardly seems fair. Building within them has proved a successful option (even if the flats inside the old King’s Cross gasometers look like giant air conditioning units). Planning for the development of the Oval Gasholders – which has towered over the famous cricket ground for 150 years, and gained listed status in 2016 following a local campaign – was passed earlier this year as part of a wider project to build 1250 new homes. In a city in the midst of a housing crisis, incorporating heritage into new housing is a great idea. That said, it’d be a shame to lose all the gasworks to property developers.

With Gasholder Park, the developers behind the King’s Cross air conditioning units, have created a public space within the remains of one of the gasholders. It is the only place in London where anyone can stand in the centre of, and enjoy these peculiar treasures. The Bromley-by-Bow Gasworks, which consist of seven listed gasholders, sits empty but could make a brilliant park. This was proposed as a submission to the New London Landscape, a green infrastructure design competition, but lost out to a hare-brained scheme to add a swimming lane to Regent’s Canal.

Whatever their future – be it as housing or a public space – at least some gasholders will remain; a solemn reminder of an important chapter in London’s history.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.