You may remember the headline images a few months ago of the “sky pool”, straddling two brand new luxury apartment blocks in London, and professed to be the “first of its kind in the world”, almost like a glass-bottom water bridge. This was part of the new Embassy Gardens development in Nine Elms, Battersea, which is part of a wider regeneration of one of the biggest brownfield sites in the country, and has caused more than a bit of controversy.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this area of South London was filled with secondary industry, including Vauxhall Motors, the Southwark and Vauxhall Gasworks and, perhaps the most recognisable today, Battersea Power Station. Redevelopment opportunities have been rife ever since industry was decommissioned in the 1980s, first brought to public attention thanks to the London Assembly’s 2004 London Plan, which created 28 “opportunity areas”, perhaps the most famous going on to become the Olympic Park in Stratford.
The “Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area (VNEB)” stretched across 230 hectares from Vauxhall Cross to the disused Battersea Power Station, which is about the size of Monaco. The aim of the scheme was to allow for foreign property investment, particularly in new tall buildings, but with the obligation that half the new housing be affordable, and if this was not possible, developers would have to produce a financial viability assessment to prove it.
However, multiple sources from the time showed that many developers would simply exploit high construction costs and low price forecasts as evidence that affordable housing would not be possible, so this percentage dropped to around 20% on most new builds. Further reduction occurred when the following London Assembly increased the amount a house could be sold for and still be called “affordable” from 60% to 80% of the market value.
Affordable housing in the VNEB area fluctuates between 18% and 21% depending on the complex and its location (Lambeth has greater coverage than neighbouring Wandsworth), with the Power Station itself, soon to be home to private flats designed by Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, set to have only 9%, most of which located over busy A-roads and the cluttered Victoria-bound train lines.
Current affordable housing residents of Embassy Gardens have already voiced their frustration at being shut out of facilities, not just the luxury sky pool, but also gyms and lobbies, having furniture confiscated from communal spaces, and having to enter and exit via back entrances that Instagram account @real_embassygardens dubbed “poor doors”, akin to a type of class-based segregation. Their flats have also been subject to severe cosmetic damage and neglect by maintenance services.
Property developers themselves have also not been too pleased about this new development, starting with complaints about the design of such buildings as the Damac Tower, which, according to one developer, looked “as if several unrelated buildings have been chopped up and bolted back together without the instructions”. However, most of their complaints come from the so-called “Nine Elms Disease” incident of 2016, which involved a technical error with property purchasing apps Rightmove and Zoopla, and is said to have misled buyers on local house prices for months.
The reasons buyers have typically not been flocking to Nine Elms mostly revolve around location, as, whilst property developers and estate agents have tried to sell the area’s proximity to Westminster and prospect of future Northern line transport links, with foreign investors preferring sites nearer to university and business districts. The result is that, like many other new developments in “opportunity areas”, whole floors have been sold off to foreign investors to plug the gaps, further driving inequalities in a city where housing is scarce and unaffordable, and while many Lambeth and Wandsworth residents are either homeless or are spending the majority of their salary on rent.
Perhaps the most vocal opponent to the redevelopment of the VNEB is Queenstown councillor Aydin Dikerdam, who is the main source of information for this article. He pointed out to Tribune earlier this year that the site was used by both the government and London Assembly as a ripe spot for deregulation to attract investors, and that the £266.4 million of Section 106 money (a tax on property developers) was spent on a Northern line extension to Battersea Power Station rather than on affordable housing.
Dikerdam also pointed out the stark contrast across the river. This was how he closed a Twitter thread from 1st June 2021 on the matter:
“There was once a world where you could build riverside council homes. If you look across the river from Battersea Power Station you’ll see the post-war Churchill Gardens Estate, a testament to an era in which council and key worker housing was prioritised and invested in.”
This estate, built on the site of bombed Victorian terraces post-war, was a pioneering example of mixed development and public sector housing, housing a diverse working community within reach of the city centre.
Affordable housing should not be seen as a turn-off for investors. In fact, it should be encouraged on brownfield sites close to city-centre facilities like this. We are at the point where central urban areas across the UK, especially London, are becoming inaccessible to a large proportion of the workforce even for tenancy, and average prices are 30% more expensive now than post-global financial crisis, fuelled in part by the government’s stamp duty holiday.
Opportunities like the VNEB do not come about very often, and governments and developers will never get that blank canvas of disused land back. The reimagining of a once-forgotten area of a city is best when it works for everyone, and puts community and affordability over skyscrapers and glass-bottom pools.
Prince Krofa & Sons is an RICS regulated chartered surveyor firm based in South-East London specialising in property consultancy and work within private residential, public sector housing, as well as charities, educational, ecclesiastical and commercial sectors.