Battersea Power Station housing: bad, but maybe not all bad

by Dave Hill

The enormous Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea redevelopment zone has become a high profile hard case study for heritage abuse, preposterous high rise, high end flats and, most recently, the frailties of the Section 106 system for generating affordable homes and other public assets as a by product of private developments.

Wandsworth Council’s recent decision to allow the Malaysian developers of the Battersea Power Station site (BPS) within the VNEB to reduce the amount of affordable housing it had previously agreed on grounds of viability has prompted Sadiq Khan to express fury and to state that he is seeking additional powers from central government in relation to such amendments in future. At present, he has none.

But maybe something useful can be salvaged from the ruins of this housing scenario. Researchers from LSE London, friends of this website, paid a visit to the BPS site on the very day the slashed affordable component became known. The LSE team noted the several difficulties the developers face in creating a community feel in a place some owners won’t live in all that often and where few households with children are visible. Doing so is in their interests: although “buy to leave” appears far less prevalent than popularly believed, a “lights out” feel is not consistent with an attractive place to live.

However, the design of the residential buildings and the spaces in between them might serve as a good example of how to fit more housing units into available space without making life in and around them oppressive or claustrophobic. Although, sadly, they obscure much of the retained shell of the power station itself – which is to become Apple’s London HQ – the high density housing blocks themselves were praised, as was the communal outdoor space:

Our visit suggested that the design and physical quality of this new neighbourhood will be impeccable, as befits its high-profile location. While its density has been criticised, the scheme may serve to demonstrate that excellent design can create liveable areas even at these densities.

Higher density developments are heading London’s way as its population continues to grow. Provision for this is expected to be made in the Mayor’s new London Plan. For obvious reasons, the BPS scheme is unlikely to be seized on by City Hall to demonstrate to Londoners that higher density housing need not be hard to live in (or, for that matter, particularly tall), but others could. It could also be pointed out that high density housing in this relatively low density city will not be new: one of highest density residential developments in London is the World’s End council estate by Chelsea Harbour, completed in the mid-1970s and apparently quite popular with its residents.

The BPS site, unlike the World’s End, is overwhelmingly for the affluent. But that very fact challenges the commonplace association between closely-packed housing units and poverty. It might stand as an example of much that is dysfunctional about the planning system and the financial structures that produce so much London housing that fails to meet the greatest forms of demand. But as an example of architectural and “place making” ingenuity, the BPS might have its virtues.

Read the full assessment of the LSE London researchers here.

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