Dave Hill: Forget the Nine Elms sky pool, the ‘Latin Village’ and the Silvertown Tunnel in 2022

Dave Hill: Forget the Nine Elms sky pool, the ‘Latin Village’ and the Silvertown Tunnel in 2022

The year about to end has seen three London infrastructure projects become objects of repeated media interest and persistent activist ire. The Nine Elms sky pool, the Seven Sisters indoor market and the Silvertown Tunnel are very different things but in each case the attention directed at them has revealed the shortcomings of protest politics, the failings of journalism and the need for minds in the capital to concentrate on more important things in 2022.

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The fixation with the sky pool, an unusually visible private leisure facility opposite the US Embassy, illustrates the dominance of symbolism over substance in today’s London housing crisis discourse. The “segregation” outrage industry, from which a range of click-dependent media outlets benefit, has had a profitable year with this one –  primed by copious market testing since 2015 – and the Labour Party in Wandsworth is seeking to exploit it as May’s borough elections near.

The complication here is that the sky pool is largely a sales gimmick designed to maximise the profits needed to help pay for the Northern Line extension, the affordable housing and the community space that are also part of the development. No sky pool, less of the other stuff. To recognise that such trade-offs are integral to development finance is not to applaud them. But to deny their existence is a form of deception practiced, whether out of innocence or opportunism, by too many reporters, protesters and politicians.

Regenerating the Nine Elms site presented big cost challenges, not least because it contained no publicly-owned land and the Battersea Power Station building has had to be preserved. The unending lamentations about the still-unfolding outcome usually boil down to the single assertion that Conservative-run Wandsworth Council could and should have got a better deal in exchange for planning consent. Maybe. But how much better a deal would a Wandsworth run by devout municipal socialists have secured? Probably not much better and perhaps the site would still be the jumble of post-industrial under-use it became in the 1980s.

Being serially appalled by Nine Elms clearly gratifies some, but righteous fervour would be better directed at reforming the Land Compensation Act (1961), making it easier for local authorities to purchase large brownfield sites and change the economics of reviving them for good.

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The saga of the Seven Sisters indoor market, known to some as the Latin Village, has continued to be framed by journalists and activists as a heroic defence of a vital community resource by a plucky band of ethnic minority Londoners against greedy property developers and spineless local councillors who want them gone. It is not and never has been any such thing.

An agreement to replace the dilapidated Wards furniture building, of which the market formed a part until its closure for building safety reasons, was signed by Haringey Council in 2007. Ensuing plans included a new home for the market traders on the same spot at initially discounted rents – a fact routinely omitted from media coverage. The job might have been done by now but for a string of vexatious legal challenges by opponents of the scheme, who like to give the impression they represent all the market traders but do not.

Earlier this year the developer, Grainger, pulled out. The “save” campaign declared victory and claimed their “community plan” would restore both the market and the building. But they don’t own the building and haven’t a fraction of the money needed to buy it. The freehold resides with Transport for London, which has been seeking help with bringing together interested local parties to find a way forward.

Eventually, serious development finance – far more than £13 million – will be needed to bring a new plan meeting the various requirements to fruition. The best chance of that happening and a thriving Latin American market within accessible modern premises being re-founded in Seven Sisters lies with TfL making progress. The “save” campaign and its hand-fed media messengers should seek to help not hinder in 2022. They’ve done quite enough damage already.

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Finally, the Silvertown Tunnel. For decades London has needed more River Thames crossings east of Tower Bridge and for decades plans have been made and dumped. Silvertown has been on the agenda since at least 2005, the current scheme got the go-ahead in 2018 following two consultations and work began in 2020. It isn’t going to be scrapped, but opponents keep demanding that it should be. Why?

The tunnel will facilitate public transport in the form of a reserved lane for buses and add to London’s suite of road-pricing schemes in the form of a toll to regulate demand by private vehicles. Tolling is also to be introduced for the neighbouring Blackwall Tunnel for the same reason.

Additional bus-use and more road-user charging for private vehicles are to be desired and TfL says it believes the combination of the management of the two tunnels will reduce congestion at Blackwall, which creates delays and air pollution, without increasing overall traffic levels in local areas either side of the river. Both tunnels will also lie within the enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone.

None of this seems to cut any ice with opponents who insist on calling the Silvertown Tunnel scheme “a motorway” or a “major road project” when it isn’t. In other circumstances, controlling congestion through road-user charging and encouraging travel by bus, especially the cleaner ones, would be applauded by many of the same people.

Critics also argue that the construction work involved would produce embedded carbon outweighing seven years’ worth of current emissions from Blackwall – but not eight, which might be thought a decent deal if emissions from Blackwall start to fall from 2025 when Silvertown is due to open.

The proof of the TfL analysis will be in the project’s outcomes, of course, but even if things don’t work out as advertised any ill-effects from the tunnel will be trivial in the wider scheme of things. In terms of improving air quality and slowing climate change there are bigger gains to be had from cleaning up motor vehicles, encouraging them to move more slowly and smoothly and creating effective incentives for people to use them less.

Much opposition to Silvertown is, I suspect, underpinned by an uncritical disapproval of motor vehicles regardless of context, the lure of an emblematic issue at the expense of focussing on the bigger picture and the appeal of protesting for its own sake.

It is quite right for sceptics and Sadiq Khan’s political opponents to constructively scrutinise the tunnel’s progress and results, but it is going to go ahead whether they like it or not. As with the sky pool and the Seven Sisters indoor market, let 2022 be the year when anti-Silvertown campaigners direct their energies towards more important things. They might even have more chance of success.

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Categories: Comment

5 Comments

  1. Guy Lambert says:

    I agree with your comments on the Skypool, and whilst I have little knowledge of 7 Sisters the argument is convincing.
    I disagree about the tunnel though. Congestion makes road use by private vehicles less practical and will tend to discourage it. Adding road capacity, by contrast, makes such use more attractive. This is something I tumbled to when the M25 was built. People began to commute to my office in Hemel Hempstead from Reading and beyond, something which would have been unthinkable beforehand.
    Adding additional road capacity will lead to more road usage, as sure as eggs are eggs. It may relieve congestion in some places in the short term but longer term the congestion will revive, absent other measures to make non-car forms of transport more competitive.
    I have been a car person all my life, but have now come to the view that they are a scourge in London, especially outer London where nearly all streets are jammed with cars, whether parked or sporadically in motion. Whatever, overall they are static for 97-99% of the time blighting suburban streets and leading to the wholesale demise of front gardens with a deleterious effect on the street scene and ecology.

  2. Regarding the Silvertown Tunnel , history shows that new roads ( and roads through tunnels ) increase traffic . Reducing traffic by inner city road charges should make the Silvertown Tunnel project unnecessary .

  3. Mark says:

    I disagree on the Skypool, and Wandsworth’s (and let’s not forget Lambeth here) approach to redevelopment. Govinder became an tool of the developers, which has led to them being allowed to run riot and rampant over the site.

    The issue with the pool is less about poor versus wealthy, it’s more about what it says about how london is run (which you capture a bit with your closing point); the pool demonstrates that developers have and continue to get away with murder because of the way they play the planning system. It’s the cherry atop their argument of ‘really sorry we can’t do anymore social housing because it will cost us profits’ while building poorly constructed phallusades (look at the residents’ comments on any of their sites) and flooding them for squilluons (and on many on leaseholds, and with astronomical service charges).

    London’s property market has become the building schysters’ money making machine, the dirty money launderers machine of choice, and an a vision of high rise dystopia that even Ballard would find hard to give meaning to.

    Meanwhile, for real people on regular incomes or less, it is a housing nightmare. Homes too expensive for essential and service industry workers to afford, whether as buyers or now renters, and access to social housing going backwards. Unless of course, they enter the shady world of shared-ownership…

    That pool is a symbol, a reminder, of how crap we’ve become at providing the one thing that matters, a decent home, for too many of our fellow Londoners.

  4. Claire Mellish says:

    The Skypool is a pretty good symbol of the inequality at the core of London’s development – Nine Elms, an internationally renowned mess of redevelopment has benefited few but developers, to the cost of Londoners.

    I disagree with this analysis of the Seven Sisters market/ Latin Village saga – what use is a new home for the market traders at just initially discounted rents? It was only temporary and for 30 months – funded by a s106 agreement which diverted the Mayor’s compensation fund to the developers. Rents & costs were forecasted to rise by 300% afterwards. The redevelopment terms guaranteed the demise of the current traders. After London’s Elephant and Castle Latin market disaster, the developer’s sweetener deserved to be routinely omitted from media coverage.

    The Silvertown Tunnel is an environmental disaster. Sadiq Khan says he’s doing everything in his power to address the climate emergency, that our recovery after Covid must be a green one and that he has a clear plan to tackle climate change and improve air quality. But with Silvertown he’s doing the complete opposite. Claiming that this major new road will ease congestion and improve local air quality just doesn’t seem credible.

  5. You are wrong about the Silvertown Tunnel. Boris Johnson cancelled a much better crossing sited in Bexley, a Conservative constituency, which would have created a much better level of connectivity (Blackwall and Silvertown make virtually the same crossing), would have been a much cheaper bridge — rather than tunnel. Several other means of crossing were substituted including Silvertown – a tunnel specifically devised for oversized vehicles.

    It creates a magnet for new, oversized vehicles and will overstrain and overtop the available road space running through Greenwich Borough north-south, and also the overloaded east-west A2. The rationale for the tunnel has changed over time. Explanations a few years ago centred on frequent Blackwall blockages caused by oversized vehicles illegally entering the tunnel. More conservative measures have brought these incidents down immensely without a single shovel being turned to create Silvertown.

    The public transport justification is laughable. The new routes have never been defined and no formal provision exists. TfL public transport is now in ‘managed decline’ and new bus routes are unlikely to materialise (there’s only one currently routed through Blackwall Tunnel). The Woolwich (now ‘Greenwich’) Peninsula developments have doubled in size, and will include an outlook over eight lanes of traffic approaching and disgorging from two tunnel mouths. There will be a deteriorating congestion radiating for miles around. A river crossing in these circumstances is, after all, a bottle neck. In this case, the bottle just got bigger and the neck comparatively smaller.

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