A lot has happened since July 2013 when the then Mayor Boris Johnson praised proposals for redeveloping a big chunk of Earls Court as a “landmark project”, but most of what has happened wasn’t planned.
By now, a whole new neighbourhood should have been taking vigorous shape – a comprehensive “re-imagining” of Earls Court, as its champions have put it in the past. Instead, two of the three main sections of the site are utterly unchanged while the third has been denuded of the Earls Court exhibition centre – which really was a London landmark – leaving a large empty space. Just south of Lillie Road, the expensive dwellings of a separate section of the scheme have been selling far more slowly than envisaged and, nearby, a row of shops bought up by the site’s developer Capital and Counties (Capco) with a view to demolition are to be put in limbo as “meanwhile” space.
The bulk of the project looks becalmed. What now? The question isn’t new and I am not alone in asking it. For months, there has been talk in London property circles that Capco, with which a then Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council partnered to deliver the scheme, is trying to offload it, having been hit by a dip in “prime” property prices.
The lack of progress is doing nothing for the finances of Transport for London, which formed a joint venture company with Capco to redevelop the exhibition centre land – which it owns the freehold of – in the expectation that this would generate a new revenue stream. There’s not much sign of that tap being turned on. Not much sign either that the other piece of the land jigsaw owned by TfL, the Lillie Bridge London Underground depot, will be transformed into a handsome new residential neighbourhood either, as envisaged in the Farrells masterplan.
There is, though, one piece of the patchwork where spirits have been lifted by recent non-events. Campaigners against the demolition of the adjoining West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates are hoping the collapse of the Earls Court project is nigh and with it and end to the prospect of the estates’ demolition, as originally envisaged.
They’ve been encouraged in this view by a letter to the two estates’ roughly 2,000 residents from the council’s current, Labour, leader Stephen Cowan, sent out in November. It said that he and colleagues had been negotiating with Capco to either “get the estates back” or to improve the rehousing and compensation deal struck with the previous administration. This was in line with a manifesto promise made for the 2014 borough elections. Cowan’s letter also confirmed that Capco had been working on “a new masterplan for the Earls Court scheme” and that if the council gave permission for this “we would see the two estates return to council control”.
It wasn’t clear exactly what “control” might mean against the backdrop of a legal agreement – a conditional land sale agreement (CLSA) – reached between Capco and the Tories for the bit-by-bit transfer of ownership of the estates from council to developer as and when promised replacement homes for residents were complete. Cowan sent out a further letter to residents just before New Year, again referring to discussions with Capco about a possible “return to council control” of the estates and affirming that the council believes “the CLSA scheme, as it stands, is unviable”, because the overall value of the scheme has fallen; in other words, that there wouldn’t be enough profit produced by the sale of expensive market-priced homes on the site to meet the cost of replacement homes for estate residents.
Then, on Thursday, the council issued a statement. This said it has “given further consideration” to what it calls Capco’s “request” for a new masterplan but “does not believe that the proposed level of density and affordable housing could be supported or delivered”.
This is significant. A new masterplan has been mooted for some time, with Capco’s planning consultants DP9 making a submission to Sadiq Khan for substantially increasing the density of the scheme, suggesting raising the total number of new dwellings proposed from around 7,500 to 10,000. Cowan was for some time receptive to that general principle: an admirer of New York City, he has no fundamental objection to high rise buildings, and larger numbers of market-priced homes in the scheme might have generated the extra cash required to get a better deal for the residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green if demolition went ahead.
But the council’s statement rules out that possibility. It says that it has taken into account concerns raised last October by neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea, whose councillors, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat alike, declared their opposition to the Earls Court project becoming bigger still. Kensington and Chelsea has always had a significant role in all this – although Hammersmith and Fulham took the lead in working up the project, part of its development site lies in the borough next door and has required planning permissions from it accordingly.
The Hammersmith and Fulham statement also says it has noted “the recent position of the Greater London Authority on regeneration schemes”, which might to be a reference to Khan’s emerging policies on the handling of proposed estate demolitions and his “threshold” approach to the amount of affordable homes in housing schemes.
A new masterplan for something as enormous as the Earls Court project would require Khan’s approval, just as the original one required Johnson’s. Cowan’s administration has come to the view that, given the changing policy context, the stance of Kensington and Chelsea and the current condition of the London housing market, a new, bigger and taller masterplan, building in a better financial deal for estate residents, does not stack up as it might have done two or three years ago.
The statement ends by saying it views that the current agreed scheme as “undeliverable” and that it has call on Capco to “return” the estates to the council “as this is the only viable way forward”. The argument seems to be that only by taking out of the equation the cost of knocking down the estates and of building replacements might be new and financially practical arrangements to be made regarding remaining parts of project site.
That is explicitly the view of the campaign against the demolition of West Kensington and Gibbs Green, which for a long time has not seen eye-to-eye with the Labour administration on other matters. It contends that its activities have added to the project’s problems. Their community organiser Jonathan Rosenberg says he is certain that Capco wants to “exit” and asserts that “there’s no way anyone will buy it so long as our estates and our deeply entrenched campaign are part of the package. The best way for them to de-risk the redevelopment is to hand back the estates to the council”.
How likely it is that the CLSA will be torn up and the future of the estates placed entirely back in the council’s hands is hard to know – both of Cowan’s letters have been candid in saying that many more steps need to be taken before that could occur. But if it does, the anti-demolition campaign will not consider its work complete.
From its very beginnings in advance of the 2010 general election the anti-demolition campaign has argued that ownership of the estates should be transferred from the council to a community-centred housing association along the lines of Walterton and Elgin Community Homes in Westminster, which Rosenberg played a central role in setting up. An application to the government to secure that result was made when the Conservatives ran Hammersmith and Fulham, but the sensational change of political leadership four years ago has not altered their position.
The transfer request is still under consideration. The council is still opposed to it. Interestingly, its case included an argument that a transfer would lessen the potential for the wider area being regenerated. It seems to the campaigners that the council is now saying that regeneration of the Earls Court area cannot become viable unless the estates are taken out of any new planning proposals. We can safely assume that this point will be made to the secretary of state in due course.
What a long and sorry saga the Earls Court project has become. It is nine years since it came into the public eye. How many more will pass before it even begins to serve some definition of the public interest?