For many decades of London history the name Earl’s Court, often shorn of its apostrophe, was more synonymous with entertainment and bohemianism than the nobs whose former ownership of the land explains its name. The arrival of the Underground from the 1860s encouraged development and enterprise: housing, arts institutions and, in 1895, the Empire of India Exhibition, featuring a massive Ferris Wheel. The famous Earls Court exhibition centre opened in 1937 and was joined in 1991 by its companion Earls Court Two.
The exhibition complex hosted everything from show jumping to the Motor Show, securing world renown. The neon frontage of the original building created a sense of grand arrival for passengers leaving Earl’s Court station by its Warwick Road exit. But by 2015 all that had turned to rubble thanks to failed regeneration plans encouraged by local Conservative politicians and egged on by Boris Johnson from City Hall. And now a new big vision for the area has been unveiled, promising to “bring the wonder back to Earls Court”. Will it succeed? And how?
That vision, taking the form of a draft masterplan at this stage, is the work of the Earls Court Development Company (ECDC) This was formed to take forward the scheme on behalf of the Earls Court Partnership, a joint venture between developer Delancey and Transport for London, freeholders of the 40-acre site which sits between and above Tube stations and tracks.
Both the scale and the approach are very different from those of the previous regeneration proposals, known as the Earls Court Project, which saw TfL tie up with Capital and Counties (CapCo). That scheme proposed not only the destruction of the exhibition centre buildings – about the only thing it achieved – but also two neighbouring housing estates owned by Hammersmith & Fulham Council. Those have survived and been handed back to the council. The other main section of the original development site, TfL’s Lillie Bridge depot, was transferred to the ECDC in November and, though still functioning for now, will eventually be fully incorporated into the new plans.
The removal of the housing estates from the regeneration scope is fundamentally down to Labour gaining control of Hammersmith & Fulham in 2014 and Sadiq Khan becoming Mayor of London in 2016, having criticised the CapCo plans during his election campaign of that year.
The change of Mayor is also a big factor behind the composition of the new draft masterplan, which aspires to providing 4,500 new dwellings of which 35 per cent would be, in the development company’s words, “affordable across all tenures”. Although committed to rehousing residents of the two estates locally, the old CapCo masterplan had foreseen all the additional “affordable” homes on the development site being for middle-income households, with none for low-cost rent.
But the most striking characteristics of the ECDC masterplan, drawn up by architects Hawkins Brown & Studio Egret and landscape specialists SLA, are its emphasis on openness, culture and environmental goals along with providing places to live and to work within “a research and development hub for green tech”. The term used is “landscape-led”, with only 40 per cent of the land to have buildings on it and the rest allocated to play areas, piazzas, tree-lined streets and other public spaces including, at the heart of the site, a park larger than Trafalgar Square.
Most of the site is flat, but a long section of the structure, called “the table”, that once helped suspend Earls Court Two above the West London Line is still there and earmarked to be incorporated into the public realm. The blue-fronted train shed in the depot could be retained and repurposed.
A desire to revive the buzz about the neighbourhood, all but stilled with the closure and erasure of the exhibition centre, has been conspicuously signalled. The site and its environs have hosted an array of events and attractions, including the Underbelly festival and, at present, the BBC Earth Experience, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The ECDC also aspires to incorporating what it calls “the first large scale Zero Carbon energy sharing network in the UK”, which means economically efficient local heating networks. They like the word “ingenuity”.
The planned provision of green open space and the early encouragement of arts and entertainment activities are described by the ECDC as in line with the wishes of local people. The ECDC’s chief executive, Rob Heasman, whose track record includes Elephant Park at Elephant and Castle, says the integration of “public realm and culture throughout” the development responds to “the number one stated desire from local people – to have green and open spaces across the site”. Future jobs are also promised – 15,000 of them – and a skills training centre is to open on the site in the spring.
Another contrast with the unsuccessful Mayor Johnson-backed regeneration project has been the type and depth of community engagement. The CapCo project attracted wide-ranging opposition. Much of this was triggered by the attitude to the two housing estates, which were disparaged by the then Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, later a deputy mayor under Johnson. But a feeling that all local sentiment was being bulldozed also fired up conservationists on the Kensington & Chelsea side of the site, which straddles the boundary between the two boroughs. Shops and other properties at the borders of the site were bought up and boarded up.
The ECDC believes its approach has been far more empathetic, bringing premises back into use and putting money – a tidy £180,000 a year – into a community fund for local groups and projects. Its headquarters are in a building right next to the site in Empress Place, just off Lillie Road. “Being based locally has given us the ability to get to know the communities in which we are based,” Heasman says. “We have used that to inform and shape the draft masterplan concepts.”
The draft might further evolve before being submitted to both local boroughs, probably by the end of the year. It is sure to excite great interest, including in the proposed heights of the new buildings. Just outside the development site the 28-storey Empress State Building provides an obvious benchmark and pretext for the taller variety. There is a long way to go for a scheme which hopes to prove itself both locally and globally as an innovative new piece of the capital. Today’s announcement is an important step along the road.
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