What next for the Earls Court project?

In December last year a seven-page document from Pall Mall planning consultants DP9 was submitted to City Hall in response to Sadiq Khan’s call for ideas about building A City for All Londoners. DP9 were representing their client EC Properties LP on behalf of property development giant Capital and Counties Properties PLC – Capco for short – in connection with one of London’s largest and most controversial redevelopment schemes, often known as the Earls Court Project.

“Capco envisage moving forward with the Mayor and a wide range of stakeholders during the first half of 2017 on a review of the Earls Court masterplan,” the document from DP9 says. It explained that initial work to this end had already demonstrated that an “optimised” rendering of the scheme could result in the building of at least 10,000 new places to live in the area rather than the 7,500-8,000 previously envisaged, with more jobs, green space and other good things created too. These endeavours had been “inspired by A City For All Londoners,” wrote DP9. Are they inspiring the Mayor?

Khan was critical of the Earls Court project during his election campaign for the very low percentage of additional affordable homes it proposed for the development area – just 11% of the total number of extra dwellings given permission for in 2013, on top of replacements for 760 in two local estates that are lined up for demolition. The scheme has already seen the closure and destruction of the famous Earls Court exhibition centre. New properties have been constructed and sold on its former car park nearby, but progress has been slow and Capco revealed in its latest annual report, published in February, that the value of the project as a whole as had fallen by 20% over the previous year. Khan promised to review the scheme as a whole if elected.

The DP9 submission shows that the process of review is effectively underway. There will certainly have been communication between the developer and City Hall about its progress. That is normal for major projects of this kind and the fact that public bodies and public land are involved give this one additional significance for Mayor Khan, who has a long-term goal of raising the affordable percentage of new homes across Greater London up to 50%. That may help explain why a revised – or enhanced or optimised – masterplan is, I understand, still some way off being completed. It will also be of keen interest to several other important interested parties.

As this enormous and very complex enterprise enters a new phase, here are some key facts and factors to keep in mind.

  • There are four principle parts of the development area as a whole, which covers about 77 acres, spans Earls Court and West Kensington and straddles the boundary of two boroughs: Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea.
  • One of the four parts is separate from the other three. It lies to the south of Lillie Road, between Seagrave Road and West Brompton station and the various rail lines that serve it. This is the former exhibition centre car park, which now hosts a residential work-in-progress called Lillie Square. Its 808 dwellings, some completed, others not, are mostly for market sale with current plans also including provision of 200 of the promised replacements for the 760 homes earmarked for demolition on the two nearby estates.
  • The three other parts are in a joined-up row to the north of Lillie Road and West Brompton Road (which are continuations of each other), to the south of the A40 Cromwell Road, to the east of North End Road and to the west of Warwick Road. They comprise the main project area.
  •  One of these three is where the two exhibition centre buildings stood. The older one opened in the 1930s and became the area’s cultural focal point and a major London landmark. It closed in December 2014. Early work has begun on building a housing “village” there. To deliver this, a joint venture company called the Earls Court Partnership was formed by Capco and Transport for London (TfL), which owns the land (a cats cradle of Tube and other rail lines runs through it). It is the first example of TfL joining with developers to exploit its land assets and make money long-term for the transport network. The site lies on either side of the boundary between the two boroughs. In January, the Earls Court Partnership secured detailed planning consent from Kensington and Chelsea to build a “gateway” to the Earls Court scheme entitled Exhibition Square.
  • The middle site of the main three is London Underground’s Lillie Bridge Depot, where District Line trains are stabled and maintained. It lies within Hammersmith and Fulham and is owned by TfL, which has concluded that it can relocate its workshops to Acton, thus releasing the land for building on (the stabling facilities can be replaced on the same site). Khan is seeking to accelerate the release of TfL land and wants an overall 50% of all housing built on it to be what he calls “genuinely affordable” (a more stringent definition of “affordable” than the government’s). Capco and TfL will be mindful of this goal as they formulate plans for the depot land.
  • The third of the three sites in the main project area is where the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates stand, side by side. There’s been a determined campaign among the roughly 2000 residents to save the estates from demolition and have their ownership transferred to a community-led housing association. A long-awaited decision about this is in the hands of the government. Meanwhile, the land is subject to a complex legal agreement struck between Capco and Hammersmith and Fulham. Simply put, this meant that portions of the land would be sold to Capco as and when it built replacement homes for estate residents. It will be interesting to see how this part of the project picture is affected by the new masterplan.
  • Boris Johnson was a big fan of the Earls Court Project. So was his fellow Conservative Stephen Greenhalgh, who led Hammersmith and Fulham at the time planning permission was granted (and later became Johnson’s deputy for policing and crime). Labour man Khan clearly is not and neither is Labour man Stephen Cowan, who became leader of Hammersmith and Fulham in 2014. Both are committed to changing the project in line with manifesto promises. The DP9 document (and comments by Capco to the media) outlines an even bigger and taller scheme with more affordable housing and better compensation for estate residents. This is the sort of thing Khan and Cowan are looking for.
  • However, on the other side of the borough boundary, Kensington and Chelsea appears less keen. Last October, after the first whispers of an enlarged project had been heard, a full meeting of the Conservative-led council resolved that any intention to make significant changes to the density and mix of the housing planned for the parts of the scheme that fall within its jurisdiction should entail a completely new planning application being submitted, rather than simply adjustments of the existing one. This was supported by the council’s Labour and Liberal Democrat members as well as its Conservative majority. Such an outcome would slow the whole process still further for a substantial section of the project, if nothing else. How far the issue could be forced by Kensington and Chelsea is open to question, but the vote was a significant expression of disquiet.

The above issues alone illustrate that much of what has gone before in the Earls Court Project story may have to be disentangled and made to fit with the policies of senior London Labour politicians who’ve come to power since that story began – policies with different objectives. Throw in the cross-party concerns of Kensington and Chelsea, the continuing endeavours of the estate anti-demolition campaign and the cooling of the high-end of the property market and it is clear that a great deal is still opaque. I covered the Earls Court Project for the Guardian from 2009 until my column there was euthenised in January. This article marks the continuation of that coverage here. More to come…

This article was updated on 4 May 2017 to include its reference to Capco’s annual report. 

Categories: Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Earl’s Court: ‘no decision’ yet on new masterplan for controversial scheme – Dave Hill ON LONDON says:

    […] the comprehensive redevelopment of approximately 77 acres of the Earl’s Court area in 2013, told the mayor in December that an “optimised” version of the project could increase the number of new […]

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