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News analysis: Embattled Battersea faces new threat

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Financial fears for the majority owners of Battersea Power Station have cast serious doubt over the future of Rafael Viñoly’s £5.5 billion scheme for the site and reignited debate over London’s most troubled landmark

Should the project vehicle, which is mainly owned by Real Estate Opportunities, go under, it would prompt the fourth sale of the site since the government put the Grade II*-listed landmark on the market in 1984.

On Monday (12 December), subsidiaries of REO, which has planning permission to build 3,400 homes on the site, must repay £324 million of debt to their creditors Lloyds and NAMA. A further £178 million is owed to Oriental Property.

According to sources close to the project, the Viñoly vision is already ‘kaput’ and would be officially over ‘in the next few weeks’.

‘Anyone taking on the site is going to have start from scratch,’ he said. ‘If they insist on getting full value [and sticking with the Viñoly plan], that site will remain moribund forever.’

Robert Noel, managing director of Land Securities’ London Portfolio, said he ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ to see a new submission break the 15 hectare site down into ‘more manageable chunks’.

He said the ‘huge’ scheme currently being discussed could take years to complete, meaning ‘an awful lot of capital gets tied up’ with only a ‘big consortium’ able to deliver the proposals.

Local authority, Wandsworth Council remains committed to the scheme, hoping a future developer would build out the project’s first phase before seeking amendments to the outline consent and later phases. The council said the site remained a ‘hugely attractive proposition with planning permission for a new town centre’.

A significant stumbling block for any investor remains the £200 million Northern Line extension required as part of the extant planning consent.

Last week chancellor George Osborne called on ‘a developer’ to commit to the tube line and mobilise the massive power station project before 2013. He offered no money but said he would allow local borrowing against future receipts of a community infrastructure levy subject to a developer commitment. REO’s debt recall came a day after his announcement.

The timing prompted one source to suggest London mayor Boris Johnson, the local authority and the government had simply ‘lost patience’ with the lack of movement on the project and were ‘looking for an external developer to take on the problem’.

That developer could be Chelsea Football Club. Last month, the Blues appointed developer Almacantar and KPF to come up with plans for a 60,000-seat stadium on land close to the power station. A source close to Battersea Power Station said they understood the club’s proposal would be a third of the density of Viñoly’s scheme, which would remove the need for a tube spur. Chelsea declined to comment on the rumour.

The biggest obstacle to any future development remains the crumbling power station itself.

Former RIBA president Maxwell Hutchinson, who won planning permission ‘without any problems at all’ to transform the building into a construction industry trade and conference centre 20 years ago, suggests only the four chimneys should be kept. ‘Knock the rest of it down,’ Hutchinson said.

Viñoly’s office declined to comment.


Timeline: Battersea Power Station

Design for Battersea Power Station, London by James Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott

Source: RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Design for Battersea Power Station, London by James Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott

Battersea Power Station was designed by James Theodore Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott. In 1929, the AJ’s Astragal column described the plans as an ‘evil directed at the heart of London’ and ‘diametrically opposed to the spirit in which the wholesale generation of electricity has been undertaken’. But 10 years later, an AJ survey saw it voted Britain’s second-best modern building. The fourth and final chimney was finished in 1955.

Martin Richardson and Graham Morrison's 1981 plan for the station’s re-use

Martin Richardson and Graham Morrison’s 1981 plan for the station’s re-use

In 1975, Battersea’s ‘A Station’ shut down, and five years later environment secretary Michael Heseltine gave the building a Grade-II listing. In 1981, Save Britain’s Heritage commissioned Martin Richardson and Graham Morrison to draw up plans for the station’s re-use, and their scheme for recreational and leisure facilities, a museum, shops and offices won planning the same year. The ‘B Station’ was decommissioned in 1983. The following year, a Central Electricity Generating Board design competition, judged by Hugh Casson, was won by an Alton Towers-led consortium which proposed a ‘family leisure complex’. The site was sold for £1.5 million in 1984. By 1989, Alton’s ‘Battersea Fun Park’, designed by Fitzroy Robinson, was put on hold, forcing English Heritage to call an emergency meeting to stop the listed building being left without a roof. The developer, headed by John Broome, offered to make the site weatherproof, but refused to rebuild the roof on cost grounds.

Battersea Power Station

Source: ©English Heritage

Battersea Power Station

A year later RIBA president Maxwell Hutchinson proposed a construction industry trade and exhibition centre on the site as part of a bid by Business Design Centre mastermind Sam Morris. The same year Everard & Graves and the Battersea Power Station Community Group submitted outline plans to transform the derelict listed shell into a ‘mini Barbican’. In 1993, the fun park’s main creditor, the Hwang Family of Hong Kong, moved to take ownership of the site.

Detailed planning consent for a scheme led by Grimshaw with Benoy, 3DReid, Arup Associates and Benson and Forsyth was approved in 2001

Detailed planning consent for a scheme led by Grimshaw with Benoy, 3DReid, Arup Associates and Benson and Forsyth was approved in 2001

Parkview International – Hwang’s new development body – won outline planning consent for an Arup Associates-masterplanned mixed-use redevelopment in 1997. Detailed planning consent for a scheme led by Grimshaw with Benoy, 3DReid, Arup Associates and Benson and Forsyth was approved in 2001. The project included a theatre for Canadian performance group Cirque de Soleil, with a hotel, retail and cinemas. It received government backing in 2004.

Rafael Viñoly’s £4 billion vision for a 250 metre-tall ‘eco funnel’ was abandoned in 2008

Rafael Viñoly’s £4 billion vision for a 250 metre-tall ‘eco funnel’ was abandoned in 2008

Two years later, Irish developer Real Estate Opportunities bought the site for £400 million and appointed Rafael Viñoly as masterplanner. The building was Grade II-listed in 2007. Viñoly’s £4 billion vision for a 250 metre-tall ‘eco funnel’ was abandoned in 2008. A revised version of the plan promising 15,000 jobs and 3,400 homes received planning permission in 2010, but was conditional upon the developer contributing £200 million towards extending the Northern Line to Battersea. Ian Simpson and DRMM were appointed to design the project’s first phase in April this year. Last week, lenders demanded £324 million and lined up administrators to take over.


Further comment

The Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, south London

The Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, south London


Alfred Dubs, former Labour MP for Battersea

I don’t know of any commercially viable development that retains the power station. It should have been designed as an arts centre with exhibition space for the national gallery and V&A. I’m reluctant to concede that the only way forward is for a developer to make a killing out of it.


Keith Garner, architect and campaigner with Battersea Power Station Company Group

This has been expected for most of the last year. Treasury/REO paid too much for the site in 2006. 

Only when the future of the building itself is secure, should the rest of the site be tackled. In that sense having a ‘masterplan’ has been positively harmful for Battersea; inflating the costs into the billions and making the project all seem more difficult and speculative, frightening away investors.

As for encumbering the owners of the site with a £200 million contribution to the tube, I don’t know what to say. The public benefit is in having the listed building repaired and brought back into use. If you saddle the owner with a massive contribution to the tube line, that primary public benefit is less likely to happen; as we have seen in the last week.

Battersea Power Station would look silly with a stadium jammed right up against it. Also of course there isn’t the infrastructure for a massive visitor attraction like this. This was Broome’s experience in 1983 -1990:  do they never learn. But then so many ill-considered proposals have been put forward for it over the years, I am afraid I wouldn’t bet against it. Abramovich’s interest may have been the catalyst for NAMA and Lloyds to pull the plug in the last week

Those who say demolish it mostly have an ulterior motive. Of course it would be more profitable to knock it down and build flats with river views.  But what are the chances of a better building going up in its place when you see some of the rubbish that has been put up on the riverside in west London in recent years? It would need a public inquiry anyway. I am critical of English Heritage in this, but at least they granted our application to upgrade the listing to II* in 2007.

In the last week we have called for it to be brought back into public ownership. £230 million is probably a very good price for the [15 hectare] riverside site.  It would then be eligible for funding from the lottery to repair the exterior an to present the historic interiors (about 25 per cent of the total volume) to the public. 

Alternately, some kind of development trust or social enterprise model should be employed. This would also make the building eligible for Lottery funding and would allow a wider consortium of interest to be assembled, which would be more robust in dealing with economic vicissitudes occurring in any one sector.  What should not be allowed to happen is for yet another single private owner to take control, as this approach has now finally and conclusively been seen to have failed.   


Marcus Binney, SAVE Britain’s Heritage

SAVE launched the campaign for BPS and obtained the initial planning consent for leisure use with a scheme by architects Martin Richardson and Graham Morrison - with an athletics track in the boiler house - perfect for the Olympics!  As it turned out the proposal we put forward at the same time for Bankside - with designer Barry Mazur - to transform it into an art gallery bore fruit - very indirectly - far sooner.

The problem with BPS is that successive developers and owners have become giddy with excitement and put forward ever more ambitious schemes, alternately making a huge turn and going belly up.  What is needed now is a developer who will see this as a Forth Bridge operation where you begin at one end and keep going.  The power station needs to re-engage with London life - every time it’s open there are queues of people coming to visit - and the large open area on the river with the chimneys as backdrop is the perfect venue for all kinds of events from pop music to product launches.  

We have always said BPS is the Mount Everest of Preservation but it is a colossal landmark on one of the best sites on the Thames.   The stumbling block has always been what to do with the huge unroofed space between the four chimneys -the former boiler house.  why not leave it unroofed  initially and use it for events and concentrate on bringing the flanking Art Deco and Fifties Modern turbine halls  - which are still roofed - back into use.   The numerous highly lucrative planning permissions to build on the land around the power station have all been granted on the basis that the power station must be repaired and brought back into use.  It is time for English Heritage and Wandsworth to serve a repairs order and bring some reality into the ever spiralling but so far fruitless ambitions for this vast wasteland site.

Football could work beside the power station but not in place of it and combine very well with the leisure and sports uses for which Martin and Graham obtained the initial planning permission.


Graham Morrison, Allies and Morrison

It is all too easy to look from the outside and wonder why things take so long or may never happen. It must be 30 years since Martin Richardson and I produced a document for SAVE Britain’s Heritage to demonstrate how the power station could be used and how development around it might work. Our plan was more modest and I think that sometimes developments just get too big and cumbersome to even begin. Understanding the needs of phasing is an essential attribute of any masterplan.

At the South Bank Centre, the Royal Festival Hall was implemented because it was manageable. All previous schemes for the Centre had failed because of the ‘Grand Project’ symptom - fine if you have government backing but not if you don’t. At Kings Cross, the master plan is flexible and implementable from any number of starting points. The problems of Battersea are compounded by the obligations for the Northern Line extension and the restoration of the building itself. I am sure there is a better strategic answer. It is important it is found as so much development of the surrounding are cannot begin until a workable strategy is in place.

Mayor of London spokesperson

The uncertainty over Battersea Power Station redevelopment have been known for some time and the plans are just one part of this huge regeneration project in the capital’s second largest opportunity area after the Olympic Park.

In addition to the US Embassy relocating there and new homes and communities already being delivered on the site, interest from investors and developers remains extremely high with a large number planning applications in the pipeline.

We are totally confident that new investors will also come forward and take over the Battersea Power Station development particularly now that the Government has guaranteed that the Northern Line Extension will go ahead enabling us to deliver vastly improved transport links and unlock the full potential of the Nine Elms area.


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