Nine Elms. It's a hulking great development, taking in the whole southern swathe of the riverside between Lambeth and Chelsea bridges. It'd take you 40 minutes to walk end to end — or at least, it will when the whole river path is opened up around Battersea Power Station. Around 35,000 people are expected to move into all the new homes that are being built, and around 25,000 permanent new jobs will be created. It's going to completely transform this part of London in a very short space of time, so we met with the team tasked with putting the whole project together to find out what's happening.
Let's start with the most controversial aspect: all those skyscrapers. 18,000 new homes are being built here, with around 3,500-4,000 affordable homes. It's an indisputable fact that London needs more housing. We either build out onto the green belt or we make the most of the brownfield we have and build up. Or probably both. Clusters of skyscrapers like the ones planned for Vauxhall aren't the most pleasing on the eye, or fun to walk around the bases of (wind tunnels); all these glass towers create a perverse blandification of the skyline that's comparable to Ian Nairn's fears about high streets all ending up looking the same.
We suspect that many of the aesthetic objections might go away if there was a sense that this housing was for everyone. Flats in the Riverlight development are currently up for sale with studio apartments starting from £550,000, which is just stupid, and we've written before about what's happening at Battersea Power Station. However, this is where the story of Nine Elms gets complicated. Very little public money has gone into this development, which is transforming a belt of light industrial land. Levies on private developers are paying for the infrastructure necessary to support the change from industrial to residential and commercial — new schools, drainage systems, a park and green spaces, refurbishment of New Covent Garden Market, new health facilities — and that money's coming from property sales.
Helen Fisher, programme director for the Nine Elms Delivery Team, told us:
"We never had quite enough money — about £500m, £600m — but it was near enough, in terms of what we were expecting to receive from the developments. Part of that calculation about what sites could give in terms of infrastructure is also what we needed to deliver in terms of affordable housing. So you’ve got both of those things going on in any financial appraisal. What we do is coordinate the delivery of the infrastructure. That £500m/£600m pot will come in over 10 years so it’s not all cash in the bank, we need these guys to build so we can get the money."
As the property market has boomed these last few years, developers have been able to command higher prices for these top end flats, which has meant extra money becoming available on top of the levies already in place. It's like a tax on rich people. Wandsworth Council, for example, has gained an extra £40m from the Embassy Gardens development in a profit sharing deal. (The money will go towards building housing on council land elsewhere in Wandsworth, for the simple reason that more units can be built somewhere the council doesn't have to pay exorbitant land prices.) But there is affordable housing going into Nine Elms itself; on the Wandsworth side, priced at around 64% of average market rents across the borough — not an average of rent levels in Nine Elms, which will be massively higher.
Let's also address the issue of segregating the rich from the poor — the 'poor door' conundrum, if you will. In One Nine Elms, the market and affordable housing will be mixed in together, but in most cases the affordable housing will be in a separate building or a separate core (same building, different entrance). As much as we all hate this, it comes down to service charges and costs. Luxury towers tend to come with great big annual fees to pay for that 24 hour concierge, gym and restaurant. If you're an affordable housing tenant you're clearly not going to be able to pay that, and that's how we end up with stories like social housing tenants at One Tower Bridge being denied access to a garden, because they wouldn't be able to afford to pay for its upkeep. Housing associations, who actually run the affordable homes, prefer separate facilities so they can keep control of costs.
So what we're ending up with at Nine Elms is a variety of schemes. One's funding a block for frail elderly people. One development's paying for new social housing, charged at around 40-45% of borough-wide market rents. Developer Bellway, on the old Christie's warehouse site, is providing 76 affordable homes but also 114 homes specifically set aside for the private rental sector — a 'build to rent' scheme where the properties are managed by decent, large scale landlords, and something we like. So long as central government isn't funding genuinely affordable housebuilding on a massive scale we'll have to rely on this hotch-potch approach of cobbling together money from private development and — when you consider what else has been funded by the levies — Nine Elms has done the best it can.
After the homes, the next big change is all the new commercial space that's being created — and the jobs that will bring. The 25,000 new jobs are permanent positions — i.e., not included in the construction roles that make up the majority of opportunities now — and will be in offices, shops, restaurants, leisure and the 11 new hotels planned for the area. Lambeth and Wandsworth councils have set up jobs brokering teams to connect local people with the latest openings.
Then there's the regeneration of New Covent Garden Market. Helen Evans, Director of Business Development and Support at the Covent Garden Market Authority, says:
"We’re basically a public body so everyone’s happy for us to do this so long as we don’t cost anybody any money. We have a deal with a private development partner, we will be giving up part of our land and in return we will get a shiny new market and the ability to do public facing things."
What she means is that, instead of being hidden behind a brick wall, the market will become more accessible to everyone. As well as the stalls in the morning — did you know that 75% of London's florists visit the market once a week, or that 40% of the fruit and veg we eat outside the home comes from here? — they plan to run masterclasses, tastings and school programmes. In the evenings, the market will be open for events like jam making.
The other major change is that routes towards the river will be opened up for the first time. Where the Thames has been, in effect, blocked off by industrial sites, the team were excited to show us the new north-south access points from Wandsworth Road and the north end of Battersea. "That’s the exciting bit," said Helen Evans. "It’s about making the links between things that already exist so it’s much more organic than central planning. There’s lots of hidden treasures, but there’s a railway line and roads that sometimes block off people from accessing those things."
A new park, snaking along the length of the development, will provide a pedestrian and cycling route through the area. The first section — albeit very small — will open in 2016, and there are other pocket parks planned. Potential designs for a bridge between Nine Elms and Pimlico were released recently, though planning permission is still needed and Westminster Council is currently sceptical. As well as the Northern line extension, two new bus routes are coming with existing routes getting a capacity boost and, says Helen Foster, "improvements to Vauxhall station, tube and Network Rail and the other two train stations in the area. There’s a cycling strategy throughout the whole of the area as well as riverboat services. There’s a whole package of transport."
So where does this leave us? With a radically altered riverside, sure. But London's constantly changing and, as we said above, building up could well be inevitable if we're going to cope with a population increase that could see us hit 10 million by 2030. One positive thing going for Nine Elms is that it hasn't gone the Greenwich Peninsula route, of shunting the ordinary housing half a mile inland so the wealthy get their own little playground. In the absence of mass government investment in low cost housing, schemes have to rely on community infrastructure levies and Section 106 payments from private developers in order to make anything happen.
Do we wish the area would be more affordable? Yes. Do we recognise that with the current economic and political climate, that's simply not going to happen? Yes. In the middle of a housing crisis and where so many other schemes are reducing affordable housing provision citing costs, we're actually quite impressed with what Nine Elms is managing to achieve with housing and overhauling the entire area. It won't be to everyone's taste, but we're certainly interested to see how it pans out into reality.