Where Not To Live In London
It’s happening everywhere, of course; the scent of money attracts rushed construction that destroys neighbourhoods. But trust London to make it more egregious than in, say, New York.
A few weeks ago I went for a walk through an area I’ve not visited for a while. Nine Elms is not a neighbourhood. It lies between Vauxhall and Battersea Power Station, somewhere you drive through via an ugly no-man’s-land connecting Lambeth Palace to Battersea Park.
Once the home of a vast cold storage facility and several reeking factories, it has never been fit for human habitation, although decades ago I remember a lone waterside pub there. The only thing the area has is proximity; it’s surprisingly near Westminster. And it’s now the home of the US Embassy, in a bomb-proof building that looks like a 1970s Birmingham car park, so ugly that even Trump refused to open it.
The fate of the immense Battersea Power Station nearby, unloved and forgotten, the victim of rapacious planners, finally became clear. It would be mixed-use flats ‘n’ retail, as we always knew it would. Worse, under precedence set by John Prescott, it filled with empty investment opportunities; Chinese and Qatari tower blocks with rooftop running tracks and floating sky pools, plus poor doors for the few social housing Londoners who actually reside there.
As you attempt to walk along the southern side of the river between Vauxhall and Battersea you sense something is very wrong; the buildings bulge outward, bottlenecking pedestrians and casting one great shadow over the claustrophobic walkway. You have an impression of walls and windows, nothing else. The area looms over you, a featureless concrete dead spot filled with supercars.
According to the developers such properties offer buyers the chance to ‘live the complete Versace lifestyle, a fantasy turned into reality’, which presumably excludes the opportunity of being shot dead on your own doorstep.
So far, so vulgarian. It’s not as if the council didn’t have time to look at this and think that there might be a better way; they had decades to decide what was best for its borough’s residents. And they decided to turn it into a no-go portfolio area for investors. Anyone who knows the area can only treat this as a tasteless joke.
As Oliver Wainright points out in the Guardian; ‘The exclusion has been designed into the buildings, streets and public spaces, and is enforced by the private management regimes that govern them.’
Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth council, is only concerned about the free market, and keenly points out the area’s success with attracting foreign buyers who never visit their investments. Recently the site became the subject of yet another scandal, this time connected to the fraudulent re-listing of flats to artificially inflate their value.
But now there’s a growing sense of caveat emptor; who wants to own a flat jammed between a gyratory system and the railway lines in what has always been a shit part of the city? The planners thought they were building a ‘cluster’ of sky-rises but they look terrible. They certainly don’t resemble the London featured in their sales pitch. Suddenly a flat in Wuhan is more appealing than in Nine Elms.
All this was touted by Boris Johnson when he was mayor. Our straw-clutching PM gave it five seconds of attention before pronouncing it a brilliant vision of the future. What throws the tragedy of Nine Elms into greater relief is the fact that opposite lies Churchill Gardens, a gentle postwar council estate on the riverside that looks increasingly appealing as its millionaire neighbours desperately slash their prices and continue to reach for the sky.