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.


21 comments on “Where Not To Live In London”

  1. Paul C says:

    Reminds me of a sad sentimental film called The Optimists of Nine Elms starring Peter Sellers as a forgotten music hall performer reduced to busking in this forlorn area.

  2. fred slab says:

    Nine Elms – London’s newest and biggest car theft hotspot.

    I don’t know if I’m predicting or just daydreaming. Mine’s the rust-red Volkswagen Schadenfreude

  3. SteveB says:

    There’s a new tube station there due to open soon…

  4. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Tear it down, build a park.

  5. brooke says:

    Read Wainright’s article…before some evils one can only stare in horrified silence. Wishing architects, developers and financers a slow tortured death.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    There is a concern in Manchester some of these blocks are the slums of the future. Oddly enough Rochdale had a block that was for young professionals years back in the town centre, rents were higher than the local council rates. Sadly it’s been let go and now looks lively to be demolished.

    Wonder what cladding they used on the blocks,looks like a lot of these investments might not be the bees knees after all. Although the Hong Kong exodus my fill up a number of the blocks.


  7. Peter T says:

    Brooke, You omitted the city planners and building control/inspectors. Bad taste, corruption, incompetence – all to a criminal level.

  8. Derek j Lewis says:

    Has anybody watched London County council’s 1970 promotional film about Thamesmead on YouTube? Although Thamesmead was publicly funded, the short sightedness of the planners then, and the future neglect is a sobering lesson for these new developments

  9. David Ronaldson says:

    I wonder how long it is since there were 9 elms there…

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    I guess it depends if people like Robert Elms lived there.

    Now if we were taking about forkandles.


  11. brooke says:

    Peter T: didn’t forget planners, etc. Just feel that the top money bags should be taken down first.

    See NYTimes article about 432 Park Avenue, NYC exclusive billionaire address. “The Downside to Life in a Supertall Tower…Leaks, Cracks, Breaks… Here’s an excerpt:

    ” Some residents railed against surging fees at the building’s private restaurant, overseen by the Michelin-star chef, Shaun Hergatt. When the building opened in late 2015, homeowners were required to spend $1,200 a year on the service; in 2021, that requirement jumps to $15,000, despite limited hours of operation because of the pandemic. And breakfast is no longer free.”

    Join me at the guilotine.

  12. Peter T says:

    If you build an oak frame workshop in your back garden, building control may tell you that you have not excavated deep enough for the foundation, though you have gone down to solid rock. They will not turn up on time to check before you lay the concrete base, so you have to keep delaying the ready mix supplier and end up spreading concrete in the dark, under heavy rain.

    In spite of all that, they have no problem about lining the workshop with a material (also used, at the time, on the outside of tower blocks!!!) that any fool should be able to identify as an appalling fire hazard.

    These people and the town planners should be protecting the public and the environment. Yet, at best, they follow a code book written by an idiot.

  13. Jan says:

    I spent most of the summers of 1981 and 1982 in the shell of that power station. Was after Brixton became very lively and lots of it burnt down. During a very exuberant weekend in April 1981 I think but can hardly remember now. Early on in that summer anyroad.

    There was a whole lot of bricks in them big power station walls. Some nutters used to count them. Honestly – just pitiful!

    We played netball or basketball and rounders and I read novels. Ate some “interesting” meals at what they used to term operational feeding.( Which was about as appetizing as it sounds.)

    That was where I 1st really learned to love the novels of P G Wodehouse. There was some blurb on their paperback covers about Wodehouse creating a world that would never grow stale. Which was true. Funny when in life you are really Happy and hardly realise it.

    Happy days though really, strange as it sounds. Long time back.

  14. admin says:

    I won’t be including a chapter on London’s underground rivers, although there will be passing mentions. The reason?

    At the last count there were seven books on the subject, with maps, photos and detailed histories. In fact I wrote the foreword to one such volume. The rivers have been disproportionately covered, as has the history of London Underground.

    My guide will be different to traditional guides. There’ll be more on this in the months that follow.

  15. Barbara Boucke says:

    To Admin – There’s such a thing as system overload (if that’s the right term to use here) with information about London – not just the Abbey, the Tower, and all the rest but places like the rivers as well. In one of your Bryant and May books there are bits about Arthur’s walking tours which I really enjoyed. They were different – with information I didn’t know.
    Quirky – but in a good way. If that’s any indication of how the guide will be, I am really looking forward to it.

    To Jan – Thanks for your reply on the previous blog entry. Places do grow/expand in odd ways if no real planning for the future is involved. I grew up in a small town which sits between straits that lead to the San Francisco Bay and hills. The town is stil basically small but it expanded in odd directions because of the geography of the area. Also Wodehouse – I haven’t read him in a long time but I think I still have a few copies and will have to hunt them up.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    The council in my town, are suspected by a lot of people, me included, to have done a lot of ‘brown envelope’ dealings with developers – there are huge buildings that have been empty since construction, as nobody wants to live in them, being built, as they are on a horribly busy road (24/7), with little access to the town, and nowhere to park a car. One was badly damaged in the gales of 2013, and has not been repaired.
    Others were so shoddily built, that they had to have work done before people moved in. There was some good work done on a building, and people living there had a sunny terrace and good views. Then an ugly tower was built next door, and these flats are now permanently in shadow. The only good thing that was done, was the council got fed up of waiting for people to buy flats in another building, and so turned them into council flats, which annoyed people living in the adjoining block, who’d paid a lot to live in their nasty little boxes, most of which have a view of the back of some other flats. I knew someone who lived on his boat, and rented a flat in one of the blocks. He quit after a short while, saying it was cold, damp and that the walls were so thin, you couldn’t nail a picture up. Externally, they look just like the crappy brutalist concrete you’d see in East Germany. We refer to them as ‘Stasi Blocks’.
    I live in a very solid 1960’s semi, bought and paid for, with the countryside ten minutes’ walk away. For that, I’m eternally thankful.

  17. Jan says:

    I was given to understand that this area is unlikely to fail long term largely because theres loads of Embassies due to relocate down there. The Japanese have done so or are in the process of doing so (Possibly delayed by the pandemic) and at one point about 5 other nations were seriously discussing going. With many more likely to follow.

    If you think Mr. F. if you leave the location of this New American Embassy (which is a rum looking thing to be sure ) and Totter off in the direction of the river you come across a whole series of secure government accommodation.

    Tintagel House, the MI5 Building (or possibly MI6 never could sort them out!) The massive United Nations Shipping HQ Place noticeable for the load of flags flapping on poles outside it is there. Then off to the S E is the Lambeth M.P. Building with its extensive basement facilities. This part of South to S.W. London is quite extraordinary really there must be some reason why it’s become singled out as as a possible new Embassy quarter when you think of it.

    The embassies of London have grown up piecemeal (with a few quite startling locations on the locations list!) the idea of grouping them relatively close to each other around here apart from releasing billions worth of land in central London well whats that all about then?

    If you remember the large council estate adjacent to Dolphin square the name of which for the life of me i cannot remember (I bloody well should I paid enough visits there) well that was heated by the waters generated/ produced at Battersea power station + piped under the Thames There are various links beneath the Thames there. If I remember rightly in WW2 the government tried to create an underground bunker relatively close to the location of this New tube station beIng built now. Never came off cos the land repeatedly flooded. Probably coincidental but it makes you think.

    Now theres the guide to London that never quite got written. ‘Beneath the City Streets” and Duncan-Campbell ‘s work came closest I suppose

  18. Jan says:

    Serves me right for not thoroughly reading your piece there Chris it’s CHURCHILL GDNS
    Course it is Doh!

  19. Barbara Boucke says:

    I read and reread a lot of old mysteries – as I call them – written in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Sometimes I come across a character – even a minor one – who comments on the changes in a small town or village created by the railroad or a motorway bypassing what was once a thriving community and the effects of that happening. I just finished rereading a Leo Bruce mystery in which a character more than once spoke of forested land that was going to be sold, cottages that would be torn down, only to be replaced by council housing or some other multi- residential building. I’ve often wondered when I read the comments if the author is speaking thru the character. Perhaps I am being naive and it’s just an effort to sound current, but I’m not always sure that that’s the case.

  20. Peter Dixon says:

    George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’ is a brilliant evocation of a changing English world, where a salesman escapes from his overbearing wife by returning to the village where he grew up only to find that its changed for the worse. Total tragicomedy. It should probably have been filmed in the 1950’s with Alec Guinness in the lead part.

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    isn’t there a project for mapping UK underground, especially cables, sewers etc called Project Iceberg.

    I guess there has been a lot of info on the t’internet about underground stuff.


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