It’s one of our most iconic buildings, yet it’s been a bête noir since its first sale in 1983. Could this be its year?
Battersea Power Station should symbolise just that…power.
There’s a scene in the 2006 adaptation of PD James’ Children of Men. The lead character, speeding through London in 2027, drives over a formidable bridge towards Battersea Power Station. The station’s façade towers ominously over him, the building now converted into a governmental outpost. Like something out of Gotham City, it exudes might and instills fear.
In 2012, the reality of Giles Gilbert Scott’s art deco masterpiece is quite the opposite. Left crumbling in a baron wasteland the building has none of the triumphant spirit it deserves as it waits, like a battered and bruised warrior no longer fit for battle, for someone to come to the rescue.
But finally, there’s a chance that someone might.
Interested parties are being chauffeur driven around the site and we speak. Riding around in Range Rovers, mini buses and hoisted up in cranes to inspect the power station’s iconic white chimneys.
For the first time in its long history, Battersea Power Station is being sold on the open market.
Since February, property consultant Knight Frank has commanded a huge marketing push in an attempt to secure a long-term owner.
Taken into administration by Ernst & Young, the joint agent with Knight Frank, the sale is expected to raise £500 million. This is the amount owed to creditors following the collapse of a major restoration scheme embarked upon by the Irish property company, Treasury Holdings.
Understandably, Knight Frank is riding the wave of media attention and is billing the sale as the “last undeveloped regeneration site in central London.”
“It’s the most exciting piece of real estate that’s been on the market for years, and the reaction from investors has been great,” Stephan Miles-Brown, head of residential development, Knight Frank tells me.
“It’s an iconic building known around the world, and is up there with the Chrysler building and the Eiffel Tower. It’s a hugely recognisable landmark.”
There’s no denying the notoriety of the building, it has featured in countless film and TV projects, music videos and that Pink Floyd album cover. But the power station’s fame has done little to save the building since its decommissioning in 1983.
To much of the public, it feels like a long string of failed attempts have been made by numerous owners to sort out the site. In actual fact, the station has only passed through three pairs of hands since its closure.
Battersea Power Station previous owners
1984: John Broome – the man responsible for Alton Towers buys the site with plans to create a theme park. He removes the machinery and the roof before running out of funds.
1993: Development company Parkview purchases the building with plans for a £1.1bn housing project.
2006: Real Estate Opportunities and development manager Treasury Holdings buys the plant for £400m.
These three owners, however, have faced with a similar but increasingly monumental task and failed.
After many years of abandonment the building needs a seemingly insurmountable pile of work to make it structurally sound. Ironically, its first owner John Broome did more harm than good by removing the structure’s roof and severely weakening it.
The building is Grade II listed, meaning that any plans to develop the site must be approved by English Heritage.
But despite the extra regulations that come with listed buildings, English Heritage is adamant that they are not to blame for the delays in restoring the power station. Without any prompting from me and my line of questioning, English Heritage seemed defencive about its involvement in the project.
“The viability and execution of any scheme is dependent on many factors,” a spokesperson said.
“However, while we fully appreciate the complex planning challenge presented by this site, and the need to achieve economic viability, we would refute any suggestion that the listed status of the station is a reason for the disappointing lack of progress over recent decades.
“We believe it is feasible to redevelop this site to include the repair and reuse of the station and Treasury Holdings had all the permissions necessary to proceed. The issue with the last scheme was one of finance and high values placed on the land – not a listed building.”
After 20 years derelict, why now?
So if the Grade II listed status isn’t a problem, and wasn’t a problem for Treasury Holdings, what has changed and why is everybody so convinced that this time things will be different?
Well. It seems that certain things are different. For the past twenty years, Gilbert Scott’s power station has been out there on its own, surrounded by a large expanse of industrial waste land and disused warehouses. But this is all about to change.
As English Heritage mentioned, before they (presumably) ran out of money, Treasury Holdings secured planning for £5bn worth of homes, offices, a hotel and a retail and leisure development, all of which included restoration of the station.
So we have a clear answer in place as to what can be done with the station and land that comes with it. The lure of investing into this kind of development has become all the more attractive thanks to a massive regeneration project around the station called Nine Elms.
The Nine Elms project will see 40 acres of land on the bankside developed providing 16,000 new homes, the largest park space to be created in London for 50 years and will be home to the shiny new American Embassy.
And the Northern Line is coming too. An estimated £1bn of new infrastructure is hoped to bolster the area including two new stops for the tube, Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms. In August the Chancellor backed plans for the extension which will be privately funded thanks to a levy on businesses and developers in the area to pledge money towards it.
The planning permission granted for the power station includes a £200m contribution towards the extension.
“If you speak to business people they can see the potential of the whole area,” says a spokesperson for Wandsworth council.
“At the moment you have an old industrialised part of the city incredibly close to central London with the Houses of Parliament across the river. That’s why the Americans have chosen Nine Elms Lane as the location for their new embassy.
“There are so many plans for warehouses to be developed including the old Royal Mail sorting office and the Covent Garden fruit market. The power station is an integral part of the development but it is no longer alone.”
What will happen?
It’s not hard to imagine. Look at London’s other formerly industrial areas and their subsequent gentrification and you can get the gist of what could happen. Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, the Docklands and Stratford; all have become desirable destinations with property prices soaring.
As we reported back in January, Battersea has become one of the next property hotspots. According to Knight Frank, residential value growth is set at 140 per cent by 2016.
With the site on the market at the moment, I wonder who has shown interest. Predictably Knight Frank won’t be drawn on names and details.
“We have seen a mixture of London and UK developers whose names you would know, and international investors with business over here – the usual suspects and some leftfield interest,” he says.
More like this…
“There is a wall of money coming from the middle east, south east Asia and the US – all looking for a home,” says Miles-Brown.
So…it could be anyone with deep enough pockets then. I wonder if he thinks that any of the more adventurous plans for the building might come to fruition. Most recently Sir Terry Farrell’s radical plan for the site hit the headlines with its removed side walls and exposed control rooms.
“As far as I know Sir Terry has put a planning application through, but to be honest I think he’s just trying to spark debate. He is looking to achieve a valuable, economic use of the power station.”
Could Battersea Power Station get demolished?
At a mere £25m, Farrell’s plans are a cheaper option than the current estimation of £90m. Also hitting the headlines recently though, was the news that the site would be worth £470m more if it was knocked down completely.
Property consultancy EC Harris stated that the site is more likely to be revitalised if a developer is allowed to start from scratch by demolishing it.
Despite audible support for the restoration of the building from most people in the public eye, a poll by The Daily Telegraph found that public opinion is mixed. A whopping 44.7 per cent of those polled thought the restoration was unrealistic and the station should be knocked.
I put the question to Knight Frank – could the iconic white chimneys meet their maker this year?
“There’s always a chance,” comes the answer from Miles-Brown. “The twin towers at Wembley are a good comparison and they were demolished and replaced with the Wembley Arch.
“Any plans would be met with opposition from English Heritage who want to see it preserved and would oppose any whole demolition.”
In a year that sees London celebrating the Diamond Jubilee and hosting the Olympic Games – could we see the demise of one of the city’s most recognisable buildings? It is unlikely but not impossible.
We’ll have to wait and see who steps up to buy the power station. With any hope it is someone who is willing to preserve Sir Gilbert Scott’s creation and, like his other design the red telephone box, it will endure as a monument to Britain’s design history and an icon for London. And most importantly power.