A Very Conspicuous Relic
John Lanchester · The Tories in Battersea
I’m not going to comment on the Tory manifesto until I’ve read it, which won’t be for a day or two since the sodding thing is 118 pages long. (I thought I might order the £5 hardback from Amazon for next-day delivery, but it isn’t available. In fact if you type in Conservative Party Manifesto, the top result is a second-hand copy of the 2005 Manifesto, for £10. Someone’s eye is off the ball.)
The launch was interesting, though. Battersea Power Station has obviously negative associations, which rivals weren’t slow in pointing out: as Nick Clegg put it, ‘they’ve just launched it in a power station that doesn’t have any power.’ In fact it’s worse than that, since the power station is a very conspicuous relic, an abandoned shell, a purposeless eyesore which testifies both to the achievements of Britain’s past and the relative deterioration of its present. A walk along the South Bank of the Thames offers, among its various other entertainments, a form of reverse time travel in which old amenities such as Shakespeare’s Globe, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and the Clink Prison are spanking new, but Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1930s power station, the largest brick building in Europe, is so decrepit that its chimneys are at significant risk of falling down.
It’s a bizarre place to have chosen as a significant backdrop for an electoral pitch. And maybe that’s the point. The power station is in a marginal constituency, very near the top of the Tories’ target list. I spoke to a Labour activist who’s campaigned in the area for 25 years, and he says of Battersea that ‘it’s a Tory seat now,’ meaning that the demographic changes, especially the ones linked to the property market, have moved the seat back to the Tories, who lost it in 1997. But they still have to win it, and they have also to win the considerable number of other South London marginal seats, many of whose residents are very familiar with the sad story of the Power Station and the evident failure it represents. I live about two miles down the road from the Power Station, and feel slightly depressed by it every time I go past – which I’d say is about once every day or two for the last 20 years. There are an awful lot of people who could say the same.
The failure of the power station is a multiple systems failure. The station (actually two stations, there were two power-generating facilities) stopped producing energy in 1983. Since then it has been owned by a consortium headed by a favourite Thatcherite businessman, John Broome, by Bank of America, by a Hong Kong based property development company called Parkview and since 2006 by an Irish company called Real Estate Opportunities. There have been all sorts of ambitious plans for the redevelopment, and nothing at all has happened, thanks to a mixture of recession (the last big Tory one), the horrible complexities of the leasing on the site, arguments with residents and the local council, and, especially, the uselessness of the developers. There is good stuff on it here.
The competition in 1983 was won by a consortium of builders banks and architects brought together specifically for the event by Sir David Roche. John Broome, the owner of Alton Towers theme park, was a member of the consortium. Soon after the competition, Broome took control of the organisation. He then changed the emphasis of the proposed development by using American theme parks as his model requiring 2 million customers a year for profitability with an estimated cost of £35 million.
The gullible Conservative local council supported the theme park and and gave Broome planning permission in May 1986. They ignored the evidence from Battersea Power Station Community Group that traffic would make the roads impassable. The claim that 4,000 new jobs would be created was a 10 fold exaggeration and that £35 million was not enough to pay for the extravagant proposal.
After securing finance, John Broome purchased the site in 1987 for £1.5 million and work started. However, costs quickly escalated, reaching £230 million by January 1989. Work stopped in March 1989 leaving the Power Station in its present semi-derelict and exposed state. Since that date it has languished without a roof, its steel work exposed to the elements and its foundations prone to flooding.
In March 1990, Broome returned to the local council with a plan for 1.5 million sq.ft. of offices, a 1,000 bedroom hotel and 100,000 sq.ft. of shops to surround the Power Station to try and maximise the potential of the land. Planning permission was granted in August 1990 even though 14 independent organisations ranging from English Heritage and the Thirties Society to all adjacent Councils and the Community Group severely criticised the plans. Despite receiving planning permission, no further work took place between 1990 and 1993.
In 1993 the Bank of America were paid approximately £10 million to by a Hong Kong based development company to take a controlling interest in the site.
As for what happened next, here’s a good piece from the Guardian, listing much of what had gone wrong by 2002:
The Hwangs bought the site nearly 10 years ago from one of Lady Thatcher's favourite entrepreneurs, John Broome, then chairman of Alton Towers leisure centre. His scheme for a themed Edwardian Tivoli Gardens had collapsed after only four months of construction work.
The brothers promised luxury flats, two hotels, a massive theatre and a new railway station. Some of the biggest names in show business, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company, plus blue-chip companies such as British airports operator BAA and foreign backers including the US-based Gordon group, backed a feasibility study.
None of these companies is now involved in development of the site. A confidential letter from BAA obtained by the Guardian showed it pulled out after a dispute about who would own the head lease of the site.
On May 16 2000, Parkview International, the Hwangs' Hong-Kong-based property company, launched a glossy brochure with a new list of supporters promising a "masterplan". "Londoners and tourist alike will finally be able to truly embrace the landmark as a centre of creative and entertainment excellence," the promoters said.
The brochure promised a dedicated rail link to Victoria, a mile away across the Thames; a 2,100-seat theatre to be occupied by Cirque du Soleil; a 20-screen cinema with 4,400 seats from Warner Village Cinemas, and a state-of-the-art Office Product Showcase that would be built before other developments. There were also to be two hotels and 650 luxury apartments, all to be completed by 2003.
Now, 30 months later, not a single development has started and some never will. The strategic rail authority has vetoed the rail link due to lack of track space. Cirque du Soleil has dropped out by "mutual agreement".
Nothing has happened since, beyond another change of ownership and a new architectural masterplan. Work is allegedly due to start next year. As for the current owners – well, this piece from the Independent, about the current crop of super rich Irish land tycoons, will give you some idea: it’s called ‘Developers Castles May Be Built On Sand As Flood of Debt Rises’. (The relevant two developers from the piece are Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett.)
So the disaster of Battersea power station is a story about some of the many ways in which Britain doesn’t work, a failure of both public and private sectors, a failure of both money and government. It’s a much better symbol of ‘broken Britain’ than anything from the tabloid horror headlines. In so far any one political party takes the blame for what’s happened, it is the Tories, who both allowed the power station to be sold off and who ran the relevant council, Wandsworth – indeed, Wandsworth was famous for being their ‘flagship council’. The Tory launch at Battersea might be nothing more than a visual, but it might also be intended to send two subtle messages: one, that if they win power, things will be different this time. Two, that a large part of what Britain needs is simply to be governed better.