Battersea Power Station | Photo: Terence J Sullivan - Flickr | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article Battersea Power Station | Photo: Terence J Sullivan - Flickr | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article

The luxury development of London’s famous power station is another monument to wealth and inequality in a divided city, argues Terina Hine

After four decades and £9 billion, Battersea Power Station has been reborn. At one time Battersea provided a fifth of the citys electricity, today it is one of London’s finest pieces of industrial architecture and its chimneys a major landmark. Re-launched as a mixed-use development, part luxury shopping mall, part Apple headquarters and part extortionately expensive residential real estate, it is a microcosm of all that is wrong with development, planning and housing in London.

The power station itself has been lovingly renovated, no expense spared: the crumbling chimneys have been returned to their former glory; the station’s brickwork restored with 1.7 million handmade bricks, in 12 colours, produced by the original manufacturers; attention to detail is such that there are even chimney shaft inspired dustbins spread across the 42 acre site. The two turbine halls have been painstakingly refurbished: Hall A, dating from the 1930s reflecting the Art Deco glamour of the era; Hall B adopting a 1950s space-age look in keeping with its period of construction.

The waterfront has been transformed into a welcome public space making use of the river, with grass banks and deckchairs and a pier perfect for picnicking on a summer’s day. Unfortunately, to find the river or the power station, visitors have to wend their way through streets lined with glass apartment blocks, ingeniously hiding from view the very building they were constructed to save.

This forest of metal and glass is set to grow, and will eventually hold 4,239 flats, so far only 1,600 have been built. The power station itself houses 250 of most exclusive residential properties. With a spare £9 million one of its rooftop ‘sky villas’ could be yours. If you can only stretch to £895,000 then sorry, you’ll have to make do with a studio flat. The developers claim the flats will not be dark, empty investments like so much of London’s luxury new builds, but a vibrant community; 90% of residential units have already sold. But as investors such as MGT have been bulk buying (in 2021 MGB bought up 92 flats for £150m) sold may not equate to lived in.

And even if they are inhabited, it is clearly only the very rich who could consider living here, and the ‘neighbourhood’ as the developers call it, is geared to a particularly well-healed community. The shopping mall is more airport departure lounge than local shopping centre. Rolex, Omega and Cartier are waiting when you need to pop out for a little something.

Those outlets not selling luxury brands are restaurants or bars. The most meticulously restored of the two control rooms is for private events only, the other control room is an electricity themed cocktail bar, where an admittedly deliciously sounding Battersea Power Station ‘for 3-4 engineers’ (fruity/sweet/delicate gin based cocktail with cherry liqueur with variety of fresh juices) will set you back a mere £52. But no worries, for the locals there’s always the General Store where bottles of wine can be purchased for £1,000. All less than the new watch.

If eating, drinking and shopping is not your thing, then for £20 visitors will be able to take lift 109 to the top of the 109 metre chimney and spend eight minutes admiring the view. A view that no doubt incorporates the delights of Nine Elms, the neighbouring monstrosity that is part of the Vauxhall, Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, a regeneration masterplan signed off by London Mayor Boris Johnson in 2012.

The ‘affordable housing’ component of the Battersea development has yet to be built, it is phase four of the project of which the power station is only phase two. When the affordable homes are built they are will be squeezed next to the railway tracks, and most will be far from affordable, as the policy allows prices to be set at 80% of market value.

Even so, the initially promised 636 ‘affordable’ units were cut to 386 by the developers, a mere 9 per cent of the total housing on offer. The planning consent was disgracefully approved by the then Conservative Wandsworth council, in direct breach of London’s policy for all new developments to have 30-50% ‘affordable units’. Today Wandsworth have a higher than average level of homelessness with over 11,000 families on their housing waiting list, these are people who can hardly stretch to a ticket for the new cinema (£17.50 standard adult price) let alone an ‘affordable’ two bed flat.

Battersea Power station is a London icon: depicted on Pink Floyd’s Animals album, it has provided a backdrop to blockbuster films (The Dark Knight, The King’s Speech and Superman III) and tv shows such as Dr. Who and Sherlock. Undoubtedly it was a travesty that it lay empty and dilapidated for so long, and unquestionably some of the restoration is beautiful. But this regeneration, part of Europe’s largest urban development project, is marred by lack of affordability and obscene wealth.

Battersea is an area with strong working class roots: in 1877 one of the earliest social housing estates was built in the borough, and with the erection of the power station working class homes were nestled next to industrial sites. Unsurprisingly it gained a reputation for radical politics and was the birthplace of Britain’s first socialist political party. In 1912 it elected the first black mayor and in 1922 had a Communist Party MP, Shapurji Satlatvala, the first of Indian heritage. Now it is being developed as a playground for the rich, and its power station a cathedral to consumerism.

Unlike London’s other great power station, which became the Tate Modern art gallery in 2000, this reincarnation is one that is difficult to celebrate. 

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