Be A Voice: What Battersea Power Station says about the Housing Crisis

By Campaign Agent Nick Jones

News that just 9% of the 4,239 homes under construction in London’s Battersea Power Station will be classed as “affordable” will come as no surprise to those who have watched the housing crisis spiral deeper and deeper into absurdity. 

Cherished by Londoners and iconic the world over, the monstrously beautiful building is finally on course to welcome residents, following the collapse of several similar projects since its decommissioning as a functioning electricity plant in 1983. Despite initial promises that the site would contain 650 affordable residences, the local council has ceded to developers’ demands, slashing that figure to just half.

For the Malaysian consortium backing what is now the largest property deal ever carried out in Britain, the rewards will be plentiful: Battersea’s most treasured structure will complete its long-awaited transformation from electricity generator to cash creator. If some properties lie empty, so what? Just so long as somebody buys them.

In many ways, the saga is just the latest episode in the dystopian reality of London’s property market. But the Power Station’s tale says much more about an area which once stood proud as a bastion of radical housing solutions.

The Pimlico Connection

Visitors to the Battersea Power Station development’s website are greeted with glossy images and a selection of buzzwords promising, above all else, “innovation”. The space, it reads, will be “one of the most exciting and innovative new neighbourhoods in the world”, complete with “stunning sky villas” and “comfortable studios”. 

For a city already stuffed full of glass towers and five-star flats, you could be forgiven for wondering where the innovation actually is. Penthouses, skyline apartments and riverside suites? It all just feels oh-so-familiar.

If real innovation is what the Power Station’s new tenants are after, they need only look out of their panoramic windows across the Thames to Pimlico, and the Churchill Gardens Estate.

An intricately-designed network of neat-looking, medium-height tower blocks, Churchill Gardenssprung up in the 1950s in a spirit of post-war optimism. Promising high-quality social housing in the heart of SW1, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, the new estate - built on an area flattened by German bombs - would be constructed with the community in mind.

The properties of Churchill Gardens were not only affordable, but truly revolutionary. Interspersed with green spaces and communal gardens, and containing pubs, a primary school and several community halls- developers took every opportunity to foster a collective environment. Moreover, taking advantage of the close proximity to Battersea Power Station, the architects installed a clean and innovative heating system. 

Before the war, the rows of terraced houses where Churchill Gardens now stands relied on dirty coal fires. To warm the estate, a tunnel was constructed directly under the Thames from the Power Station, supplying a huge central boiler and, in turn, the brand new flats. The first of its kind, the district-wide heating system forged a physical bond between the estate and Battersea. Over the past few years, as Churchill Gardens’ residents have watched both the appearance and function of the Power Station change forever, that bond has disintegrated.

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The end of social innovation?

Today, it’s not just the River Thames which separates Churchill Gardens and Battersea Power Station. The once conjoined-cousins have been wrenched apart by a fundamental shift in the way we approach housing and the very concept of innovation.

In the 1950s, housing innovation was socially-oriented. It meant crafting the landscape to meet the needs of the people. It meant high-quality homes for low-income tenants. It meant finding solutions which benefited everyone. For its location, its design and its success, nowhere epitomises this better than Churchill Gardens.

Divorced from its collective purpose, innovation now worships the individual, conjuring up images of self-contained habitations, technological gimmicks and private space. It has altered the fabric of how we approach communities. Again, the Power Station’s website speaks volumes: if new arrivals to Churchill Gardens could grab a pint in the local, residents in Battersea, it reads, will have access to “spa and private dining facilities.” 

Margaret Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society”, and property developers have taken that phrase to its logical endpoint. Such is the societal shift towards individualism that even sacred buildings such as Battersea Power Station have not escaped. 

Innovation should be pursued, but for the housing crisis to be solved, a rethink of current trends is essential. If Theresa May really is going to push through a revolution in planning rules and housebuilding, as she set out this week in a major speech, then looking to the past might just be the answer. And from 10 Downing Street, she needn’t look far: Churchill Gardens is an excellent place to start. 

Sources and Further Reading 

Image: Andy Thornley @flickr