Farewell Wapping, the Fortress of Solitude

What does the selling off of News International's HQ mean for the future of journalism?

Fortress Wapping is no more. At least, it will be no more soon, as News International seeks to sell off the site which once it had earmarked for a now-shelved campus development.

It's a move that seems like a rather poignant reflection of the state of print. Once upon a time, Wapping was something people fought over; it was the epicentre of the journalists' and printworkers' dispute of 1986, when sales of newspapers in Britain had reached their peak. Now, it's being closed down, with barely a struggle. "A readjustment of a property portfolio," says the statement, but it's hard not to think it's symbolic of more than that.

The News International brand has been poisoned by the phonehacking saga, which still echoed on yesterday, with more statements to parliament and more accusations. It's not going away any time soon, with more arrests continuing. You can't stop something from being news, once it's news; Rupert Murdoch probably knows that best of all.

While James Murdoch is feeling the heat, the aura of invincibility has gone from his father - an aura which was created at around the time when he decided to smash the unions and move to Wapping in the first place. Perhaps the departure from that site could represent the closing of a circle; perhaps it is just a cold business decision in difficult trading times -- the one-off revenues from the sale of prime land should be handsome, although you have to wonder how much greater they would have been in a property boom rather than a slump. Whatever the reason, Fortress Murdoch, Fortress Wapping, which once seemed impregnable is now being abandoned.

It's not just a change of site though. The Wapping announcement coincides with the shedding of more than 100 journalists' jobs. Those of us who've been through the business of being booted out ourselves will recognise the language: consultation; challenging economic conditions; reassessment; an extremely testing time; great confidence for the future; yadda yadda yadda. We've heard it all before, and we know what it means.

As ever with these announcements, I take no pleasure in seeing a bunch of journalists being kicked out after a lifetime in their chosen profession -- even if they did end up working for Murdoch. It's a stark reminder of the state of the industry -- when I started working a big regional daily in 2004, there were nearly 200 journalists working there; now there are 60. When you see even the likes of News International shedding jobs, using that ominous language about 'going forward' that we redundant types remember so well from Powerpoint presentations and friendly memos back at our old workplaces, you know that something is wrong. This could be more than just a little local difficulty.

There's something else: it's been nearly nine weeks since the News of the World printed its last-ever 'souvenir' edition (available now on Ebay for £5m) but the Sun hasn't started printing on a Sunday yet. It may be just around the corner; it may be some distance away. But it is going to happen -- isn't it? And if there's even the slightest possible chance that it isn't, what does that mean for the future of the industry?

The old certainties are gone: Fortress Wapping is no more; the Murdoch aura has disappeared. In their place are new certainties: journalists are going to lose their jobs. Ink is declining. And it's hard to see a time when that is going to change.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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