The disused Battersea Power station - an iconic London landmark. Photo: Getty
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Exclusive, insensitive and architecturally uninspiring – the new age of urban regeneration

The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and the Nine Elms area in south London illustrates a much wider problem in the way cities are managed and planned – councils seem perfectly happy to see private interests direct the course of historically interesting places.

You can’t help but feel optimistic when you step out of Vauxhall station, that some small modicum of the gushing Nine Elms slogan – “the greatest transformational story in the world’s greatest city” – might actually be true. Not because the blueprints for London’s biggest urban redevelopment inspire any great confidence – but because it doesn’t look like it can get much worse.

Immediately opposite the station, across Vauxhall’s maligned gyratory, is St George Wharf, a hideously oppressive waterside development and a deserved nominee for British architecture’s first annual carbuncle cup back in 2006.

To its left is another legacy of architectural silliness – the incongruously conspicuous MI6 building – known not so fondly as Legoland for its unmistakable resemblance to an ancient Babylonian ziggurat.

The Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area (VNEB), as it’s plainly known, is the latest, most dramatic addition to this clumsy urban legacy; an attempt to rescue a vast sweep of London’s industrial past from years of neglect and decline.

The plans certainly look bold. 18,000 new homes have been promised with up to 25,000 new jobs. There’s an extension to the Northern Line, a new sugar-cubed embassy for America’s diplomats and a long, linear park in the style of the New York High Line to stitch the area together.

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But what about the past? The Nine Elms PR team has been quick to use the idea of heritage – something lost on most journalists that have described the area as a blank canvas – but it’s hard to find much concrete appreciation for the residues of London’s industrial history in any of the developer’s plans. 

This may sound unconstructive. Fetishising the memories of old London can be deeply reactionary when it works at the expense of anything new. But the approach from the developers and architects involved in Nine Elms has been clumsy at best.

Nowhere is this more evident than the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, one of few buildings along the Thames that had, until now, managed to resist the recent influx of luxury flats.

The building’s current owners have positioned the development as the commercial heart of the entire Nine Elms project, with a kitsch marketing campaign focused on the importance of “renovation”. But this seems suspect. Not only do the core plans feature a shopping mall and luxury pent-houses – but last year the World Monument Fund listed the building as “at risk” despite reassurances from the developers.

It seems somehow fitting that a building described by historian Gavin Stamp as “one of the supreme monuments of twentieth century Britain” should find its “saviour” in an obscure consortium of investors - one of whom, Sime Darby, has faced accusations of illegal logging in Indonesia and land grabs in Liberia. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t feature in any of the project’s cutesy PR campaigns, or on the company’s website – which pitches the Station as “a real estate investment opportunity of a lifetime”.

Of course nobody wants the station to remain as it currently is – a disused and decaying asset for speculative real estate. But both the plans and the owners represent the Nine Elms development at its most disappointing and decontextualised; an era of London’s past reduced to a pitch in a glossy brochure, its insides stuffed with overpriced, luxury flats and a giant shopping mall. When I spoke to Keith Garner, an architect and activist, with the Battersea Power Station Community Group, this sense of loss and anger was palpable.                                                   

“The problem is that nothing that makes the power station special – its architecture, its engineering and its land-mark status will survive,” he told me. “It could have been bought for the people of London, transferred to a trust to be repaired using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

Part of the building’s monumentality comes from the emptiness around it, the stark juxtaposition of a low-lying townscape with a gigantic art-deco hulk. But this isn’t something the developers are particularly interested in recognising – not wanting to miss out on the value of building flats on the land around it.                            

“It’s a sensational urban landmark but monumentality is relative to particular settings.” Garner says. “By surrounding the building with 18 storey blocks the dramatic experience of seeing the Power Station from the road, rail and from gaps in the landscape is gone. Its presence in the landscape of London is taken away.”

It seems rather fitting that Frank Ghery, an architect of international fame has been chosen to build some of the surrounding flats. Known for his deconstructivist icons in Bilbao, Los Angeles, and Prague, a Ghery building is, by design, rarely upstaged. Of course the 79 year old is unlikely to be too moved by this critique. When objections to his icons were raised in Hove – the response was pretty resounding. “People can fuck off," he said.

As well as being disconnected from Nine Elms’ industrial heritage, the smokestacks that give the building the unique appearance of an inverted table are also set to go. The previous developer, Parkview, had claimed the chimneys were beyond repair back in 2005. But an engineering report by the Battersea Power Station Community Group suggests the opposite.

The chimneys, they argued, could be repaired more cheaply and much quicker than the cost of installing new ones. I put this to Fiona Fletcher Smith, executive director of development at the Greater London Authority but she seemed strangely nonplussed. “We’re happy that this represents excellent conservation,” she said. “Why would we preserve? Life has to move on.”

The owners of Battersea Power Station have also received planning permission to destroy a grade II listed Victorian Pump House built in 1850. And according to another report by the Battersea Power Station Community Group the famous cranes, once used to unload coal from the river, are also likely to be removed.

Even more demolitions are set for the National Grid site where four gas holders currently stand. This is, as Garner points out, a massive shame. In Oberhausen, a town in West Germany, an historically valuable gasometer has been successfully converted into a locally-owned exhibition space.

These examples may be specific to London but they point to a much wider problem in the way cities are managed and planned. Councils seem perfectly happy to see private interests direct the course of historically interesting places – despite the obvious contradictions that arise between maximising value and conserving heritage.

In the end much of the physicality and history of the region will be left to a series of empty architectural gestures. When I spoke to John Letherland, a partner at Farell’s who masterplanned the entire area, the best I got in terms of conservation was the recycling of old street signs.

“There were things in the landscape that we were making references to, he said. “For example there were huge railway sidings in the area which we were recording in the landscape. And we were re-using some of the former street names in the layout of the new ones.”

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None of this would be so objectionable if it wasn’t for the inevitable exclusivity of the new Nine Elms “community”. London is, like many places, a city with a chronic housing crisis: rising private sector rents, huge council waiting lists and a government determined to make things worse through a combination of welfare cuts and right to buy.

In Wandsworth over 23,000 people are on the council’s social housing waiting list with many in the private rented sector depend on housing benefit to keep up rent. In Lambeth, things are even worse. Over 41,000 people are currently sitting on the waiting list.

Mass, genuinely affordable council housing is needed to solve this and yet with Nine Elms – as with all recent regeneration schemes – “affordability” is offered only as an afterthought. In Wandsworth Council – where most of the development is going ahead - only 15 per cent of the new houses will be “affordable” – far less than was originally promised.

Nor will rising land values on the back of the development make things any better. Estate Agent Knight Frank have estimated that property prices in the area will rise by 140 per cent between 2011 and 2016 – the highest of anywhere in the UK.                

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. Both Lambeth and Wandsworth Council have gained a reputation for kicking out their constituents. Lambeth, the so-called cooperative council, has been busy evicting short-life tenants from houses they’d occupied for decades. Earlier on in 2013 the council made 75 people homeless by evicting squatters from Rushcroft Road and denying them recourse to legal aid.

The issue of social cleansing may not be as critical at Nine Elms as other parts of London. But in the context of recent regeneration, the plans remain entirely typical; lots of tall buildings with luxury housing, lots of ground level shops and active frontages, all justified by a dubious discourse of “inclusion”, “affordability” and “diversity”. 

But for all the social democratic bluster this remains yet another example of urban regeneration in the neoliberal city; exclusive, insensitive and architecturally uninspiring. James Meek recently asked in the London Review of Books – Where Will We Live? I think most Londoners can safely cross Nine Elms off the list.

Philip Kleinfeld is a writer based in London. He is on Twitter @PKleinfeld.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.