Sunday, 8 March 2015

Passport to Pimlico

Wandsworth Borough Council is pushing ahead with plans for a new cycle and pedestrian bridge across the River Thames, connecting Nine Elms to Pimlico. A number of crossing points are being considered, but the most likely is between the under-construction US Embassy on the south bank and Dolphin Square on the north bank. The new embassy is a shiny cube that looks like a next-generation games console and is expected to act as the seed for a new diplomatic quarter as other national missions seek respite from the high rents of Belgravia. Dolphin Square is currently in the news as the alleged scene of murderous sex parties involving MPs in the 1970s (coincidentally, my paternal grandfather, a peripatetic Irishman, worked there as a porter between 1947 and 1956).

The bridge will intersect with Cycle Superhighway 8 (currently just blue paint), which runs from Ram Street in Wandsworth to Millbank in Westminster via Chelsea Bridge. Ram Street takes its name from the Ram Brewery, on the east bank of the Wandle River, which was owned by Youngs from 1831 to 2006. There has been brewing on the site since the 16th century, and Youngs still used horse-drawn drays for local deliveries until the eruption of road-rage in the 1990s. The brewery is currently being redeveloped into a 36-storey block of flats and various retail opportunities, though it will retain a brewing museum and a "micro-brewery". In contrast, Millbank is the gateway to the central "government district", bounded by Pimlico, Victoria and Charing Cross. Back when Youngs shipped their first cask, it was the site of the original "National Penitentiary" until superseded by Pentonville. The CS8 runs straight from beer to prison.

The bridge is symbolic in creating an umbilical link between the Conservative's traditional flagship councils in London, Westminster and Wandsworth, both of which enjoyed covert government financial support under Thatcher and Major following the introduction of the Poll Tax and later the Council Tax. However, the ruling Conservatives on Westminster Council do not appear keen on the proposal, presumably because there are few obvious benefits for their residents. There are only so many times you can find an excuse to pop into the US Embassy. The Transport for London feasibility study is lukewarm, noting that the height clearance needed for the bridge will necessitate stairs, ramps or possibly lifts that may make it less attractive to the key users, namely cyclists who want to avoid vehicle traffic on Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges.

The public consultation for the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge (or "NEP Bridge", as we are urged to call it in ironically Bolshevik style) included a short exhibition of the competition entries (just concept art, really) held first on the north and then on the south bank. I attended the latter showing, in a community centre on the Patmore Estate between Battersea Park and the New Covent Garden fruit & veg market. It is unlikely many of the estate's residents, or those from the social housing along the Wandsworth Road, will use the new bridge, simply because the railway viaducts between Vauxhall and Queenstown Road, buttressed by the bulk of New Covent Garden, makes access to the riverside difficult. Most people simply get the bus to Vauxhall and cross the river from there. In reality, the Nine Elms development is creating an enclave of Central London (or international capital, if you prefer) south of the river, not unlike an enclave of Burgundy in Pimlico.

The major transport upgrade in the area will be the Northern Line extension, which will create a new Nine Elms station on Wandsworth Road next to the current Sainsbury's and a new terminus at Battersea Power Station (the two new stations will be either side of the tracks and clearly serving different communities). For residents of the infamous new flats being built around the old power station, this will mean a pleasantly short Tube journey to either the City or the West End. For those heading to Westminster, it's a 30 minute walk via Vauxhall Bridge. The new foot and cycle bridge might shave 5 minutes off this time. Despite the meagre benefit, the TfL feasibility study heroically assumes that the economic dividend accruing from this will more than pay for the £40m bridge over a 60-year lifetime.

Given that the distance is too short to make a local bike journey worthwhile for the lycra crowd, and that cyclists on the longer CS8 route will continue to use Chelsea Bridge, this looks wildly optimistic. Unless the bridge is a destination in its own right, which means it will probably cost a lot more than £40m to achieve the wow-effect, I doubt it will be much of a draw for pedestrians either. No doubt it will be a lovely stroll to work if you are an embassy understrapper and can afford a flat in Dolphin Square, but half the attraction of this pleasant commute will be its exclusivity. I suspect TfL are unconvinced by their own case (they are far more focused on the Tube extension) but have come under pressure from Ravi Govindia, the Wandsworth Council Leader, and his Tory chum at City Hall. For the Mayor, this is PR catnip: artistically-inclined civil engineering, urban regeneration waffle and cycle lanes.

The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms is a continuation of Wandsworth Council's strategy of piling up expensive blocks of flats along the riverside. This has made the borough top-heavy, entrenching the Tory majority (Labour last held power in 1978). Most of the Labour voters are clustered in the south of the borough around Tooting, or in the west in Roehampton, with isolated pockets in the old council estates hemmed in by the new flats in Wandsworth Town and Battersea. The middle of the borough is a solid swathe of Tory wards from Putney Hill through Southfields, Earlsfield and Wandsworth Common to Clapham Common. Though the council isn't aggressively driving its tenants out of the borough, beyond pushing the "cash-in" of right-to-buy, the refurbishment of existing council housing stock often involves squeezing in new private builds (e.g. the Winstanley Estate at Clapham Junction), which exacerbates the cheek-by-jowl social polarisation.

This is planned immigration, but in a manner peculiar to London, which emphasises how fundamentally different to the rest of the country the capital has become. Long before the Battersea Power Station development was marketed off-plan in Hong Kong, the new flats along the riverside were being bought by buy-to-let investors and rented-out to young professionals, drawn to the capital from all four corners of the UK and the globe. There are signs that this is getting out of control and degrading the social fabric in ways that affect all classes, not just the poor. Enoteca Turi, one of best Italian restaurants in London, is currently under pressure from a landlord who wants to build more boxy flats behind Putney High Steet. Ten primary schools have been sold off to property developers since 1990, leading to the current lack of places in the borough (you can now rent a flat in the Old School Yard development at Eltringham Street for £2k a month). Battersea Sports Centre is to be replaced by affordable housing that everyone knows will be unaffordable for most.

The impact of this change is most obvious during the weekday commute, when the Tube and rail lines are heaving. The evolving plans for Crossrail 2 have been heavily influenced by the increased demand on Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town and Earlsfield, in addition to the perennial pressure on the Wimbledon branch of the District Line (partially eased recently by new higher-capacity trains). There is even talk of further extending the Northern Line to Clapham Junction. In the circumstances, a foot and cycle bridge across the Thames, linking the US Embassy and an exclusive block of flats patronised by MPs, looks like a folie de grandeur on the part of Wandsworth Council. £40m would cover the construction costs of 5 new primary schools, and there'd be few doubts about the return on investment.


  1. Many thanks for this interesting piece. Could you give some perspective on the pace of change in London.

    There was recently a TV documentary about how hard it is to get a council house in London. Someone on it mentioned that in the early 1980s there was literrally a choice of council housing available in a least some boroughs (ie no waiting list if you were'nt fussy).

    The population didn't really start to take off until the 1990s. In less than 30 years London has gone from somewhere people were trying to get out of to somewhere everyone wants to live. Economic factors obviously play a crucial part, the fact that it is a global city also. Is it possible it could all reverse in the next 30 years.

  2. Based on census data, Greater London's population shrank from 8.2m to 6.6m between 1951 and 1981. It began to pick up in the early 80s and got back to 8.2m by 2011. By the time of the next census, in 2021, the ONS are projecting a population of 9.3m, a 13% increase in a decade.

    The drop over the 30 yars to 1981 was less to do with any decline in the London economy and more do with state investment in new towns and transport infrastructure, which helped spread the working population beyond the Greater London area. The growth after 1981 was due to a combination of factors, including tighter planning laws curtailing the earlier dispersion (i.e. Green Belt nimbyism), financialisation (boosting City employment), and the accelerated shift in the 80s from the primary and secondary sectors of the economy to the tertiary sector (i.e. the growth of services).

    This is unlikely to reverse any time soon. Though the City could have its wings clipped, the secular shift in the economy means that London will remain dominant as the national services centre. Also, there is little appetite for more housebuilding in the South East outside London, so dispersion isn't an option. This is why most current transport investment is either increasing capacity (e.g. Crossrail) or extending beyond the Green Belt (e.g. HS2).