Nine Elms: hubris and complacent Council leads to obscenity

Author: Cyril RIchert

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A visualisation of the 10th-storey Sky Pool at Embassy Gardens – Photograph: Ballymore/Rex/Shutterstock

The idea looked like a April fool joke but as we were April 28th, it was most likely one of the latest idiocy that architects have been experimenting in Nine Elms, which has become for some years (thanks to Wandsworth Council) a play field for their ego. The Wandsworth Guardian reported that the world’s first floating sky pool was set to open in south west London very soon:

“The pool, located between two blocks of flats in Nine Elms, is transparent and offers views of London’s skyline. […] The 25-metre long pool will allow exclusive Embassy Garden members to swim between the two blocks of apartments. “

EcoWorld (a Malaysian property investment company) and Ballymore (Irish) developers are so proud that they have dedicated a website with a name to it, called The Sky Pool. The swimming pool was created by architect studio HAL. The structure is made entirely from crystal-clear acrylic panels and allows swimmers to look directly down to the ground 35 metres below with a fantastic view on the new US Embassy.

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The Sky Pool extends between two apartment buildings, part of developer EcoWorld Ballymore’s Embassy Gardens estate, which was master-planned by British architect-planner Terry Farrell‘s firm (if you are interested by more specific details about the design and material, you should read deezen.com which gives plenty of information).

Apparently, the concept was first brainstormed in 2013, and it might have given some ideas for the 2016 movie Mechanic Resurrection.

That architects and developers might want to explore new concept, idea, stretch constraints and technical possibilities (“push the boundaries in the capability of construction and engineering” in the developer’s words) is one thing. That a local Council think that they could experiment their most extravagant idea in central London is difficult to conceive, even when called Wandsworth and with a reputation of deference with developers.

A laissez-faire attitude from the local authority, Wandsworth, said the FT

As the Financial Time wrote yesterday, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be. 

We are used to read more balanced articles, favouring private investments and financial interests from the famous daily paper, therefore this is a surprising harsh criticism. The FT wrote:

“Nine Elms and its surroundings have become notorious in London as a hyper-capitalist development experiment enabled by a laissez-faire attitude from the local authority, Wandsworth. Billed both as regeneration and housing provision, it is arguably neither of those things, but rather a privatisation of formerly public lands to create an ad hoc pile-up of towers which have little to do with their context or the pressing needs of London.”

They conclude the article by a definite judgement on what has been done by Wandsworth Council in their large development area:

Nine Elms represents a massive missed opportunity for a serious piece of city […]. Instead it is a clump of ill-conceived towers which each appear to have been designed in complete ignorance of their neighbours. The collection have almost no real relationship to the ground or the city.”

A new form of social apartheid

For almost all Londoners, this swimming pool will be nothing more than a tourist attraction where some “happy-few” will be able to show-off their privileges and tease the train commuters on their way to work to or from Victoria station. The access to the facility is limited to the owners of the luxury flats making part of the Embassy gardens development. Residents in the shared-ownership housing elements of the blocks, although facing right below the swimming pool, will not be allowed to use it. It was also confirmed a few days ago when a journalist from MyLondon was quickly pushed aside by security after asking: “Is it true people who live in the shared ownership flats cannot access the pool?”.

This is becoming the norm, predominantly in Wandsworth because of so many recent luxury developments, that some part of new blocks are reserved for the rich investors, while another entrance will be dedicated for the “others”, in the category of “affordable units”. However, don’t think that the second category has got cheap accommodation either. A few months ago, Iqbal, a resident of the new development, told The Guardian that it was reserved to the private luxury flats and that the “affordable units” don’t have access to it:

“It’s only there for us to look at, just like the nice lobby, and all of the other facilities for the residents of the private blocks.”

Iqbal owns a £800,000 flat in the block under the “affordable” scheme. In this definition cherished by politicians, it means that he owns a quarter and pays rent on the rest. The building has got different entrances and “he must walk past the grand, hotel-style main entrance to the complex, flanked by supercars with personalised number plates, to the back of the development, past construction fences and piles of rubble, to a small door located between ventilation grilles and a bin store, facing on to a railway line.

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Image from Owen Jones documentary on Nine Elms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNPerpEOugA

The article explains that the affordable components of those schemes are “shuffled to the back of the plots where land values are lowest, hidden from view along with the garages and service entrances“. In another development nearby, Jason Owusu-Frimpong said:

“We are strategically excluded from being part of the community. We would happily pay for gym membership, if we were allowed to, but the management says it’s not for us. Meanwhile, the car park they told us was only for disabled use is now being sold off to wealthy international residents.”

A few meters from the door are often parked cars with Qatari number plates, blocking an emergency exit, with numerous parking tickets. People coming from the Gulf for a few months a year, on holiday, said the concierge.

It is true that often housing associations and management organisations (such as Peabody) in charge of affordable dwellings, prefer to opt out from shared facilities and have a separate entrance, with the aim to keep charges down and better control their part of the development. 

On Tuesday, 25th May, Wandsworth Planning Application Committee was debating a planning application in Nine Elms (2021/2325) that had exactly those characteristics, with a separate entrance (although they had a change of agreement to be able to share some facilities).

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“An enormous prison” as labelled by Labour Cllr Belton

Cllr Belton (the only councillor abstaining while all others approved the scheme) said (1:15:25 in the video):

“We are seeing an increasing amount of apartheid in our society; and it seems to me there are principles that politicians should stick to. It’s absolutely outrageous that we are building things that are having separate entrances, under the cover of that it is a ‘management arrangement’. We are talking about the development of our modern society! Not what is convenient for management, but what we want. What are we building as a society? Not something I like the sound of. It’s something I completely disapprove of.”

For anyone wondering what’s wrong about London property market, I encourage them to take the train going to Victoria station. Just before your final destination, you will pass countless flats in full glass buildings, without any curtains occulting their transparent panels extending entirely from one side to the other to present the entire room as a perfect IKEA exhibition showroom with neat living area and bedding, and never any human living.

Nothing to worry about, according to Cllr Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth Council, as he told The Guardian:

“London is an international city. It has always had people who don’t live in their home for 365 days a year. And the reality of overseas investment from off-plan sales has, in many cases, delivered these developments.”

Build for the rich, and it will leave some crumbs for the “normal” population. In other words, Wandsworth Council believes in the trickle-down theory, favoured in the Thatcher-Reagan era but now proven to exist only in fairy tales…

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