If pigs could fly ...
After the hype came the serious problems
Sunday 17 March 1996
The sad state of repair is in stark contrast to the glittering dream of 13 years ago. When the station was closed, the Central Electricity Generating Board foresaw a new life for it as a leisure centre. Even in 1987, the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, equipped with hard hat, was heralding its revival as "a wonderful example of private enterprise and local government working hand in hand to the benefit of Britain". The developer of the day, John Broome, then chairman of Alton Towers, confidently talked of creating 4,500 jobs on site and another 2,000 indirectly.
Today the main workers to be seen on the site are the handlers of the Alsations whose bared teeth threaten any unauthorised interlopers. The makers of the television police drama The Bill use the vacant land for location shots. Advertisements for products ranging from Wonder Bra to the night-club Ministry of Sound have been projected on to the north wall of the station as if it were a giant screen, catching the attention of motorists on the Embankment. Last Christmas the station played host to a fair featuring one of Europe's largest Ferris wheels. More regularly, a waste-disposal company parks its dustbin lorries on one corner of the lot. In short, the station's promise is unfulfilled.
But it may yet be redeemed. Last month, a family of Taiwanese Chinese, who made their fortune in Hong Kong, took over as the station's owners after three years of haggling with the receivers. Within the next two weeks, the Hwangs hope to announce a consortium to give fresh life to the building. They have already enlisted two partners, Gordon Group, a US property developer and BAA, the privatised airports authority cum shopping mall operator. Negotiations are under way to sign up Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, producer of such theatrical extravaganzas as Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
The composer's company admits only that it is interested in taking a stake - possibly 25 per cent - in the project as part of its push to diversify away from the stage. The owners hope the fourth partner will add flair and imagination to the redevelopment, as well as a quarter of the capital. Sir Andrew's influence would be felt mostly in the image and style of the designs for the project, although his presence could conceivably lead to radical moves away from the traditions established in similar developments.
Though the prospect of action on the derelict hulk is welcome, for the residents of Battersea, and the taxpayers who saw the site sold for little more than a song in 1984, questions remain unanswered. Why has a site that generated huge public interest, and dozens of suggested redevelopment plans, turned into a derelict white elephant. Why has one of the country's industrial landmarks been gutted then virtually neglected for almost a decade? What went wrong with the original scheme? What else could have been done with the building? And will the new owners be any more successful than their predecessors?
The Hwangs' vision differs in detail from Mr Broome's, but not in general thrust. He saw the station becoming a pounds 40m leisure centre, with carnival rides to rival America's Disneyland. The interior, to be decorated on the theme of the British Empire, would house 65,000 square feet of retail space, including restaurants and food stalls selling treats from around the world. An adjacent hotel and office complex would have brought in more revenue.
The Hwangs and their partners are now looking at investing up to pounds 200m. Up to 37 cinemas - including the latest in hi-tech projection systems - are likely to replace the rides, but shopping will remain the principal attraction beneath an arching glass roof over the central canyon. A hotel, offices and an exhibition centre, in a skyscraper to rival the one at Canary Wharf, may sit where piles of coal once waited to be shovelled into the furnaces. The unofficial target is to open the site before the turn of the century.
Like its doomed predecessor, however, the new plan faces one key obstacle. Wandsworth borough council has granted planning permission for changing the use of the building itself, but not for the surrounding land. And concerns about transport to the site could make that extended permission difficult to get. A dedicated rail link to Victoria Station and Clapham Junction on existing track would help to alleviate traffic snarls. And one possible route for a future Underground line from Hackney to Chelsea would run past the station. But, except for a main road to Vauxhall, the streets in the area are predominantly residential.
Given the financial quagmire that swallowed Mr Broome's grand scheme, and the bureaucratic swamp of the planning process, it is not surprising that a certain scepticism surrounds the latest proposal. To some the restoration of the plant conjures up its most famous international image, the Pink Floyd album cover showing a giant flying pig hovering blithely above the chimneys.
When it began life in 1933, Battersea Power Station faced no such doubts. Its job was to generate power. Had the CEGB stuck to the original blueprints, few would be lamenting the fate of the building. But after construction began it called in the noted architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, to put the finishing touches to the structure. The result, completed some 20 years later, was an art deco masterpiece that now boasts a Grade II listing.
Covering 13 acres, it is a contender for the title of largest brick building in Europe. But what makes it eye-catching is its shape - like an upended billiard table, with its four fluted white chimneys looking like stubby legs above the ash-grey bulk of the main building. Each stack rises from tiered corners, which more than any other single feature define its architectural pedigree. During the war it was given a second roof, on the reasonable assumption that German bombers would find it a tempting target, though no bombs ever fell on it.
By the 1980s, however, Battersea was surplus to requirements. It went out of service in March 1983 after supplying up to a fifth of London's electricity for five decades.
Surprisingly, the CEGB did not just sell it off to the highest bidder. Instead it held a competition, judged by a panel led by Lord Ezra, a former chairman of the National Coal Board, to find the best use for it. A second contest solicited suggestions from individuals and local groups for turning
10,000 sq feet of the building to use for the community.
The proposals ranged widely, though most saw the site as a potential leisure, office and retail complex of some sort. One of the less palatable ideas was to turn it into a rubbish incinerator. Another suggestion was that it house giant machinery donated to the Science Museum. Several suggested turning the river-front into a marina. High-quality flats were proposed, or a 2,600-seat theatre with recording and television studios. Ice and roller-skating rinks, swimming pools, squash courts and shopping arcades were mentioned.
Of the seven proposals shortlisted by Taylor Woodrow, the construction company, Lord Ezra's committee chose the one submitted by Mr Broome's Battersea Leisure.
Criticism began immediately. A residents' group decried the scheme as a tourist attraction "of only the shallowest kind". The hard left politician, Ken Livingstone, then leader of the since-abolished Greater London Council, denounced the "Mickey Mouse" jobs it would create. Opponents could also carp about the price. The whole 31-acre site was estimated to be worth pounds 200m, but Mr Broome was offered it for just pounds 1.5m.
After the backlash came delay. It took Mr Broome four years to raise the finance he needed, during which time British Rail began to have cold feet about handing over a parcel of adjacent land. The project was officially launched by Mrs Thatcher in 1987 amid much fanfare. The plans called for an aquarium with dolphins and turtles - viewed from a Heathrow-style moving pavement in a glass tube - the largest ice rink in London and a ride simulating HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. The experience would begin at Victoria Station, with jugglers, magicians and musicians to greet tourists as they boarded special trains.
After the hype came the serious problems. The foundations were not sound, and had to be reinforced. A makeshift scaffolding of steel girders had to be installed to support one of the turbine galleries, where it still does duty. The 80 million bricks were found to have been penetrated by sulphur and, most critically, asbestos insulation in the walls and pillars had to be expensively removed.
By 1989, the construction schedule had been pushed back six months. Estimated costs soared to pounds 230m. The council began to worry because a piddling (by comparison) pounds 885,000 construction bond had not been provided. Mr Broome brought in property trader Paul Bloomfield as an equal partner, and for the first time the spectre arose of the site being razed.
The group's banks began to discuss a refinancing, which the City estimated could be worth as much as pounds 400m. The project, said one property finance expert, had become high risk. Mr Broome was forced to sell Alton Towers for pounds 60m to Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, in 1990.
As the prospect of completing the Broome plan receded over the next three years, new and sometimes wackier ideas began to crop up. Knock down the walls and leave only the corner chimneys, was one. Turn it into a trade centre was another. Various communities of worshippers suggested converting it into a Catholic cathedral or a mosque.
The final blow came with the recession. Like many other property developments, Battersea Leisure was caught by the tightening of credit by the banks. By 1993 Arthur Andersen had been called in as receivers to the project and the Hwangs were on the scene, having bought the outstanding pounds 80m debt for pounds 10m.
The Hwangs, via their holding company, Kompass, control a long list of subsidiaries ranging from China to the US. The family themselves are more mysterious. Their departure from Taiwan in 1989 came amid a scandal, as four officials with the family firm were alleged to have bribed officials to get planning approval. The cases never went to trial, and supporters point out that Mr Hwang was not among the accused, and that such allegations are common in Taiwan.
Construction could start by early 1997, with completion of the first phase - entirely inside the building itself - in 1999. A second phase, including the office block, hotel and exhibition hall, will have to wait for planning permission. The developers, and the former power plant's long-suffering neighbours, hope that will happen long before pigs take wing.
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