London's Vaux-hattan needs eastern promise to thrive

A paean to brutal modernism is toothily growing south of the Thames

Battersea power station is an iconic building on London's south bank of the Thames. Getty/Battersea Power Station Development Company
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It is truly a sign of the times that the Foxtons at Vauxhall now has Chinese writing in its window.

That may seem like a strange observation, out of synch with a multicultural city such as London, but it’s rare. To my knowledge, no other branch of the ubiquitous metropolitan estate agent carries foreign lettering.

Of course, London has its Chinatown and obviously there are areas of the capital that belong to different nationalities. Nevertheless, Foxtons going Chinese at Vauxhall is a new departure and one that speaks volumes about the state of the property market in this district.

As soon as you make the connection with China, you can get what is happening at Vauxhall, or rather where real estate agents and developers desperately hope the future lies. It is a cluster of skyscrapers, several of them half-finished, containing lots of empty apartments.

From Vauxhall by the bridge and the MI6 security headquarters, along the Thames to Nine Elms, past the new US embassy, to the former Battersea Power Station, this is an area of colossal construction and redevelopment. When the American embassy move was announced, the plan was called Vaux-hattan in a nod to the tower block vibe of the leading city in the US.

These days, the theme has subtly shifted and a more prosaic name has become the reference point. London, which largely eschewed high-rise buildings, now has a new Vauxhall riverside strip with an official City Hall planning moniker of VNeB or Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea.

A cyclist passes construction work at the One Thames City development in London. Getty Images

It is the home of the first workshop for the eponymous car brand. Once the preserve of wharves and barges and warehouses, not forgetting the UK’s biggest fruit and vegetable and flower markets, it was a semi-industrial landscape across the river from gentrified Chelsea. Now, it’s a paean to brutal modernism, a great wall of towers, straight out of Ridley Scott’s futuristic Blade Runner, that would not look out of sorts in, well, China.

Designated one of 28 Opportunity Areas in 2004 by the mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingstone, development there was intended to help alleviate the city’s housing shortage. Planning consents were relaxed and architects, several of them major names, and builders were invited to go for it.

The result is somewhere that was conceived as creating 3,500 new homes now boasts 20,000. To put that in context, as the architectural critic, Deyan Sudjic points out, it’s “the equivalent of building a town the size of Salisbury, albeit crammed on to a site six times smaller, giving it a density to match Lagos or Karachi".

The 'sky pool' near Embassy Gardens. Reuters

Neither are these affordable properties. Some are, but not many. Mr Livingstone set a target of 50 per cent affordable housing. Under Mayor Sadiq Khan, it became 35 per cent, and in Wandsworth, the borough that largely embraces VNeB, it’s 15 per cent. But in parts of VNeB, it’s as low as 9 per cent.

The bulk of the homes are luxury apartments in blocks complete with gyms, swimming pools — one, Embassy Gardens, has a sky-high glass-bottomed pool spanning a 25-metre gap between two towers. Those at the top, in the penthouses and the floors immediately below, are on sale for several million pounds. They promise spectacular views, if you can see between the neighbouring structures.

Come down several levels and they are, to use a British phrase, ten a penny. Not quite — they’re still priced in the hundreds of thousands. But to give an idea, on the Rightmove property selling website, there are currently 114 two-bedroom apartments for sale in VNeB around the £500,000 mark. This in a city where the market remains heated, where property is in short supply. Where I live in South-West London, there are barely any two-bedroom apartments to purchase — several to rent but not buy.

R and F properties at One Nine Elms in London. Alamy

The problem, too, is when you look at the 114 apartments, there is little to choose between them. They appear roughly the same, with similar dimensions and layouts and facilities. This, again, in a London that is not as comfortable with tower-living as other parts of the world. We have skyscrapers, but they’re still something of a rarity. Post-Grenfell and the never-to-be-forgotten horror of that fire, the urge to climb is less marked — thoughts of escape and exits are more to the fore.

Which is why Foxtons is advertising in Chinese. Unlike Canary Wharf, the equivalent in East London, which remained under the tight control of one developer and appears harmonious as a result, VNeB was a free-for-all. Developers piled in, each with their own design. The outcome is not only an aesthetic mishmash, but several players have become nervous about their finances as they vie with each other for purchasers.

Not surprisingly, in today’s global economy, the Chinese are prominent. Two firms from China, R&F from Guangzhou and CC Land, are behind the recasting of the old flower market at Nine Elms as Thames City, comprising some of the very tallest VNeB giants. CC Land belongs to billionaire Cheung Chungkiu, who recently paid £200m for a 45-bedroomed house in London’s Rutland Gate near Hyde Park.

HW4GN8 Exterior view of the Riverlight residential apartments in Nine Elms, Vauxhall, London, UK. (Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo) *** Local Caption ***  bz02ju-property-SW8.jpg

Mr Cheung is one of those trying to keep Chinese property company Evergrande alive. If Evergrande was to collapse completely, the contagion could spread worldwide, cause huge nervousness and hit VNeB’s fortunes hard.

In the meantime, the owners are working hard at selling their apartments. Their most promising audience is China, specifically Hong Kong. Its inhabitants have no issue with towers — it’s what they’re used to. They’ve been sending their children to London to be educated and rather than put them up in student halls and they’ve bought flats at Vauxhall.

Increasingly, as China tightens its grip on the former British colony, many are choosing to leave completely. London and again, VNeB, is a favoured destination.

China might well prove the area’s salvation. Right now, many of the apartments are deserted. The outlook would change immeasurably if they were occupied and the new builds were alive and vibrant. VNeB’s future could reside in becoming a mini-Hong Kong. Looking at the dramatic but forlorn scene at present, it is hard to see where else another solution might derive.

Published: January 19, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: February 16, 2022, 9:51 AM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London