November 14, 2019

Nine Elms – Transformation continues

Work is continuing apace on the transformation of London’s South Bank with the Nine Elms project including some truly impressive schemes, including the redevelopment of the renowned Battersea Power Station and the regeneration of the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth. Although these major projects will be making all the headlines, the work taking place on the infrastructure to underpin it all is as just as important to its overall success moving forward, as Helen Fisher, Programme Director, recently explained to Construction Industry News.

“We have an informal partnership to take strategic oversight of the vision and the planning framework and we take particular responsibility, not just for communications, community engagement, branding, marketing and those areas, but also for the delivery of the common infrastructure,” outlines Helen. “My team have been working through the Partnership coordinating the delivery of infrastructure and the other functions encompassing everything from utilities, schools and health facilities through to public realm, arts and culture. The best way to describe it is that we’re the glue that binds everything together.”

Given the scale of the overall Nine Elms project the rate of development that is currently taking place has been quite astonishing. There are 35 different development sites, five of which have been completed with 14 currently onsite.

“We’re aiming to deliver 40 per cent of our new homes and 64 per cent of our new commercial space by 2020,” adds Helen. “There’s been a massive acceleration in construction and we have schemes onsite such as Battersea Power Station, which has started its first phase of development; Embassy Gardens; Riverlight; the new US Embassy; and New Covent Garden Market, the redevelopment of which is just about to commence.

“We’ve got a huge number of schemes happening at the moment including some incredibly exciting developments. We’re also making headway on many of our common infrastructure schemes, such as the Northern Line extension, and the first phase of our park, whilst this year we’ll also be starting the first phase work on the Thames River Path. There really is a tremendous amount of work going on.

“One of the things we really want people to understand about us is the quality of the architecture and the public realm. I truly believe it will be an amazing place, involving some of the world’s leading architects, like Frank Gehry at Battersea Power Station, Rafael Viñoly, Rogers Stirk Harbour…the list goes on. We have a tremendous array of different architects working in the area, not only on the buildings but also on the public realm. It’s going to be astonishing.

Nine_Elms_Aerial_Final

“One of the things we really want people to understand about us is the quality of the architecture and the public realm. I truly believe it will be an amazing place, involving some of the world’s leading architects, like Frank Gehry at Battersea Power Station, Rafael Viñoly, Rogers Stirk Harbour…the list goes on. We have a tremendous array of different architects working in the area, not only on the buildings but also on the public realm. It’s going to be astonishing.”

Helen Fisher, Projects Director

As for the reasons why the Partnership has been able to cover so much ground so quickly, Helen believes it’s due to a number of different factors coming together after what had been a difficult start to the programme. “It wasn’t that long ago that confidence in the overall development was at a low with doubts being expressed about whether it would actually happen. The key factors that came together included the introduction of new owners for Battersea Power Station, a Malaysian consortium that fully understood that it was a very long-term project. This has been hugely important in restoring confidence in the project and increasing the belief that the scheme would be financed. Although the US Embassy had already decided to relocate, 2012 was also the year when they broke ground. This again gave everyone a major boost of confidence, as did the fact that we had every layer of government: central government, GLA and local government, coming together with the developers with a funding and financing package for the Northern Line extension. This suddenly injected another shot of confidence that the scheme would be going ahead.

“On top of all these individual factors a benign market also helped greatly. The stars just came into alignment.”

Given the central London location alongside the river the potential of the development was huge and now that the various hurdles have been overcome the entire project is really beginning to pick up pace. “We just needed the different factors to come together, particularly as Battersea Power Station was rather isolated and really needed improved transport links to unlock that potential. Having passed that point momentum is really building as the entire development continues to snowball.”

Despite the progress that is now being made Wandsworth and Lambeth Councils together with the developers have never lost sight of the importance of engaging with the local community and to maximise the benefits for people in the area. “Getting the local community onboard has been absolutely vital to delivering what we wanted to achieve. When you consider that our Partnership is chaired by the leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, and the leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, we’ve had excellent support from a council level. It’s been so important that we not only engage with local residents and local businesses but that they also see the benefit that the scheme brings.”

Despite overcoming the initial issues that beset the scheme at the start a number of hurdles remain, partly because of the rapid rate of progress that has been made. “One of the biggest issues for us is that the speed of development is such that we’re having to run very fast to ensure that all the various elements are in place for each stage as it comes online, such as the utilities provision. For instance a new electricity substation and a new drainage system have been needed whilst all the gas mains have also been upgraded. Ensuring that the basic infrastructure has moved forward quickly enough to cope with the progression of the other elements of the development has been challenging but again strong planning and high levels of liaison between the various parties has been integral to the success we’ve seen so far.

“With such a variety of different elements across what is a sizeable development, communication has been absolutely key to the smooth progress of the scheme. This has partly been the thinking behind the Partnership, which consists of the major landowners, the developers and the public sector. We have also established groups where the landowners have the opportunity to network and talk about issues that are common to them all. In addition we have set up a developer company that enables us to commission joint work between them, for example we’re out to market for the district-heating scheme.

“We’ve got a range of tools to enable us to work together. One of the biggest issues with this area is that those 35 different development sites are mostly under different ownerships and yet infrastructure has to cross them all. We therefore do a lot of work with the developers and the public sector agencies to get a coordinated approach to infrastructure across the area.”

Another challenge has been making sure that the mechanisms are in place for local people to benefit from the jobs that are now being created. The Partnership has therefore worked hard to address this issue too. “At our peak we’re looking at something like 8,000 construction jobs onsite across the area. It’s like the Olympics in terms of scale, so putting in place the various mechanisms to ensure that local people have the training opportunities they need to have access to those jobs has been really important. Both the boroughs have therefore set up a jobs brokerage service and we’ve created a joint coordination unit that enables us to broker jobs between the developments and local people.

“Businesses have also benefitted and we have an entire supply chain initiative that is really beginning to bear some fruit now in terms of local companies gaining access to some of the tendering opportunities that have become available. We’ve been extremely keen to generate long-lasting benefits across the board.”

With the progress that has been made so far Helen is keen that the momentum continues going forward, even in the face of some tricky hurdles ahead. “We’re committed to resolving the issues surrounding the new electrical substation and the interim electricity supply. We’re also keen on making really good strides with the utilities planning and delivery. Arts and culture is another very important area and we’re determined to make progress in delivering for local people with job creation.

“When you think about place-making there are various elements involved. There’s the physical, encompassing buildings and infrastructure, but it’s also about the character and feel of a place, and this is where arts and culture comes to the fore, as well as design. The mix of uses on the scheme, from retail to culture and leisure through to new homes and commercial areas for job creation all need to work together to complement each other. What we then end up with is the management of the space thereafter and making sure the future runs smoothly. This is what we’re moving into now as we really begin to think about legacy. Having delivered this wonderful new district we’re now switching our attention to how it will be looked after and managed in the future.”

With such long-term thinking it will be fascinating to see how the Nine Elms development continues to come together and the impact it will make in the area