Oh what a tangled web! Developer pulls back from demolition of Empress Place and Lillie Road

On 20 February 2016, The People’s Estates’ campaign in association with the Earl’s Court Area Action Group held a protest in Empress Place and Lillie Road calling for these buildings, our local heritage, to be saved from Mammon’s wrecking ball.

‘Earl’s Court Village’ portfolio

The Earl’s Court & West Kensington Opportunity Area is made up of land in various ownerships. The eastern part of the site, identified in legal documents as ‘Earl’s Court Village’, comprises a 999 year lease from TfL of the land formerly occupied by the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centres, land adjoining and over the West London Line, which is leased from Network Rail, Cluny Mews, 348-350 Old Brompton Road, and the Victorian cottages in Empress Place along with the adjoining shops and pubs at 2-26 Lillie Road.

All of this property is owned by Earl’s Court Partnership Limited (ECPL), the joint venture established in 2014 between Capital & Counties Properties PLC (Capco), which owns 63%, and Transport for London (TfL), which owns 37%.

In March 2016, the West Kensington and Gibbs Green tenants associations nominated the Prince of Wales pub at 14 Lillie Road as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). The Council added it to the ACV Register where it remains listed until expiry on 2 March 2021. If ECPL wants to dispose of this property, it must give community organisations the opportunity to express an interest in purchasing it.

The £150 million loan from taxpayers

In late March 2016, ECPL signed a Credit Agreement with the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the Government’s housing, land and regeneration agency, and the regulator of social housing providers in England, for a 10 year loan of £150 million of taxpayers’ money from the Large Sites Infrastructure Fund (now closed).

The loan, which is secured against all of the ‘Earl’s Court Village’ properties, is being used to finance the residual demolition of the exhibition centres, the removal of the concrete portal beams over the underground lines, and the installation of strategic enabling infrastructure.

Planning status

The sites of the former exhibition centres, together with land around and over the West London Line, have detailed planning permission for the construction of 1,325 homes, not a single one of which would be affordable. However, there is no planning permission at all for the redevelopment of Empress Place and the Lillie Road shops, because these properties were only acquired after September 2013, when Capco had obtained the final version of outline planning permission for the rest of the area.

Despite pleas by Capco to increase the total number of homes across the whole redevelopment from 7,500 to 10,000, so far there is no sign that the Mayor of London will oblige by revising the Opportunity Area Planning Framework, the policy document which sets the parameters for the Earl’s Court masterplan.

What a waste! Over several years, to the discomfort of the local community and to the ruin of several businesses, Capco bought up and emptied out these properties, boarding up the shops with its customary funereal black hoarding. Cafés, shops and two pubs were summarily extinguished, and the area made derelict.

Plans for demolition

In December 2016 and January 2017, Capco exhibited plans for ECPL to demolish Empress Place and Lillie Road so as to construct over 400 residential units in buildings of between 6 and up to 24 storeys, 2,000 square metres of retail and leisure uses, and to broaden the pedestrian access to the so-called Lost River Park – the concrete deck that would run north over the West London Line in a canyon between skyscrapers.

At the same time, ECPL submitted preliminary plans for demolition in the form of a request that LBHF provide a “scoping opinion” on ECPL’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) scoping report.

Then, and in the weeks following, Capco maintained its intention to submit a planning application to the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (LBHF) to obtain detailed permission for a scheme, which, it admitted, would represent a significant net addition of residential and commercial development to the previously consented masterplan.

At the North End Road Market Spring Fair on 29 April, we conducted an informal poll, the result of which was that just 10 people chose Capco’s tedious design for the redevelopment of Empress Place against 462 who favoured the alternative proposal by architect Francis Terry to extend and preserve it.

Demolition pulled in favour of refurbishment

Although ECPL’s EIA request for demolition should have been decided by LBHF within five weeks, it was not. Between the New Year and Easter 2017, ECPL had a change of heart. It decided that rather than apply to redevelop Empress Place and Lillie Road, it should instead apply to refurbish the shops and Prince of Wales pub for temporary retail use of at least three years.

The planning application for the eastern block of Lillie Road, 2-14, would include a request to join the gardens at the rear of 7-11 Empress Place with the rear of the Prince of Wales pub to create a large open area with seating to accommodate diners and drinkers using the pub and outlets in the neighbouring buildings. Whereas, the refurbishment of the western block, 16-26, would stand alone.

By early May 2017, Capco had informed the LBHF planning officers of ECPL’s revised intentions and had begun commissioning the architectural and other building related work that would be required. Eventually, on 9 August 2017, ECPL’s planning consultant DP9 submitted a planning application to LBHF proposing “a temporary ‘pop-up’ operation for the commercial units at Nos. 2-26 Lillie Road”:

“The proposed temporary uses will create numerous job opportunities and the improvement to this local parade will improve the character and appearance of this part of Lillie Road for local residents and visitors to enjoy….The temporary ‘pop-up’ is proposed as a meanwhile use during the interim period before redevelopment proposals for Empress Place are finalised and secured through the planning process….creating high street uses that will improve the appearance of the immediate local area and draw footfall back to this part of Lillie Road”.

A restored retail hub with eateries and pub

“The transformation of 11 vacant units on Lillie Road into a temporary ‘pop up’ high street, with a mix of food & beverage and retail units to serve the local community and start communicating ECPL’s vision for the future of Earls Court as a vibrant and engaging place.” (ECPL’s architect’s project summary) Above: Computer generated image, for indicative purposes only, published by ECPL

The works to the properties will be superficial, including refurbishment of the facades and internal fit out with provision of ventilation ducting. Most of the upper floors will not be brought back into use: they will remain empty, locked up in the face of a debilitating current housing crisis. A single operator will manage the eastern terrace, with seating for up to 450 (sic) people in the extended pub garden; the western terrace will be let to individual retailers.

Routinely for Capco, security guards will play a major role, controlling overcrowding and restraining noise and anti-social behaviour from the public who use the new facilities. The 20-week contract for undertaking the works means it is unlikely the refurbished parade will be open before 2018.

So, why?

The pretentious language of a ‘revolving pop-up hub’ deserves derision, and the cynical rebranding of the high street and the pub warrants dismay. However, the temporary reprieve of the shops and houses, and the restoration of the parade for retail use is undoubtedly a great victory for all those who campaigned to preserve our heritage. But, while they deserve praise, there must be a suspicion that the developers’ motivations are other than driven by a desire to do the right thing.

ECPL may have appreciated that obtaining permission for a redevelopment requiring a material revision to the consented masterplan is more challenging than at first it presumed, and that in the absence of a quick redevelopment it would be better to avoid paying full business rates on the empty properties and instead generate an income.

Capco might have realised that the funereal hoardings showcasing dereliction directly opposite its Lillie Square showroom, and dominating the junction with Seagrave Road leading to Lillie Square, are an own-goal which cannot be helping sales of the flats it’s building there. Or perhaps, even, it dawned on Capco that it should give up trying to do something it’s not very good at – development – and revert to its core business – making money out of managing a shopping centre (viz. Covent Garden).

Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that a property speculator trying to exit the largest and most complex urban redevelopment in the world outside of China would do well to tidy up the mess it’s made if it wants to command a premium, let alone convince anyone to take on such colossal risks.

We shall prevail

While the about-turn on Lillie Road (coupled with the recent refurbishment for use by the Fulham Boys School of the Capco-owned former Rootstein factory at the Northern end of the Opportunity Area) goes some way to easing Capco’s retreat, one certain fact remains indelibly engraved on the landscape: nothing will make the Earl’s Court scheme saleable so long as our estates are bound in to it, and so long as we maintain our deeply entrenched campaign to save our homes and protect our community.

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