It is just two days since CFCTruth were the very first blog to uncover and publicise the utterly damning Earls Court Design Review Panel report which set out a long list of fundamental flaws with the current plans for the Earls Court Opportunity Area. If you haven’t yet read the document please take the time to do so.
It still surprises us that this document had not been reported far and wide both through the many blogs who have paid attention to the scheme and in the mainstream media – especially as the whole Earls Court development is so contentious. However, we hope this will quickly be remedied and that people across London will soon be made aware of exactly what kind of scheme Hammersmith & Fulham Council are likely to vote through on Wednesday 12th September.
Perhaps it is because the vote on the planning application is so imminent and the outcome so close to being inevitable, that some local commentators have struggled to recognise the potential importance of the report both to the people of London as a whole and also to the future of Chelsea Football Club. So we will try to spell it out for them.
It is quite clear that the Panel have a series of concerns about the current plans for Earls Court. There is no need for us to restate them again - you can read the Panel’s criticisms in the report itself. But do we expect these comments and criticisms to affect the decision of the LBHF Planning Applications Committee on Wednesday? No we do not.
However, the decision on Wednesday is far from the last word on the scheme. Such a major development also requires the approval of the Mayor of London and, despite expectations to the contrary, Boris’s approval is not a foregone conclusion. Those who disagree might take the time to read the letter dated 7 December 2011 from the GLA Development & Environment Directorate which sets out the 44 ways in which the first version of CapCo's planning application is inconsistent with Boris's London Plan.
What is obvious when reading the DRP Report (which is based on the latest version of the planning application) is that many of the long list of infringements of the London Plan that were identified by the GLA DED have still not been properly addressed by the developers.
The role of the Mayor in the process is quite clear. All applications for development which are of Potential Strategic Importance (and Earls Court certainly belongs in this category) have to be submitted for approval by the Mayor and he must respond within six weeks stating either that he:
- allows the planning authority’s decision to stand.
- directs that the application should be refused, or
- will take over the application himself.
Any one of these outcomes is possible when it comes to Earls Court but based on the DRP report it seems highly unlikely that the Mayor will be in a position to give immediate approval to the scheme unless various issues are addressed. Otherwise, the Mayor himself could be opening himself up to potential legal challenge.
What could this mean for Chelsea's chances of working with CapCo and the councils in order to build a stadium at Earls Court? CFCTruth believe there is a possibility of a positive impact on this front as a result of the Mayor’s intervention but that, on balance, it would be best not to expect too much. As we have stated previously (http://cfctruth.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/greenhalgh-is-off.html) we believe that Boris is open to the idea of a stadium at Earls Court. Indeed his London Plan states specifically:
Earls Court & West Kensington
The potential for a strategic leisure, cultural and visitor attraction and strategically significant offices should be explored together with retail, hotels and supporting social infrastructure.
But, as of now, we still do not believe that the councils have seriously looked at incorporating a strategic cultural anchor into the Earls Court site let alone a stadium. And Boris may have an opinion on this specific point.
n.b. It is worth noting that the Mayor's London Plan did not see any potential for such a “strategic leisure, cultural and visitor attraction” at Battersea/Nine Elms so perhaps it should not have been a surprise to us when his deputy came out so strongly against the idea of a stadium on that site.
So, as we have stated, our understanding is that Boris is open to the idea of a stadium at Earls Court (as are some key people within RBKC). But do we really think that the Mayor would be willing to fight for a stadium against the wishes of the local authority (and quite probably a sizable proportion of the local residents)? Sadly, we think probably not.
So is that the end of the matter? We think not and to explain why we need to go back to the Earls Court Masterplan and the DRP Report.
The current plans envisage the development being phased over a twenty year period with the final phase not due for completion until 2032. What this means in reality is that the developers intend to build on all the prime areas of the site first – areas which also happen to be cheaper to build on due to less of a need to build over existing railway tracks. Then, from autumn 2018 onwards, the developers promise they will build Phases 5, 6 and 7 which will require more extensive and expensive decking over the railway lines.
The DRP Report has real doubts about this. They state:
A further concern is the viability of the later stages of development where large areas of ‘building over’ are required. The Panel sees a risk that problems of viability may mean that the northern part of the masterplan ultimately does not proceed, and this would adversely affect any coherence that is achieved in the scheme.
Interestingly, we have been reliably informed that this northernmost part of the site (the area due to be developed in Phases 5, 6 and 7) is by far the most likely location for a stadium on the site if permission could ever be secured. So we have a situation where even if the plans proceed exactly as expected, the potential stadium site would not start being developed until late 2018 at the earliest. And where the expert Design Review Panel is questioning whether it will ever be viable for the developer to build anything else on the most likely site of a new stadium whilst also separately stating that the whole development would benefit from a ‘significant cultural anchor user’.
This is when the dots start to be joined together. The Panel are stating in their report that the Earls Court development is inappropriate in terms of its scale and density. The GLA Development & Environment Directorate also said much the same in their letter which listed the 44 ways in which the planned development breached the London Plan. If Boris does act to reject the current planning application or (more likely) to ask for changes to be made then this can only impact further on the already marginal viability of CapCo’s plans for the north of the site thus making it all the more likely that the fully phased plan will never be completed. This would clearly put Chelsea back in the game.
However, it has to be said that this is not an entirely optimistic assessment of the situation. What if this scenario did come to happen and Chelsea were eventually given the chance to build a stadium at Earls Court? The Panel Report states that:
The reasoning for the siting of buildings to avoid them being located directly over the rail lines is understood as it would involve heavier long span structures and consequent high site formation costs.
What seems clear is that if everything falls into place and the club did somehow get the opportunity to build a stadium at Earls Court, they would also face huge logistical and engineering challenges in order to make the site in the North East of the Earls Court Opportunity Area work as a stadium location. This means that it would be an expensive option too, even setting aside the many likely planning obstacles. Would it be viable for the club? This can’t be determined at this stage but it would at least be a genuine option.
None of this is certain of course; all of it is speculative. But what IS certain is that the future of Earls Court will not be decided in a council committee room this week. It will not even be decided in Boris’s office in the next few months. This is a story that won’t be finished anytime soon whatever the council says. Instead, it will play out over the next decade and beyond. Watch this space.