It is fair to say the redevelopment of Earls Court has encountered its fair share of challenges over its decade-long gestation, from concerns over the number of foreign investors buying London’s newest housing stocks to Deutsche Bank issuing a special note last year warning that it would be affected particularly badly by the Brexit vote.
But now, 10 years after work began on the first masterplan and having completed the demolition of what was once London’s premier exhibition hall, site preparation works have begun on Earls Court 1 and 2 - with the help of Europe’s largest-ever crane. At the end of last year, it also began to move residents into the first 237 homes in Lillie Square, the adjoining 50/50 joint venture with Kwok Family Interests (KFI).
In an exclusive interview with Property Week, Capital & Counties managing director Gary Yardley explains why he is so confident that the scheme described by one critic as “a case study in bad regeneration” has turned the corner and hints at progress on another significant project it has been working on, this time with Network Rail: the redevelopment of Clapham Junction.
The burst of activity is impressive enough against the backdrop of a slowing housing market and the impact of the EU referendum. Factor in the scale of both projects and it is more impressive still.
An enhanced masterplan for Earls Court is being worked on that could lay out plans for the creation of 10,000 homes, 12,000 jobs, four urban villages, a 21st-century high street alongside open green space, health facilities, schools, community space and improvements to the transport and infrastructure of the area.
Given the scale of the project, Yardley says he is not surprised there have been obstacles along the way. “This is not just about housing Londoners; it’s about creating a place. And all great places need a focal point.
“Without that, all the other aspects, the residential, the retail, the PRS and the transport won’t stitch together. So we’re looking to build a new district for London - one that brings together all the best bits of the city into one space.”
Every project, and especially one as complex as Earls Court, goes through phases, he adds. “On the ground, there are conflicts about how we get around our great city and about how we live. Different things are flavour of the month at different times - at the moment it’s all about rail problems and traffic congestion and for a while it’s been about housing.
“But you’ve got to find a compromise between the needs of the people who live here now and the often unheard needs of people who’ll live here in the future.”
The secret, believes Yardley, is to deliver schemes that are suitable for tomorrow’s residents, not today’s. “I desperately want to be involved in projects where what we create for future generations is better than what we have today. That’s what we believe we’re building here at Earls Court. This is 77 acres of London we’re talking about; the last ‘great estate’ that hasn’t been attended to.
“The focal point is really in the retail mix, and the blend between the retail and green space can create a new space for London that’s built around 21st-century demands for leisure time. Learning from the experience we’ve had at Covent Garden, and from what consumers tell us makes a good high street today, we’ve got a chance to create something special.”
A scheme of such significance is always going to have detractors - with residents legally challenging the local authority planning process.
But Yardley believes that the project is winning people over. “We take it as a positive the level of interest there is in this scheme. It affects, and is going to affect, a lot of people,” he says. “First and foremost you’ve got local residents and we’re incredibly conscious of the upheaval they’ve gone through during this process.
“Changing the landscape of the whole area and getting people to move out of their homes is a significant change, so that’s got to be worth it. We’ve worked very, very hard with the local resident groups in the Kensington borough. That’s a very vocal group with very firm views about what they want, and while there’s no denying there’s been a bit of a strain and a struggle, we’ve had very few complaints for a scheme of this scale if you look at it.”
Indeed, he claims that when Capco took out the bridge between what was then Earls Court 1 and Earls Court 2 a couple of years ago, Capco didn’t get a single complaint. He adds that those in the wider community just want to see the scheme progress without undue disruption.
As for the people on the estates, Yardley says the company is spending a lot of money and time replacing all 760 homes with equivalent properties, for free, within the area. “Since they’ve come in to look at the example properties, that has really started to win residents over who were maybe sceptical initially.”
The burden of responsibility is one Capco is happy to bear, he insists. “Frankly if we can’t create a scheme with great transport links, where people can feel safe and secure yet still enjoy open spaces rather than a gated community, then we should be shot.”
If we can’t create a scheme where people can feel safe yet still enjoy open spaces, then we should be shot
There are also the vested interests to contend with, of course. “This is an area that can support a lot of density, and views on how that land can be used come from all sides - from the GLA, from TfL, from the local councils and from our own insights,” says Yardley.
Whether the challenges are being mounted by local residents or local authorities acting on their behalf, they need to be addressed, he says, adding that it is precisely because Capco has done this that it has never had a planning application rejected by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
“There were a lot of concerns about noise and traffic, so we’ve just been able to put in little things such as separate access roads, screened off from residents, which have paid dividends, so they trust us now,” he says. “We’re working overnight to remove beams from the track and put the money in to cut that process down from three years to nine months, so that’s the sort of solution that helps.”
Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) is a slightly different animal, however. “When you have a scheme with this long a lead time, you’re going to go through several iterations of councils,” Yardley elaborates.
“The officers have been there for the whole 10 years and we get on very well with them - they understand our goals but the politics is a little different. The wish list has changed under the new administration.”
Capco is nevertheless confident it will win over the council by offering the multi-tenure resi it is looking for. “We want to be providing some sort of PRS product; we want to be providing small-type accommodation, that Pocket Living-style stuff,” he says.
“That type of accommodation will be part of the next step. We think there’s a massive market for elderly care in all its different guises. Chiefly we see capital-rich pensioners wanting to live in the top parts of London more and more. There’s also student housing.”
Yardley adds that Capco would look to bring other developers into the Earls Court project, which could see 10,000 new homes built.
“That’s not just a job for Capco. We’re not here to put every brick in the scheme, but we’re here to facilitate that and make it so you get all the best bits and all the best opportunities for living,” he says.
Yardley talks at length about wanting to create something “that future generations can be proud of”, and he believes this vision is closer than ever to being realised.
“I’m a born-and-bred Londoner. London needs to grow in a way that facilitates all the things that are great about the city, not one that destroys them. Throughout history, I think we’ve always improved our lot as a society but I’m very worried we now might be producing places for our children and our grandchildren that aren’t as good as we had. That’s a terrible indictment if that’s where we end up.”
Any major scheme needs to be considered holistically, Yardley adds, especially where major infrastructure works are required. He cites Clapham Junction, where he reveals Capco is “working up proposals” for a landmark regeneration as part of its Solum JV with Network Rail.
While he won’t be drawn on the exact figure involved, he does concede: “It will cost a lot of money to fix that problem. I’m not exactly sure how it’s done but putting that money in without sorting the infrastructure is such a waste.”
Whether Clapham Junction, Earls Court or any other major scheme, Capco is interested in the long game, stresses Yardley. “Sometimes the longer, harder decision is better than what looks like a short-term win and, most importantly, you need to be open and clear about what you’re trying to achieve.
“We know we’re doing something good even if sometimes the message gets mixed up. We’re going to give these people better homes and better life chances.”
Yardley will be hoping the controversy is behind him at Earls Court and that he can give them just that.