London - Got a spare billion or two and want to buy into the London property market? Then you might want to consider bidding for Battersea Power Station situated on Thames, a mile and half west of Parliament due south of Chelsea.
Let's let real estate agent, Stephan Miles-Brown, Head of Residential Development, Knight Frank, put what you'd be buying into hyperbolic perspective: “Battersea Power Station is as iconic as the Chrysler Building in New York or the Eiffel Tower and familiar to people who may have never even been to London."
Not quite, but Battersea Power station is a massive, striking building familiar to anyone who has visited London. Its decades of decline into dereliction - it was decommissioned in 1983 - is a perfect lesson in the essential difference between contemporary Britain and the rest of Europe. It is the difference between Margaret Thatcher's blind faith in "free" markets to sort out all questions, particularly those related to buildings, and the more social democratic continental view that tax money invested in maintaining historic buildings can bring in unquantifiable benefits in making cities desirable places to live.
Most of Europe's great cities are built along rivers and the architecture along these waterways is magnificent, uniform and well maintained. The fact is that the architecture along the Thames in London is chaotic and home to some of the ugliest buildings in Britain, if not the developed world.
There's no excuse. Yes, the city was bombed during the war and there was serious damage to many buildings along the river but there was a never a plan for redevelopment. British architects build dazzling structures all over the world, but somehow along the central artery of the capital, their work and ideas for urban design are almost completely absent.
In other capital cities, repairing the damage of World War II was a priority. On my first visit to London a quarter of a century after the war had ended, I was amazed at the amount of bomb damage still visible. When I moved here permanently 15 years later much of it was still around. Only when the private sector got its cut during the Thatcher years did the damage get attended to.
The buildings along the Thames are thrown up haphazardly, and it's a matter of luck whether a new building has some esthetic value or a derelict monument can be re-cycled and reclaim its iconic status, like Battersea Power Station's sister building downstream at Bankside which has been turned into Tate Modern.
As a student in England decades ago I marveled at Battersea when I first saw it. Since moving back I have watched and reported on the various attempts to recycle it as an amusement park, or the inevitable shopping center - as if London lacks retail outlets - and seen it fall further into decrepitude.
Planning permission has already been granted for a £5 billion re-development of the place into a residential and shopping neighborhood with thousands of new apartments.
I have my doubts about whether that is viable commercially now. London may be avoiding the worst of the global recession thanks to being a center of global finance and its sense of being a safe place to store your wealth. But while there are a lot of rich Russians and Greeks who see London property as a safer bet than investing in their own countries there aren't that many of them.
Anyway, I'd be very surprised if Battersea brings in much money on the open market. Perhaps it is best left as it is, slowly crumbling away, a reminder to those who pass it every day of the shortcomings of the laissez affaire approach to the economy and society.