Controversial but useful – new offices & workspaces coming to Culvert Road in 2024

Local business premises are an important way of ensuring there are readily accessible jobs that don’t involve commuting across the city, but they’re also quite endangered, and always under threat of being converted to flats. That said, there are more pockets of light industry still going in Battersea than many people realise (as we’ve touched on before) – many of them in the somewhat hidden-away areas that don;t lend them selves to ‘luxury’ residential development. One particularly little-known local ‘industrial’ site is Culvert Court, a sliver of land trapped between the railway and the Battersea Park Etate, which is packed full of storage units and small workshops. There’s 22,000 square feet of space overall – not a huge area (for comparison, T.K. Maxx at Clapham Juntion is about 30,000 square feet) – but what makes it particulatly odd is that the space is split in to 128 tiny little units! The small size and really rather basic condition of most of these ‘micro units’ means that they are very affordable – which is probably why the site has ended up as home to a bewildering array of small local businesses (we wrote about one of these – AL Coffee Roasters – a few months ago). Useful as this site is, it’s fair to say that the buildings are tired and have definitely seen better days, so some sort of redevelopment was almost inevitable.

The site was bought by new owners in June last year, and proposals quickly emerged for a complete rebuild of the site. The plans will create a site worth about £30m, with the building floorspace growing by about 50% – to 36,500 square feet. But maybe more importantly, it will see a mass of rudimentary single storey lockups demolished, and replaced with three more advanced modern buildings that allow for larger spaces to be rented. By creating two- and three-storey structures more space will be freed up between the buildings, even as the development creates more overall floor space. It’s being developed by Avanton, who have developed two other notable projects in Battersea – the brand-new headquarters for the Royal Academy of Dance on York Road (which was accompanied by a large residential development), followed by the redevelopment of the Academy’s former site at Battersea Square to become an extension of Thomas’s school.

This project – whose layout is shown above – was very controversial when it went ion to the planning process. An impressive 48 objections were received to the planning proposal – many of them carefully written and very detailed, and mainly from residents of Rowditch Lane and Sheepcote Lane who are likely to be the most affected (indeed, some people objected more than once). A particular concern, which we very much agree with, concerned the proposed creation of a large cluster of new ‘dark kitchens‘ – which are hidden-away kitchens that make food that’s branded as coming from restaurants you will likely recognise, but aimed directly at serving the delivery market. Culvert Road has already got several dark kitchens run by market leader Food Stars, hidden away deeper in the Parkfield industrial estate between the railway tracks. While there’s nothing wrong with the kitchens in themselves which clearly serve a significant local market, the amount of trade there has led to an absolute explosion in motorbike traffic – with the noise and danger that that entails. In our experience, some riders are very considerate – but some very much aren’t! – and the road network here was never really designed with that level of traffic in mind. The route is also the only access road for students from north of the railway to the John Burns school, which creates particular dangers when a load of speeding motorbikes are added to the mix. Problems with antisocial behaviour by the occupiers of some of the existing units at Culvert Court are also frequently mentioned. Concerns were also raised about the effect of a three-storey development on daylight in the houses immediately to the north of the site.

Sensing the level of concern about the initial proposals, the developers went away and changed the plans. The height of one of the buildings was reduced from two storeys to one, and the other buildings were slightly lowered as well, reducing (but not removing) the overshadowing of neighbouring houses and gardens. And maybe most significantly, the large cluster of proposed new ‘dark kitchens’ was completely deleted and replaced by a building providing standard industrial floorspace instead. The revised plans didn’t resolve all the concerns – and still saw another 17 objections – however the changes were actually quite significant, and this is maybe a good example of a situation where local concerns can actually lead to changes.

Following these changes, the development went to the full Planning Application Committee (rather than being decided by planning officers – which is how less controversial ones are usually decided), and it received planning permission – with 36 fairly detailed conditions that need to be met before the development can be occupied and while it is in use, stretching from evidence being needed on urban greening and rules on opening hours, to a ban on any telecoms antennas or roof terraces. It is worth noting that the planning department’s 54-page-long report was quite impressively thorough and detailed – going through the impact on houses along Rowditch Lane on a house-by-house basis and looking at the daylight impact for each property. Avanton have started work to appoint a lettings agent for the new development, and now plan to get going as soon as they can – aiming to finish by early summer 2024.

Now there’s frankly no getting away from the fact that these will not be particularly beautiful buildings! The image above shows what the entrance to the site will look like after the works are complete. They are mostly clad in grey metal, with few windows. The plans include ‘green walls’ on the northern side facing Rowditch Lane – the greenish area in the image – that could soften the industrial appearance the building when viewed from neighbouring houses. However anyone with some familiarity with the planning process will conform that these ‘greenery’ plans usually vanish from the plans once building work gets going – indeed Wandsworth is littered with planned green walls that never got delivered!. Maybe this will be the exception to that general rule…

However these non-beautiful buildings will be modern, efficient, functional ones – that are well suited to their planned use. All the new buildings will provide a good standard of flexible workspace and be easy to subdivide to a mix of unit sizes, and so be ready for use by a wide range of occupiers. The plans meet Wandsworth’s requirements that new business spaces should provide suitable loading facilities, ceiling heights of at least 3.35m, space on site for commercial vehicles, and goods lifts with a minimum loading of 500kg. In this case the plans provide flexible floorplates that are mostly free of awkward columns, and decent size doorways. The new buildings will also be up to modern energy efficiency and insulation standards, meaning that they can be heated (which was a real challenge with some of the old structures, that are a mix of old fashioned garages and repurposed shipping containers) – with both solar panels and air source heat pumps helping keep energy costs down. The second floor of ‘Building Two’ – the tall one about half way along the site – would be designated as 329 square metres of ‘Affordable Workspace’, rented out at a minimum discount of 20% to market rent. This would be backed by a legal agreement with Wandsworth Council to ensure that the space remains affordable and is properly used.

This will be a big change for Culvert Court, and it won’t please everyone as even the revised plans do not address all the neighbours’ concerns. However a redevelopment of some sort was long overdue at this useful but increasingly tatty site, and this is clearly good for business and creating local jobs. There has been quite a sharp rise in demand for warehousing and business space in central London, driven partly by the huge amount of delivery activity that we now see – at the same time as London lost almost a quarter of its industrial space over the last 20 years, mostly to housing development which tends to be willing to pay higher prices for land. This site right by the railway is well suited to business use, and we suspect that these units will be easy to let, given they are now a short walk from Battersea tube, and close to the established Parkfield industrial estate. Chances are we’ll see a similar mix of businesses as the nearby industrial areas – albeit those are bewilderingly wide, and include breweries, furniture makers, coffee roasters, gyms, builders, fashion designers, all manner of local services, and of course the rapidly growing ‘last mile’ delivery services. We’ll keep you posted as this project develops.

If you found this interesting you may also want to see our posts on the history and future of Culvert Place, including a new development site just south of the Culvert Road tunnel, one on a cluster of planned office developments around Queenstown Road station, and a wider article on the various commercial developments in Battersea.

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