8 April 2021

React News catches up with Rob Heasman, CEO of The Earls Court Development Company

Read the full article written by Jessica Middleton-Pugh at React News below, the piece is also available on the React News website here where you can also subscribe. 

At the end of 2019, Delancey and Dutch pension fund APG bought out CapCo’s interests in Earls Court. The pair paid £425m for a 63% stake in The Earls Court Development Company, the joint venture with Transport for London tasked with building out the site of the former exhibition centre.

The Earls Court site itself totals 25 acres, in a wider 40 acre development area*, and sits within the London boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham.

Following the deal, Delancey quickly made some changes. First, it returned two housing estates that had been the centre of controversial demolition plans, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, to council ownership. Second, it brought in Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West to work up a new masterplan.

Last September, The Earls Court Development Company appointed Lendlease heavyweight Rob Heasman as chief executive. React News caught up with Heasman as he shapes the plans for London’s largest cleared Zone 1 development site.

What has been your priority in your new role?

The Earls Court Development Company is an Earls Court-based business, and although that sounds like a small thing, having worked on lots of different projects before, the best results come when a project team is based on site. Ultimately when you’re dealing with projects of this significance and scale, they take a number of years and you need to build up familiarity almost to the degree where you spend more time in the area than you do in your own community at home.

So for anyone who starts in a new job, particularly one like this, the first thing is understanding as much about what went before as necessary, without being drowned by it, and also working out the path forward.

We’re here for the long term, a 40 acre development site isn’t created at this conceptual stage and then through delivery overnight. A timely reminder is that the site already has a masterplan consent that was granted to the previous owners, and it’s entirely out of date now. And it’s not even 10 years old, so a very stark reminder that what we need to do needs to look far beyond the next five or 10 years. So we’re taking our time.

Tell us about the site – what went before and what influences are bearing on it?

All these big sites have a lot in common, but they’re also vastly different. The developer’s role is one of the matchmaker. We don’t turn up with all the answers. You have to take time to understand what the local dynamics are, whether that’s about heritage, whether it’s about demographics, whether it’s about movement of people and talent, a whole raft of things.

The really unique thing about this project is it’s had such an iconic identity. I remember I took my Mum to see the Eagles, my Dad took me to the boat show, I saw Pink Floyd. Most people, whether you’re from London or not, have got some kind of recollection. And all that identity has now gone.

Have you struggled to move the site away from its association with the exhibition centre?

There’s a lot of big projects like this, when it gets to the point where things are being demolished, people start looking forward. The buildings were demolished about five years ago, so what’s quite confronting is the fact that nothing really has happened. It’s a sentiment that certainly you don’t have to be a genius to pick up on, when you’ve got a site like this in Zone One London, it’s not right that something positive isn’t happening.

So from our perspective, yes, we want to take our time understanding as much as we can about the site, and bring something forward that is ambitious and gets people excited about the future. But I sense that people have had enough of the state that the site is currently in. And that’s just something that obviously we need to pick up.

With previous proposals, there was a lot of pushback. What are you doing differently to bring people along with you?

The focus isn’t just on bringing people with us, it’s probably understanding people more. So that enables us to move forward in the same direction. I actually enjoy the breadth of consultation, you meet so many different people. You look at this site – forget politics for one second – and on one side of the tracks is a very different group of people to the other side of the tracks. The site has always divided groups of people because there’s always been railways there, so it’s never actually functioned as anything other than an exhibition space.

But in the future you could walk across the site and experience all kinds of different things. It is a different site from the previous masterplan. The estates were handed back to Hammersmith & Fulham, and that’s been a really positive thing because it’s made people feel that they are safe, and they can stay in their homes.

So this is a new plan, a new approach, a fresh start. I would really like people in the two estates, in Hammersmith & Fulham, to actually get involved in the masterplan, because I’m pretty focused that this should be a great thing, that they could derive a lot of benefits from a real addition to their community.

Where are you up to in the development of the masterplan, and has the experience of the pandemic over the past year changed your approach?

The simple answer to that is we’re taking our time. The last masterplan was very residential focused, and a particular type of residential as well. For anyone that’s worked on masterplans from the start, and delivered them through, the trick is to get it going, and keep it going, and make sure the actual product or the portfolio is diversified. I think that’s more in everyone’s mindset now. Ultimately, rather than it be a sector, residential or commercial, it’s much more an ecosystem and a blend.

The exam question for us is almost: “How do you re-imagine an iconic destination such as Earls Court in the centre of a global capital city, during the biggest pandemic in over 100 years?” In some ways that could be really overwhelming, in other ways it’s incredibly exciting, but it also just accelerates the amount of innovation that’s going on.

One thing we’re very focused on is our masterplan needs to have that agility. Because a masterplan will take 10 or 15 years to build out, who knows what’s going to happen in those 10 or 15 years? Who knows how are we going to be living, how we’re going to be working? The truth is no one’s got the answers. We are at a very embryonic stage whereby the first thing is that, to create a vision for a place, you need to really understand the place. The pandemic and everything that we’ve learned from it is absolutely fuelling that: the future of workspace, the future of residential, the future of social interaction, the digital age, how we build, access to open space. Everything that we thought was important before, is now really, really important.

You said the previous masterplan was very residential. So are you seeing this very much as a mix of uses?

The great thing about working on projects of this scale is that you are creating a part of the city. Because of its scale, gone are the days where you think: “Great, we’ve got 500 homes, and they’re going to be worth this, and we’ll sell them there.”

Now you start thinking much more broadly around, “is the residential going to be more attractive if we introduce these cultural uses, or if we have this art installation, or if we’ve got these co-living/coworking kind of facilities?” You start looking at it much more as a stewardship model of the place itself. So we’ll be looking at the mix of uses that will make the place successful. But also successful to the parts of Earls Court and surrounding areas that are outside the red-line site boundary, which often no one really sees or is interested in.

How has the shift in other sector trends influenced your thinking?

There are trends in the industry and the sectors, and everything’s been accelerated. It’s the way we’re building, what we’re building out of, how we’re applying technology.

There are social movements that are totally questioning the way we’ve done things in the past. So in terms of equality, for example, how do we make this a place that’s got access for all? It’s a really big question.

There are trends in terms of typical property sectors, but in society as well. And then economic, we’re also starting afresh at a time where we’ve just had Brexit, we’ve got the government’s levelling up agenda, we’re in a recession, but we’re also talking about Covid-19 recovery.

Our job is to create something fantastic that works, something that will make London proud, and make the Earls Court site special again.

What are your timescales for the masterplan and consultation?

Probably the best guide is that we want to submit a new masterplan in 2022. No doubt we will want to bring forward some exciting early phases as well, so that’s something we’ll be looking at doing later this year.

There is an application that’s in now, which is for 51 homes for rent, including 23 affordable units, on a prominent site opposite West Brompton station – so an important entrance to the site. That was a separate acquisition, and we didn’t hang around with getting the design done or the public consultation, which was done digitally, and how many people that’s reached is the kind of numbers you wouldn’t have achieved in a normal non-virtual setting.

Obviously it’s a site where there are vacant areas, and we’ve got the opportunity to activate those, bring them back into beneficial use, so we have some pretty exciting plans there. There’s actually activity on site, which is what people want to see. People don’t really understand that the whole development and creation of a planning application takes a huge amount of time, and the amount of investment that goes into it. So it’s even more important that we get many more uses up and running as quickly as possible. With big masterplans, momentum breeds momentum, and nothing happening is no good for anyone.

Do you know how the development will be phased?

It is probably too early to talk about phasing. Any 40 acre site in London is going to have technical constraints. There’s a lot of railway under the ground, and there’s a lot of infrastructure investment that needs to happen. So the first stage that we’re doing at the moment is all the technical analysis around that. But then, of course, in terms of phasing, we’ll want to start bringing forward the future of Earls Court as quickly as possible.

*The Earls Court Development Company will be delivering and developing the site which previously housed the Earls Court Exhibition Centres and the Lillie Bridge Depot. The Lillie Bridge Depot is currently owned by TfL, but the ambition is to also bring it into the plan in due course.

 

 

The pandemic and everything that we’ve learned from it is absolutely fuelling [the masterplan]: the future of workspace, of residential, of social interaction; the digital age; how we build; access to open space. Everything that we thought was important before, is now really, really important

HAVE YOUR SAY