The oligarchs have gone quiet, the bankers who once inhabited Chelsea have been driven to distant suburbs; ordinary people can hardly afford to rent, let alone buy. It is hard to imagine, given London’s long property boom, how there could possibly be any more money to be made in the capital’s residential real estate. But not everyone agrees. There’s a band who think they have struck a rich new seam at Old Oak Common, in terminally unfashionable NW10.
As downtrodden areas of London go, they don’t come crummier than the bow-tie-shaped plot bounded by the Great Western and West Coast main lines between Willesden Green and Wormwood Scrubs. This desolate landscape of cranes and gasholders is a reminder that the East End doesn’t have a monopoly on London grot.
But where there’s muck… Old Oak Common is that priceless commodity in urban regeneration: brownfield space close to wealthy areas, just half a mile from David Cameron’s home in Ladbroke Grove. At its heart is a vast marshalling yard, but with rationalisation of rail operations much less space is needed now. Better still, HS2 is supposed to be coming, and may even terminate at Old Oak Common. Crossrail, too, is promised to stop here by 2026.
Old Oak Common invites artists’ impressions of shimmering blocks rising from the grime. Plenty have come off drawing boards since Sir Terry Farrell was asked to make a masterplan in 2011, envisaging between 12,000 and 25,000 homes, plus office blocks, coffee bars and a new ground for Queens Park Rangers, all very much in line with current thinking that extra homes for London must be concentrated on transport hubs.
But what of the pickings for ordinary investors? Much of the land — 97 out of 134 hectares — is already in the hands of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, a quango set up by Mayor Boris last year. Other land is held by c-ommercial concerns such as Cargiant, which owns a 20-hectare used-car super-market within the development area.
More intriguingly, the area includes several streets of former railway workers’ cottages. The masterplan shows these remaining as they are, but they’re bound to come under the eyes of developers. Could you buy one now and cash out when your property finds itself in the middle of ‘Canary Wharf West’?
Some people have already made that bet. In 2011, before Sir Terry’s masterplan, you could buy a freehold cottage off Old Oak Lane and Old Oak Common Lane for £250,000–£300,000. Now they go for twice that, making this once-forgotten patch of working-class housing the hottest of London hotspots. A year ago a 900 sq ft house in Goodhall Street sold for £500,000, even though it was wrecked inside.
The estate agent who sold it is not so bullish, however. ‘A lot of buyers think prices will go up with regeneration, but those of us who have been around here a bit longer are more cynical,’ says David Wilkins of Mathesons. ‘People have been talking about NW10 being the next big thing for the past 15 years, but it never happens. Drive-by shootings have stopped but it is still pretty edgy.’
Speculators are just starting to realise that regeneration of Old Oak Common might not be all that the artists’ impressions crack it up to be: Wilkins describes his local market as ‘pretty appalling’. Prices paid by speculators a year ago, he says, are not being replicated now. Besides the rise in stamp duty on investment properties, the whole Old Oak Common project has begun to look shaky. In March, Farrell called it the ‘worst cock-up in years’. He says the Crossrail line is being built without the piling which would allow it to be covered and the space above it developed, thus reducing the land available and compromising its use. A recent review by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was also highly critical of the project, saying that land values have been depressed by the retention of land for Crossrail.
There’s another barrier to private investors making a killing. The development corporation has powers of compulsory purchase, so if it decides the area could do with fewer ex-railwayman’s cottages and more blocks of flats, it could force their sale at current market value plus a disturbance allowance — meaning no great windfall.
On the other hand, those streets of brick terraces could be declared conservation areas, blocking demolition. They might end up as pleasant enclaves in an area that is far more attractive and better connected than it is now. But you’d have to live in the middle of a building site for a couple of decades first — perhaps not quite a good enough reason to spend £600,000 on a cottage that a railway worker used to rent for a few shillings a week.