Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Ruth Bloomfield and Rhanie Al-Alas

Acton regeneration row: residents clash with developers and Ealing council over skyscrapers in the suburbs

Sean Fletcher moved from Wales to London in 2010 to pursue a career in television. With the aid of a “massive mortgage” he and his wife, a TV producer and director, bought a home in Acton for their young family.

“We couldn’t afford to buy our house now,” said Fletcher, who currently appears on Good Morning Britain, Countryfile and Sunday Morning Live.

Fletcher, 49, is now watching his 25-year-old daughter attempt to carve out her own media career. Like many other twentysomethings she has boomeranged back home to avoid the soaring cost of London rent, and has little hope of buying a flat. His 20-year-old son is at university and will be facing the same challenge soon.

This scenario, familiar to so many families, meant that when Sean Fletcher heard about the regeneration of a nearby council estate, Friary Park, it felt very personal.

The 225 homes on the scruffy 1980s estate, set in a prime spot right by Acton Mainline Station, are being replaced by more than 1,200 new homes in towers of up to 24 storeys.

To the fury of local residents, these homes — priced from £375,000 for a studio — have been heavily marketed overseas, from Singapore to Saudi Arabia. The developer will not comment on how many have been snapped up by wealthy overseas investors.

And, adding insult to injury, when the developer decided to add another 300 homes to the site there was no commensurate increase in the number of affordable homes.

“The headline looks great: we are building loads of new homes for Londoners,” said Fletcher. “But if you dig into it, it is more complicated than that. … [Developers] … are not building homes for Londoners, they don’t care who buys them, it is all about profit. These homes are for wealthy people for an investment.”

TV producer and campaigner Sean Fletcher says new homes are being built with wealthy investors in mind (Juliet Murphy)

The local conflict

Across London — but particularly in areas such as Acton which have seen their transport links upgraded by the Elizabeth line — conflict is raging between residents who feel that skyscrapers have no place in the suburbs and doubt that priced out members of Generation Rent could afford them, and developers who scent profit.

Fletcher’s near neighbour, David Tennant — a retired teacher and educational consultant — was also concerned about the Friary Park project, considering it “totally out of character” with the area’s Victorian and Edwardian streets. Initially the plan was to build some 900 homes on the site. When developer Mount Anvil and housing association Catalyst applied for permission to increase the number of homes on the site, Tennant, Fletcher and other neighbours formed pressure group Cap the Towers to fight the plan.

“Initially they wanted to go up to 37 storeys, but we managed to get them to agree to stick to the original height — unfortunately they just added another tower,” said Tennant, who is 80.

Acton residents including Sean Fletcher and David Tennant consider the Friary Park project to be ‘out of character’ with the local area (Adrian Lourie)

Fletcher is still disappointed that Ealing council approved the plans despite receiving 881 objections from locals complaining about a range of issues, from a lack of open space for residents to the lack of affordable housing at the site — around a third of the properties will be sold or rented to people priced out of the area.

“They don’t seem to listen to local concerns,” he said. “It is all about profiteering developers and a very weak council and it feels wrong.”

Peter Mason, the leader of Ealing council, has some sympathy for what Fletcher is saying, but points out that since the Government has ordered councils to make a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, it is hard for them to throw out plans and not be overturned on appeal. “Planning law is weighted in favour of developers,” he said. “The distress and arguments and anguish that takes place in planning committees are a by-product of the wider challenge.”

Pressure group Cap the Towers, formed by Sean Fletcher and his neighbours, was set up to challenge plans for the Friary Park estate and campaign for an increase in social housing (Juliet Murphy)

He also sympathises with Fletcher and Tennant’s worries that the new homes being built in the borough are not going to young Londoners but to wealthy overseas investors. Homes at Friary Park — now rebranded The Verdean — have been marketed everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and Singapore over the past few years. Prices start at £375,000 for a studio flat.

A spokeswoman for Mount Anvil said the old estate had cramped and shabby homes, and its scheme includes 455 affordable properties, some for original estate residents and others for people on Ealing council’s 12,000-strong housing waiting list.

Homing in on Acton

Acton’s building boom does not begin and end with The Verdean, of course.

Since work began on Crossrail in 2009 average prices in W3 have jumped 117 per cent, according to research by JLL, to an average of £675,000. This rise outperforms the rest of Ealing, up 98 per cent in the same period. Across London prices grew 104 per cent.

With prices on the up, a host of developers have homed in on Acton.

Estate agent Knight Frank calculates that more than 3,700 new homes are in the pipeline within 1km of the mainline station. Another 25,500, in towers up to 55 storeys, are slated for North Acton and Park Royal in anticipation of the new HS2 station at Old Oak Common, due to open by 2033.

The leading builders involved in the transformation of Acton all point out that London desperately needs new homes.

Last orders: the 1930s Castle pub is being replaced by a 32-storey redbrick block, with towers being built off site (Adrian Lourie)

A spokesman for Egyptian developer Aldau, which is planning two towers of up to 55 storeys, in North Acton, pointed out that if new homes are to be provided Londoners need to make a choice. “Do we continue to build out and out, on greenfield sites, or do we build up, in a sustainable way?” he said.

“Our goal is not to slap up two towers, we are keen that this is a mixed use development which provides employment. We are trying to take a holistic approach.”

At Bollo Lane, where Transport for London, is spearheading plans to build some 900 new homes, a spokeswoman described “extensive engagement” with the community while developing the plans, which will include green space, playgrounds, and new footpaths for walkers and cyclists. The spokeswoman added that TfL “ will also seek to deliver new educational and job opportunities for those considering a career in the construction industry, including for those who live locally, through apprenticeships and training programmes”.

Tide Construction has just won planning permission for a 32-storey tower in North Acton. A spokeswoman promised “intelligently designed” studio flats which would deliver “exceptional quality living space” to residents.

Imperial College, which is hoping for permission to build a cluster of residential towers in North Acton, referred enquiries to its website, which describes plans for a central landscaped square and civic area, a cycle-friendly layout, local amenities, and the promise of job creation.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the founding director of Create Streets, a pressure group which campaigns for low-rise development to increase housing supply. His concern is that in the rush to provide new homes, not enough thought is being given to what it will be like for the people who live in them.

“The problem is in the medium to long term,” he said. “A wide range of studies suggest that living in very small flats in very high-density buildings results in poor outcomes for residents, especially children.”

Those poor outcomes include higher rates of depression, of mental health problems, and of behavioural problems in children.

Boys Smith’s preference would be for more modest developments of six to eight storeys, with gardens, and a traditional street layout. “The reason that tends not to happen is developers want to make as much money as they can out of a site,” he said.

The battle rages on

Two miles from Friary Park another battle is raging over tower blocks in the suburbs.

In 2019 an innocent-looking flier was pushed through Justine Sullivan’s front door announcing proposals to redevelop a site in Hastings Road, West Ealing, occupied by a wine store and a car parts company. She decided to go along to a meeting to find out more — and was horrified to discover the plan was to replace the stores with a 25-storey tower.

Justine Sullivan and friends formed group Stop the Towers to spread the word about plans to redevelop sites in Hastings Road and Manor Road (Juliet Murphy)

A couple of weeks later she learned of another plan for a derelict site in Manor Road, just around the corner from Hastings Road, this time for a 26-storey tower. “It was bigger than Big Ben — I felt physically sick,” said Sullivan, 52, who is a yoga teacher and TV producer.

“I thought that the council would never let them do this — then they said they had been meeting with the council for two years and it was fully supported.”

Sullivan and her friends formed a group, Stop the Towers, and began printing fliers of their own. They put up posters and spread the word via Facebook groups.

The Hastings Road proposals have not — yet — translated into a planning permission. And after the Manor Road planning application, made by developer Southern Grove West Ealing Ltd, attracted 2,627 individual objections (and 55 letters of support) Ealing council turned it down in 2020. But its decision was overturned at appeal a year later. The building will be scaled down to 18 storeys and is due to contain a mix of shared ownership and London Living Rent flats.

“This is a low-rise, residential area, with a little row of shops,” said Sullivan. “Tower blocks are inappropriately tall. But we are on Crossrail, and that has been translated as: ‘Build as many towers as you can along the route.’

“This site has been derelict for years, and most people couldn’t wait for someone to do something with it. Seven or eight storeys, with flats and a few shops, would have been fine, we would have been fully supportive, but this is too much.”

Council leader Mason is aware of the disquiet house builders are causing in the borough, and during his two-year tenure has been involved in drawing up a zoning-style system designating some locations — notably around major stations — as suitable for high-rise buildings. In places such as Hanwell, he said, new development will be capped to eight storeys to protect its villagey, residential vibe.

But he believes that the real solution can only be found at a national level; somehow the heat needs to be taken off the capital. “London is the engine room of the British economy, and there is an insatiable demand for housing,” he said. “We need to have a proper conversation about regional growth in the UK, and why it is — usually — the case that the only way a young person can get a great job is by coming to London. We need to do something about demand for housing in London.”

How Acton is fast turning into London’s answer to Manhattan

Four Portal Way, North Acton

Vital statistics: Two towers, 45 and 55 storeys high (up to 705ft), containing just over 700 homes plus a four-star hotel, offices and restaurant close to the HS2 terminal at Old Oak Common.

Status: Egyptian developer Aldau Development was granted planning permission in 2020. There is no news on when work will start.

One Portal Way, North Acton

Vital statistics: A cluster of buildings including a 55-storey skyscraper, with two adjacent 50-floor blocks, plus four lower rise buildings on the site of the former Dixons Carphone headquarters. These blocks, being built for Imperial College London, will deliver 1,325 rental and market sale homes (about a third will be affordable), and will generate income for the university. The site includes offices and shops.

Status: Planning application lodged in November 2021. An amended version was submitted this April.

The Castle: a 32-storey redbrick block containing 462 homes is due to replace the Castle pub in Victoria Road (Tide Construction & HTA Design)

The Castle, Victoria Road, North Acton

Vital statistics: A 32-storey redbrick block which will replace the defunct 1930s Castle pub with a 462-home co-living scheme — think studio flats, communal workspaces, dining areas, a library, gym, cinema, and a pub.

Status: Planning permission granted by Ealing Council in 2022 and rubber-stamped by the Mayor this month. The start date is yet to be confirmed but by building the towers off site and fitting them into position the project should only take 18 months.

Bollo Lane: planning permission has been granted for around 900 new homes in towers up to 25 storeys high (HOK)

Bollo Lane, south Acton

Vital statistics: Some 900 new homes to be built on Transport for London-owned land in towers up to 25 storeys high. Around half the space will be affordable. A new site for the London Transport Museum, plus 800 more homes, could be added.

Status: Planning permission granted in 2021. TfL announced it had joined forces with housebuilder Barratt London to build the site. Work is due to start later this year, with the first phase completed by 2026.

The Verdean, Friary Road, central Acton

Vital statistics: A reboot of the Friary Park estate, featuring more than 1,200 new homes in blocks up to 24 storeys high. Amenities will include a community kitchen, cycle hub, public square and open space designed with input from Kew Gardens.

Status: Work is well under way, the project is due to complete in 2029.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.