Selling London to the highest bidder: The Sky Pool

Selling London to the highest bidder: The Sky Pool in Nine Elms
5 min read
05 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The Sky Pool is just one example of policies of 'regeneration' and 'development' that benefit the rich and leave out London's working-class communities, writes Malia Bouattia.
The sky-pool at Embassy Gardens in Nine Elms, London. [@frankiewood93]

When a luxury Sky Pool was featured on BBC News this week, as warm weather swept across the UK, it became the object of envy, anger, and frustration.

The newly unveiled Embassy Gardens pool, in southwest London's Nine Elms, has been celebrated as the first of its kind in the world. 

Swimmers float 115 feet above the ground in a transparent pool suspended between two skyscrapers. The idea sounds wonderful - after all, the area could do with more recreation facilities, after what has been a hard year for all of us. 

The only issue is, public recreation is far from the pool's intended purpose.

Residents who purchased one of the "affordable" housing units in the block do not have access, nor do the area's working-class and poorer communities, even if they wanted to pay for it.

"'Development' and 'regeneration' have become codewords for the exclusion of the poor from much of the capital"

The Sky Pool has come, in many ways, to represent an architectural seal on the Tories' plans for the city. Plans in which "development" and "regeneration" have become codewords for the exclusion of the poor from much of the capital. 

In the case of Nine Elms, the neighbourhood's growing wealth disparity literally dangles above the heads of those barely able to afford their homes. And reports that poorer residents of the building are forced to enter and exit through one of the infamous "poor doors" at the back of the building - only add insult to injury. 

Out of sight, out of mind.

The pool is located in a former industrial area in the centre of London, which was set to be the largest regeneration project in Europe. The initial strategy, thought up in 2004 by Labour's former Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, planned for this section of the city to become a so-called "opportunity area." 

Livingston's London Plan was designed to attract international investors who would enrich the neighbourhood. While the Plan aimed for half of the housing units in the area to be 'affordable,' after 15 years and over a decade of Tory rule, the percentage of affordable homes in the area has been trimmed to the bone.

Labour councillor for area, Aydin Dikerdem pointed out that "[a] site that would usually require 33% to 44% affordable housing was reduced to 15% in a bid to 'attract investors.'"

This is all unsurprising, given that Livingston's London Plan was followed by years of Tory rule - first in the city under Boris Johnson, and then the country. With the change in leadership came a change in political priorities. 

If Labour wanted some social veneer to justify gentrification, then the Tories moved to naked social cleansing: selling the city to the highest bidder. In 2012, when Boris Johnson announced his plans for London, he called the regeneration of Vauxhall, Nine Elms, and Battersea (VNEB) the "final piece in the jigsaw." 

However, for working-class communities in the area, the final nail in the coffin would be closer to the truth.

Councillor Dikerdem explained to The Guardian that the area's undeveloped space "could have really transformed the lives of people in a borough in which thousands of people are statutorily homeless, and tons of professionals are spending all their income on private rent. It was a historic opportunity, but we've ended up with loads more luxury skyscrapers, which is not what the city needed."

Even the timing of the Sky Pool's reveal also demonstrates developers' total disregard for poorer communities. 

While thousands have been left jobless during the pandemic, the rich can swim above ground, far from the realities of poverty plaguing the streets below. News outlets like BBC News, some argue, contribute to the problem by providing free publicity, while skating over issues of inequality and access.

"Politicians continue to facilitate the privatisation of public space and the rich develop new ways to keep the vast majority of the population out of sight"

This story is unfolding as countless local, affordable council swimming pools face bankruptcy after years of debilitating cuts, a lack of government investment, and closure due to Covid-19. Over 2,000 gyms, pools, and community centres in England are now facing the bleak reality of shutting their doors for good.

One could ask, in such circumstances, where the public broadcaster's coverage is of those spaces, which are so urgently needed by local communities for physical health, education, personal development, social and mental wellbeing. And more importantly, where is the government that must act to save these services?

While politicians continue to facilitate the privatisation of public space and the rich develop new ways to keep the vast majority of the population out of sight - after all, poverty and deprivation might spoil their fun - we must remember that our power comes from below.

In Nine Elms, this is not a metaphor.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.