Earls Court demolition: a threat to the UK economy?

The historic Earls Court exhibition venue is set to be demolished

The striking art deco facade of the Earls Court exhibition building has been a big feature in 80-year-old, Jennifer Ware’s life. She can remember playing, at the age of five, on the balcony of the top floor of her grandmother’s Earls Court hotel in 1937, watching as the venue rose above the skyline.  Jennifer still lives in the former hotel, now been converted into flats, and has fond memories of the centre. “I went for the first time when I was six. My father’s friends had developed a new garage door, and I went to demonstrate how light and easy it was to pull. The venue was vast, especially for a small girl.”

In 1991, the barrel-roofed Earls Court Two venue opened, adding a further 17,000sq m of floor area to the existing 42,000sq m of the first Earls Court. Together the two could hold 42,000 people and over the years hosted some of Britain’s best-known exhibitions, such as the Ideal Home, as well as some memorable pop moments such as at the 1996 Brit awards when Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage during Michael Jackson’s Earth Song.

But now these world famous buildings history are due to be demolished soon after they host the Olympic volleyball tournament. EC Properties, a subsidiary of property developers, Capital & Counties, which owns both buildings, plans to convert the area into a mixed residential and retail zone, in partnership with Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham councils. Public consultation documents on plans for the area, known as The Earls Court & West Kensington Opportunity Area (ECOA), have been adopted by the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The new policy document, known as the Supplementary Planning Document, supports the planning policy, which based on Sir Terry Farrell’s Earl Court regeneration plan to develop 7,500 homes. 

Many in the exhibition industry fear that the demolition will have a devastating impact on the local and wider economy. The Association of Event Organisers have said that the Earls Court venues support £258 million of expenditure in the two boroughs, and more than £1.25 billion in the London region. According to the AEO, knocking them down will result in the loss of 30,000 national and international exhibiting companies and  2.5 million visitors a year.

Karim Halwagi, chief executive of the AEO, said: “The exhibition industry is worth £40 billion a year to the UK economy. Although the UK has other venues, it doesn’t mean you can get rid of one of the biggest and most famous venues in West London.

“How do you replace the loss of 64,394 sqm of space? The Government needs to take notice of us as an industry. We make a massive contribution to the economy, and this needs to be appreciated by government.”

The industry also claims that the UK is trailing other countries in realising the exhibition industry’s potential.  In a letter to the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, Carsten Holm, the chief executive of Diversified Business, organisers of international trade shows, said: “Business people increasingly prefer other countries with much better conference and exhibition facilities, which, in the UK, are generally considered among the worst of any major international city. Here nobody seems to care, and those that should, seem to be trying to make life for the commercial world as difficult as possible.”

The demolition will also be a blow big for the pubs, restaurants and hotels that have grown up in the area to serve visitors. Suresh David, front office manager of the Oliver Plaza hotel, said: “We’re especially worried in this current economic climate that the demolition is going to happen. In January and February, we rely on business coming from people who go to conferences and exhibitions at Earls Court, as general tourism is slow during these months.”

The proposed demolition has already affected business at the Pembroke pub in Earls Court which has seen profits fall.  Daniel Webster-Clamp, its general manager said: “We have a mezzanine floor which is hired out for private parties – usually by the visiting consumer shows. There is already less consistency with the year-on-year profits.”

Plasa, an international membership body for those who supply technologies and services to the event, entertainment and installation industries, holds its annual international trade show at Earls Court and is worried about having to relocate. Matthew Griffiths, its chief executive, said: “We will lose visitors and business. We will have to go to a great expense in advertising and marketing, to make sure people find us. It could cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds. We bring in 14,000 people to the area over three days. It has to be weighed up whether residential space will bring more people to the area.”

The two councils say that their economic appraisal of the proposed demolition shows that it will create 201,397sqm of employment floor space and that over the 18 years it will take to build, it will support 2,002 workers per year.

However Councillor Linda Wade (Lib Dem) fears that rather than creating jobs, the demolition will reduce opportunities for local people. She said: “The development could turn into Covent Garden, with boutique shops. They probably wouldn’t employ locally as there are fewer young people in the area. It will also be too expensive for the majority of people to buy anything.

“The office spaces built will take a long time to let and they wouldn’t be employing local people, or be able to replicate the number of people who come to the Earls Court venues. Building could take up to 20 years, what’s going to happen to local businesses and employment during this time?

“My worry is that it will turn into Canary Wharf. Blocks of flats were left empty because people couldn’t afford them. So the businesses that were built around them, all closed. It’s like a ghost town now.”

A spokesman for Hammersmith and Fulham said: “The Council has to consider all the options available, which includes weighing up the disruption that redevelopment might cause for existing residents against potential longer term benefits, including new homes, job opportunities and other neighborhood improvements. The views of local people are important in helping us decide.”

With planning permission not yet granted, many in the industry and local community want the venues remodeled to retain the exhibition space and maintain trade. Ms Ware, who became active  in the Earls Court liaison group, which met the venue owners to discuss how to keep disruption to the area at a minimum on event days, said the building should be constructed for modern use.

“I’m very sad that the venues are going, I’d like to turn the clock back,”  she said. “There were always lots of wonderful concerts going on, and to prevent us from complaining they would give us VIP tickets for the concerts – it was great!

“The most memorable concert I saw was Elton John in the Seventies, we were entertained royally, I was bowled over by him. It was an excellent venue.”

Events held at Earls Court

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