Bob Hoskins’ character Harold Shand in the film ‘The Long Good Friday’ was both a gangster and a visionary. Back in 1980 Harold understood the potential of London’s docklands: ‘….having cleared away the outdated, we’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity… so it’s important that the right people mastermind the new London…’ he says to a boatload of US investors as they pass under Tower Bridge on a trip to the east.
I was reminded of the iconic film while putting together a lecture recently for a conference in Shanghai on the subject of waterfront development. Harold’s vision actually came from script writer Barrie Keeffe who had been a reporter on the Stratford Gazette and got the idea for the storyline from overhearing local councillors discussing the regeneration of the area. Much of Docklands was deserted at that time and good for little else but filming gangster car chases. The London Docklands Development Corporation was set up by the Government in 1981 and as a result, today Canary Wharf stands sentinel at the riverine entrance to London - an iconic reminder of the UK capital’s transformation from a maritime and manufacturing economy to a service economy with a significant focus on the financial sector.
Like Shanghai, London exists because of a river. The Romans who arrived in Britain 2000 years ago selected the area that is now London because it was the earliest spot where they could build a bridge. Because of the River Thames London became a busy port in the medieval period, beginning a relationship with the wider world that remains to this day.
The Chinese have historically appreciated the benefits and delights of waterfront locations; but it has taken us some time to catch up. When Surrey Docks was developed - 90 per cent of the water spaces were filled in. Until recently we have associated waterways with pollution and the big stink. This suspicion of water can be seen to this on the canals where most development turned its back on the water. The fact that an unencumbered waterfront view can provide an uplift in value of anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent means that attitudes are now very different.
Chinese developers have snapped up some of the larger waterfront sites in London. The Lots Road Power station in Chelsea is being developed by Hutchinson Whampoa with a couple of towers by the river, shops and restaurants in the old power station building and a series of bridges that link the two sides of the development along Chelsea Creek. The same developer is building the new Convoys Wharf at Deptford. Chinese developers Knight Dragon are building 15,000 homes at Greenwich Peninsula. Chinese developer Asian Business Port is constructing a new business park overlooking Royal Albert Dock.
But with Silvertown Quays only receiving planning permission last October and with Greenwich Peninsula on a 20 year development programme Bob Hoskins would have been alarmed to find out that it was going to take over fifty years to replace the docks and industry of the East End. If you’d told him that then you’d probably have ended up in the meat freezer.
First published in On Office magazine