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Canning Town Masterplan - North of the Dome, a new world view

Nick Mathiason, Estates Gazette

North of the dome, a new world view

With £156m in grants and Labour's blessing, Newham is drawing an Arc of Opportunity across east London. By Nick Mathiason

All of London's sewage flows east through a labyrinth of pipes to Beckton, in the borough of Newham, where it is processed. This "dumping-ground" image encapsulates what a lot of people think of the borough. And looking at the facts, you can see why.

Of Newham's 220,000 people, 80,000 live on means-tested benefit. Its unemployment rate of 10.68% ranks alongside the highest in Britain and it is said that there are more people suffering from asthma here than in any other UK borough.

But against a backdrop of intense social and economic deprivation, Newham is preparing itself for lift-off. In two weeks, Richard Caborn, minister for planning and regeneration, will endorse the Arc of Opportunity at the British Academy.

The arc is a 485ha (1,200 acre) swathe of land - its length is the same as the distance from Regents Park to Parliament - earmarked for the biggest regeneration project in Europe.

Newham is overseeing an architects' competition, and the winner, says Newham council, will have the chance to "translate new government policy directions into urban form and create the profile and momentum to achieve magnitude and quality of transformation".

The borough has already secured £156m from Europe and the Single Regeneration Budget to implement this regeneration. It is now assembling sites and aims to implement changes incrementally.

But when one considers that the wholesale redevelopment of the Docklands - an area of comparable size to the Arc - is estimated at £7bn, one realises that Newham's plans have a long way to go.

The borough's chief executive, Wendy Thompson, who is also a member of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, says: "In the Stratford railway lands area, there is already significant private-sector interest. The Thames area will attract interest, with the Excel exhibition centre now happening there. So we have motors in the north and south of the site."

The Arc of Opportunity today is an unforgiving world. Stratford town centre is a victim of its ring road, while Canning Town centre is rudely disturbed by the A13 flyover. Other than the Three Mills film studio complex and two industrial estates in the middle of the arc, the area is a contaminated wasteland, full of pallets and spent car wheels that mysteriously gather on deserted street corners.

One of the shortlisted architects admitted he was afraid to leave his car on occasion. "This is no-go territory," he confided.

But Newham does stand on the cusp of opportunity. A Channel Tunnel high-speed terminal and the Jubilee Line are coming to the borough. And it is close to the expanded London City airport and the M11 link.

Developers unaware of potential
Today, most property developers are unaware of the potential that the arc offers. "It's too early for us," says Delancey Estates' managing director, James Ritblat. "I've actually never heard of what's happening there."

Ritblat is in the majority but some have seen an opening. The Redbourn Group is playing a leading role in regenerating Canning Town with the development of a 6,503m2 (70,000 sq ft) supermarket at the northern end of the high street.

Redbourn's development director, Bartley McGovern, says: "There is this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear the area and start again. It's similar to what happened at Canary Wharf.

"It seems that Newham has a direct brief from central government to sort itself out. The people we deal with are aggressive, progressive and flexible. The regeneration of Newham will be retail-led. Once it's established, people will feel more confident moving to the area, and that confidence will feed through to businesses locating here."

The four architects selected by Newham to masterplan the arc submitted their final proposals last Monday. The winner will be selected by the end of the month, but ideas from all four submissions will be used in an overall masterplan.

All the architects speak in glowing terms of how the City is now spreading east and of how London is lucky to have the space to create a modicum of urban harmony where there is relatively little at present.

But there the similarities end. The submission from Pringle Richards Sharratt envisions homes for 6,000 people and a massive snow dome in West Ham powered by methane sourced from the nearby sewage reprocessing centre. Its plan also cocoons the A13 flyover by Canning Town to reduce car noise and exhaust pollution and creates a beach opposite the Millennium Dome.
The Patel Taylor design suggests scrapping the A13 fly-over, creating a new Central Line station outside Stratford, enlarging Newham Park in a style similar to Battersea Park with town houses surrounding it, expanding the industrial estate in the heart of the arc and creating a new residential district on the Thames.

MBM Arquitectes from Barcelona wants to develop a 30ha (74 acre) "basin" south of Stratford International for a university and a research and business centre, with an 80ha (197 acre) "wet square" or lake to the north of it. It also plans a new canal system along the east side for the Lea Valley connecting Stratford to the Thames.

Stratford shopping centre development
Arup Associates plans to redevelop the Stratford shopping centre to extend a new shopping street into the railway lands. A piazza will be created above Stratford International railway station. Railway lines to the international terminal will pass across the water and the existing media and conference facilities at Three Mills will be expanded.

Also, high-quality and high-density residential developments are a feature of Arup's plan to enhance land values and take advantage of Canary Wharf's projected growth.

It is easy to believe that these architects' plans involve more "imagineering" than reality, and that they will never get off the ground. But the attitude of Newham seems to be that if it is to escape its rundown inner-city fate, a degree of imagination is required.

"If you let the market do it, you'll just get sheds," says Newham's Thomson. "The competition exists to instill some imagination." And she was unequivocal in her determination to make the Arc of Opportunity happen. "It will happen. It's just a question of when and how and what standards we set."

© Estates Gazette 1999