You don’t have to get far into the plethora of online promotional material for the brownfield expanses of the Royal Albert Dock to find the various proposed futures for this 35-acre east London waterside site described as “vibrant”.
Sadly, the reality for this key plot in the huge regeneration zone that was once at the heart of the London economy – the busiest port in the world – but where the last ship unloaded in 1981 has been pretty much the opposite for more than a decade. But that could be about to change.
The site itself has a surreal character: cleared and windswept beside the stark reaches of the dock opposite London City Airport with, at its centre, the five blocks of empty offices which are all that were completed of a grandiose scheme trumpeted by the then Mayor, Boris Johnson, in 2013 as the next Canary Wharf.
Most of this space, amounting to just over a tenth of a planned 4.7 million square feet of offices has, in fact, been standing empty since the monotone modular structures, masterplanned by Farrells, were completed in 2019. With no sign of the rest of the development ever happening, Sadiq Khan pulled the plug on the deal in early 2022.
It falls a long way short of the promises made when Johnson signed a £1 billion deal with Chinese developers ABP to transform the Greater London Authority-owned site into a state-of-the-art “gateway” for Asian and Chinese businesses, creating 20,000 jobs and adding £6 billion to the UK economy.
Were ABP, which ended up as sole bidder, ever as rock-solid as City Hall seemed to think? “Early delivery” and the ability to “guarantee future occupiers” were key criteria when they were selected, a London Assembly report found in 2022. Its bid was the only one “that could provide adequate assurance of being able to attract enough occupiers quickly”.
It was an assurance that proved hollow. The developer could point to changing office demand, delays to the Elizabeth line – originally due to open in 2018 – the impact of the pandemic and even a general cooling in UK-China relations, but critics also detected a whiff of Johnsonian hubris.
With funding drying up and creditors circling, ABP finally collapsed. The built-out part of the site was sold on by liquidators PwC last year to property company DPK. Spearheaded by developer and notable amateur jockey David Maxwell, it has just unveiled its own plans to give these lonely blocks a “radical facelift”.
It’s a very different approach to a site which, like others in the historic docks, has defied successful development over many years. Two of the blocks will be converted into up to 630 student rooms as part of a wider educational campus.
Consultation on these plans is now underway, and a fresh planning application is expected this spring. New plans for the remaining blocks are being developed too, and will include flexible office, research, development, health and education uses, with a further planning application to follow later in the year.
City Hall will be hoping Maxwell proves to be a better bet than ABP, perhaps particularly because a successful scheme will encourage others to get involved with the remaining 30 acres of undeveloped land now back in GLA hands. Mayor Khan has just fired the starting gun on a search for a new development partner.
Like DPK, Mayor Khan wants a different sort of development from what ABP proposed. While the aim is certainly to get new business into the area, there’s a new emphasis on creating a “more mixed-use employment hub”, with a possible focus on “high-value growth industries and sectors such as green tech”, according to City Hall documents.
Khan is also looking for more housing, with a “variety of affordable and private housing tenures”, and a greener, more sustainable scheme all round. The procurement process to get a “master developer” in place is expected to start in June, with a contract award expected towards the end of next year.
Are we seeing the beginnings of a “new era” for London’s historic docklands, as Khan forecast back in 2022 as City Hall relocated to the western end of Victoria Dock and fresh plans were announced to restore the historic Millennium Mills complex in Silvertown, which had stood disused for 40 years?
These eastern docks did see some early investment in the 1980s, including the airport and the Docklands Light Railway. Later came the ExCel exhibition centre and the University of East London campus, both opened in 2000.
But the area’s commercial development has not kept pace with Canary Wharf, which is nearer to the city centre and a beneficiary of the Jubilee line extension. Various ambitious plans, such as a “floating village” at Victoria dock, an aquarium visitor attraction and luxury “loft-style” apartments at Millennium Mills, did not materialise. Now we can add the ABP scheme to that list.
Even before the ABP collapse, though, Khan had moved to reinvigorate plans for the area as a whole, which contains London’s only government-designated enterprise zone, established in 2012 and designed to lure business with tax breaks and other financial incentives. The arrival of the Elizabeth line is another positive. The Mayor’s new approach may grab fewer headlines than that of his predecessor, but spades in the ground will be the real measure of success.