It was 55 years ago, December 5 1964, that fire swept through the Bishopsgate Goodsyard in east London, just north of Liverpool Street station, devastating the site and causing the death of two customs officials. Two hundred and thirty-five firefighters and 40 fire engines were unable to save the huge Victorian trade interchange, and the 10-acre site has been substantially closed up and unused ever since. But a City Hall decision coming up before Christmas could finally see development proposals for the site – seven international football pitches-worth of derelict land between Shoreditch and the City – moving forward.
Plans from joint developers Ballymore and Hammerson would see new retail and cultural space, 1.4 million square feet of office space, including affordable workspace, a “High Line” style park, restoration of historic elements of the site, including the Grade II-listed Braithwaite Viaduct, and 500 new homes, half of them designated as affordable.
Strategically located where Hackney, Tower Hamlets and the City meet, the conjunction of “tech city”, the Shoreditch “creative quarter”, Brick Lane and the old City, the Goodsyard site is one of the “greatest remaining opportunities in the whole of central London for major regeneration,” according to Ballymore managing director John Mulryan. And the new development – car-free, well supplied with cycle parking, incorporating the “largest concentration of affordable workspace in London”, plus “public realm” taking up more than half of its acreage – is a “positive mix of uses for a post-Covid world”, says Hammerson director Robin Dobson.
As well as at least 11,000 jobs created, new cultural spaces on the Hackney and the Tower Hamlets sides of the site and a focus on family-sized housing, the scheme would contribute some £500 million annually to the capital’s economy and, more generally, encourage further investment in the city as a whole, Dobson adds.
Mayor Khan will decide on planning permission for the development following a public hearing scheduled for 3 December, with the applicants’ case bolstered last month when a coalition of local groups opposed to earlier plans offered “conditional support” to the current scheme.
For Hammerson and Ballymore it’s been almost a decade-long process to get to this point, involving Hackney and Tower Hamlets councils, whose boundary the site straddles, Khan’s current deputy for planning Jules Pipe, former Mayor Boris Johnson and, not least, a willingness to revisit original plans.
The joint venture took on the site in 2002, agreeing planning guidance in 2010 and bringing forward its first proposals in 2014. A high-density, housing-led scheme with 1,464 homes in residential towers up to 46 storeys, it didn’t go down well with either of the boroughs or community groups, even after the number of homes was reduced to 1,356.
For the councils, it was too tall with too many homes and just 15% of them affordable, short on job creation, “monolithic”, overbearing, blocking out daylight to surrounding properties and “looming uncomfortably over the public realm”. Pipe, who was Mayor of Hackney at the time, described the scheme as an “obscenity”, while for local residents, amenity and neighbourhood groups, “united against the common enemy of over-development erasing the neighbourhood’s built history”, it was an “alien presence”.
With the two councils gearing up to reject the plans, the scheme was “called in” by Mayor Johnson in 2015, using City Hall powers to take over decision-making on strategic sites. With GLA planners joining their council counterparts in recommending refusal, Johnson, who had never previously refused a scheme he had called in, used the dying days of his administration, in April 2016, to defer the application and send the developers back to the drawing board.
Pipe remained an arch-critic of the 2014 scheme, arguing that new Mayor Sadiq Khan should send it back to the two boroughs for a final decision. But despite concerns that Pipe’s June 2016 appointment as Khan’s planning deputy would sound the death-knell for the development, the London Mayor kept control, while making it clear that a major rethink was required.
“We would not be taking the scheme forward with a few tweaks,” Pipe told the London Assembly planning committee last year. “It had to be a radical change…It was tough to decide whether it should go back to the boroughs again. We agonised over that but, in the end, everyone settled on it staying here because it had got to that stage.”
While contending that their original plans had been compliant with planning guidance for the site, which sits both within the City Fringe “opportunity area” and the London Plan’s central activities zone, Hammerson and Ballymore took up Khan’s challenge.
“It had become very obvious that various groups felt very uncomfortable about it,” says Mulryan. “You can’t ignore the feedback you get. As a developer you don’t want to be doing something that people don’t want. We’ve listened to people and taken their concerns seriously, and the design has changed dramatically.”
Adds Dobson: “We’ve worked hard over the last five years, consulting and engaging with more than 2,500 local people and businesses to bring forward a much-improved scheme.”
The latest proposals, masterplanned by architects FaulknerBrowns, replace the original residential towers with lower density housing – maximum heights down from 46 to 26 storeys and 500 homes rather than 1,356 – more business and retail, including the affordable workspace offer, new north-south and east-west thoroughfares, and the new “Skyline” public park over the site’s historic arches, with “spectacular” views over the City.
For community and business coalition More Light More Power (MLMP), which coordinated opposition to the 2014 plans, the current scheme has “meaningfully responded” to public concern and recognised, albeit “to varying degrees”, local aspirations. “MLMP therefore believes there is currently more to gain by influencing key aspects of the proposals, than campaigning for outright refusal,” the group says.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Hackney and Tower Hamlets are yet to finalise their representations to the Mayor and the separate Reclaim the Goodsyard campaign is maintaining its opposition, arguing that the revised scheme “remains an over-development of the area, with an excessive provision of commercial and retail space and an under-provision of affordable housing for local people”.
For Dobson and Mulryan, the upcoming mayoral deliberation is a critical moment. “It’s a window of opportunity,” says Dobson. “A positive decision is really important in terms of timing going forward, and to give confidence for future investment.” A green light from City Hall would see work on site begin in early 2022, adds Mulryan. And if not, “realistically it could take years to get back to this point.”
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