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Developers aim for riverside recovery
Planning – 25 March 2005

A dormant section of one of London's least packed boroughs at at the centre of an uncommon renewal drive, says Mark Smulian

Is this really the capital? As a blighted expanse of demolished power stations, disused landfills, unsightly pylons, muddy quagmires and scrap yards, Barking Riverside today more closely resembles some area of collapsed heavy industry than it does its thriving neighbour London Docklands.

But 20 years from now, if all goes well, there will be 10,800 new homes here, rapid transport links and extensive parks along what must be the capital's least accessible river frontage.

Barking Riverside is being developed by a 50/50 joint venture of the regeneration quango English Partnerships and house builder Bellway, which has an option to buy half the land for housing, with the rest being auctioned among other companies.

Unlike most other modern regeneration projects, it will not be a sustainable community in the sense of all employment, retail, leisure and education needs being on site.

Instead it is intended to provide homes to serve people who work in the burgeoning commercial developments elsewhere in Docklands, and in the City of London, and should eventually be connected to both by an extension to the Docklands Light Railway. There will be an emphasis on homes for key workers.

The joint venture has submitted its planning application to Barking and Dagenham Council and if all goes well it expects to start building early next year.

It has taken a very long time to get even this far.

The site, then known as Barking Reach, was an obvious next step for developers during the first flush of Docklands development, and plans were laid for a new town, only to be stymied by the early 1990s property crash.

By the time the development industry recovered its confidence, the area had declined further and nothing happened until the mid-1990s when Bellway stuck a toe in the water and built several hundred two-storey homes for sale adjoining the council's Thames View estate.

Bellway and the council formed a joint venture in 1998 to develop around 6,000 homes on the site, intending that all the public transport would be provided by buses.

But by the time this plan solidified, the government had marked the Thames Gateway for growth and deputy prime minister John Prescott descended (literally, in a visit by helicopter) to say that higher densities could accommodate 10,800 homes.

This increase would require more infrastructure investment and the DLR extension, and with the amount of public money needed increasingly rapidly the council sold its share of the joint venture to EP, though it retains a seat on the board.

Remediation was the first thing needed on a vast site used for decades for power generation and landfill.

Bellway's project director Stuart Stockdale says: "I say that this is the largest derelict land project in Europe, and no-one has ever contradicted me."

Mr Stockdale explains that clay is being imported from demolition sites elsewhere to cap the land.

Engineers lay the clay 4.5m above eventual ground level and wait 12 months for it to settle, after which it forms a layer 2m thick above the pulverised ash (a former power station by-product) and subsoil.

Known contaminants are removed, by if any remain this technique forms "a thicker layer than anyone could dig through in their back garden" he says.

The £200m remediation programme will see the entire site capped to seal any contaminants. Clay is also being used to raise the river frontage slightly from its present 7.4m height so that it meets the Environment Agency new once-in-1,000-years flood defence level of 8m.

It is less easy to remove the evidence of the generating industry on the surface. Although the three power stations have been demolished, two large switching stations are still in use and will be or the foreseeable future as they bring in a large part of the capital's power though wires on pylons.

"The pylons can be rationalised but not removed altogether," says Mr Stockdale.

Even in 1996, the estimate cost of removing them and burying the cables was £100m and it would undoubtedly be more now. Instead, plans for this site have zones under the wires and within 30m of them where nothing will be built.

Though the site is large, fitting 10,800 homes into it still requires building at high densities in some areas, not least to meet the government's demands for better use of land through increased density.

Unusually, there is an object lesson right at hand for Barking Riverside in how not to do this.

Directly across the river is Thamesmead, the new town built by the former Greater London Council. While the town houses that now line the river are perfectly pleasant, behind them can be seen the serried ranks of social housing blocks made notorious by the film A Clockwork Orange.

"We have not made a particular study of Thamesmead, but we are not going to repeat those mistakes," says Mr Stockdale.

Barking and Dagenham is, at least by London standards, a low income area, and has been dominated by social housing ever since the Becontree area was built in the 1920s to house workers at the Ford car plant.

Two objectives of Barking Riverside are to attract higher income buyers into the area to bolster its economic base, and to ensure that social housing is neither concentrated in one area nor visually different from private homes.

Mr Stockdale says: "Homes will be built in 'blind tenure' between the affordable ones and others, so that it will not be obvious what is social housing from the exterior."

The Thames View estate will stay but may be regenerated as part of the project.

Although the initial Bellway development of two-storeys homes has sold well, and this type of housing is in demand, the government directions on density mean that very little more of this is likely to be built.

Terraced housing and flats will dominate, with around 500 new homes a year being the maximum output that the construction industry is projected to be able to sustain.

This is partly because of skill shortages and availability of materials. Barking Riverside intends to offer training in construction skills to local residents to try to alleviate these problems.

It also hopes that a high proportion of the homes will be built using modern methods of construction.

This is a catch-all term for homes that are assembled on site from components made in factories and would in any event be required by the Housing Corporation on efficiency grounds for the social housing built with help from its grants.

It should prove possible at Barking Riverside to bring in a substantial amount of materials by water or rail and to build the requisite factories on the site, so providing jobs and minimising road transport.

"It could be almost all be built through modern methods of construction from factories on site," Mr Stockdale says.

Barking and Dagenham Council will considerably extend the number of people for whom it is responsible from the present 160,000 when the development is complete. It should also change the character of the area.

Five years ago, the council's own job advertisements used to pose the question of whether it was in a time warp, and it was seen as content to administer its huge portfolio of social housing and not very innovative.

Now, despite no longer being a partner in the joint venture, it is fully engaged in the project.

Its regeneration manager for the area Martin Brady says the council's departure from the joint venture has clarified its role and ended the awkward combination of being both a development partner and the planning authority.

"The council is arguably less influential than it was as a landholder but we are working closely with English Partnerships' agenda and the change is not necessarily significant," he says.

But all may not run smoothly over the mix of housing planned.

While the council is not worried about the proposed densities as such, it is concerned about the impact of London mayor Ken Livingstone's policy that half of all new developments should comprise affordable housing.

Mr Brady says: "We have a higher percentage of rented social housing than the average, partly because of Becontree.

"We are minded to see greater choice and want to change the tenure mix and so almost favour increased private ownership. We need affordable housing too, but the mayorÕs 50% rate is too high and we would like something nearer 35%."

The council has a challenge in both socially and physically integrating Barking Riverside with the rest of the borough.

It lies south of the busy A13 dual carriageway and a railway, both of which in effect cut Barking Riverside off.

The transport strategy is part of the solution to this, but the council is also redeveloping its town centre area.

Estates built near the A13 in the 1960s will come down and 4,000 new homes are planned that will resemble those in Barking Riverside.

Work is still in progress on how the council's services will extend to such a large addition.

One idea is for a management company to take over open spaces and street services for Barking Riverside, paid for a by a service charge on all residents.

"That body could also do housing management, but it is very early days," he says.

The council is doing the sums for education provision, and the results are somewhat worrying, showing a bill of some £113m.

"Because of the low land values and costs of remediation we are not convinced that those can be provided through section106 deals," Mr Brady says. This issue remains to be resolved.

There will no doubt be financial and planning disputes over 20 years, but there is an air of optimism and enthusiasm generated by the opportunities offered by this unusually blank canvas for developers.

Dutch firm Maxwan, veteran of high density regeneration work on the continent, has been brought in as master planner, and Mr Stockdale is confident that by 2027 the place will be a showpiece.

He says: "This site gives all kinds of environmental opportunities from use of the river frontage to the creation of ponds to contain rainfall before it is released to the river.

"This is not going to be about cheap, poor quality, homes. We want people to come here and see this as an example of what can be done rather than going to Holland or Germany to find them. I think it can be done here."

Transport links are vital to the success of Barking Riverside, but at present consist only of two bus routes.

The A13 dual carriageway from London to south Essex forms the northern boundary of the site and the rail line from London to Tilbury and Southend runs nearby.

London Underground serves Barking town centre and the east of the borough, and the Docklands Light Rail stops the far side of River Roding at point where it is unbridged.

Two solutions are planned Š East London Transit and an extension to the Docklands Light Railway.

East London Transit will initially be partly a dedicated track and partly on normal roads with bus-friendly measures such priority lanes and the ability for drivers to turn traffic lights green.

This could eventually upgrade to a guided busway with special vehicles.

It forms part of a wider project to bring reserved paths for buses to the rest of Barking and Dagenham, where separate regeneration projects are planned for Becontree and the disused parts of the Ford plant in South Dagenham and to adjacent boroughs.

The DLR extension would leave the present Beckton branch at Gallions Reach and cross the River Roding to Barking Riverside, where it would then run the width of the site ending at Dagenham Dock, a station on the main rail line from London to Tilbury.

This would give direct links to Canary Wharf, the city and the anticipated developments in the Royal Docks.

Little scope exists for extra trains on the Tilbury line, which runs into the city's Fenchurch Street terminus.

Mr Stockdale says: "My view is that it is essential the DLR extension is at least committed to early [by ministers]." Without it, potential buyers might be put off homes in such a relatively remote area.

Barking Riverside

Size: 179.3 ha
Residential areas: 75.4 ha
Area constrained by power lines: 33.8ha
Public open space: 84.5 ha
River frontage: 1.9 km
New homes: 10,800
Projected population: 26,400
Average housing density: 116.7 homes/ha

Housing mix
1 bedroom: 1,178
2 bedrooms: 5,097
3 bedrooms: 3,122
4 bedrooms: 1,403

Retail: 14,500 m2
Small business units: 11,250 m2
Live/ work units: 300

Housing: £1.62bn = £10,800 homes at average £150,000 each
Infrastructure: £250m


Phase 1
By 2012 new homes will for the first time outnumber existing ones, the population will reach 15,000, the West Centre (schools, retail and health hub) will be built and East London Transit will serve the west of the site.

Phase 2
By 2017 the main district centre will be built, population will reach 19,000, East London Transit will be complete and the DLR running.

Phase 3
By 2022 Eye Square, the hub for the eastern half of the site, will be built, almost 9,000 homes completed and the population will hit 21,000, and 40,000 sq m of commercial and community space will be available.

Phase 4
By 2027 the riverfront centre will be complete, there will be 10,800 homes and Barking Riverside will be "a household name and new, unknown, services and opportunities will be realised".

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