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The regeneration game

Few would dispute the fact that no area of London has changed more over the last two decades than Docklands. In 1965 it was at its peak as the worlds largest port, but by 1981 all cargo handling had ceased. Little was achieved by attempts during the 1970s to reverse the decline. So in July 1981 London Docklands Development Corporation was set up to kick-start regeneration in the area. Much has been said for and against LDDC over the last 17 years. But there is no doubt that it has achieved a great deal. The population is more than twice what it was in 1981 while the number of workers has nearly tripled.

There is still much to be done, especially in the Royal Docks. London Docklands looks set to continue as a prime source of work for the construction industry for years to come.

It is 10am on a cold February day. Gareth Bendan breezes into our meeting, punctual to the minute. Bendan is a busy man.

He has been at London Docklands Development Corporation since 1990, as head of the chief executives office. As the corporations odd-job man he picks up all the work that doesnt have a home. That includes taking charge of the corporations wind down.

His mornings start early and today he has already sat in on several meetings and still managed to find time for a bite of breakfast. He sits down and immediately launches into the interview, an hour-long, information packed monologue.

Everyone at LDDC is focused on one date: 31 March 1998. That is the day when LDDC formally ceases to exist. By then all the corporations work must either be completed or handed over to other organisations which will take over LDDCs remit to regenerate London Docklands.

Notices on the walls proclaim the number of Mondays left before the Thames Quay headquarters on the Isle of Dogs are vacated. Already the building, which is undergoing final repairs following damage caused by the IRA bomb two years ago, feels empty as staff numbers are just a quarter of what they once were.

Bendan talks of forging agreements with government, local authorities and other statutory bodies on how the complex winding down process should be managed and measured. It was a complex iterative process, he recalls. Negotiations have been extremely strenuous and protracted, in some areas beyond the point of reason.

Delicate diplomacy was vital to agree how to measure when LDDCs remit in different areas of Docklands had been fulfilled and who should carry on its work in areas where it has not.

Explains Bendan: We agreed a set of criteria with the then Secretary of State back in 1992 to set up the programme for phased withdrawal from the region.

These criteria cover areas including infrastructure and social issues. Overall thrust is that in a particular region the momentum of regeneration should be self-sustaining, but not necessarily fully completed. Regeneration is a process that goes on forever, stresses Bendan.

An organisation like LDDC was vital to gather momentum for regeneration. In 1981 an organisation was needed with the resources and focus to kick start regeneration and bring momentum, explains Bendan. Now we are no longer needed.

Bermondsey was the first area to be vacated by LDDC, in October 1994. Then came Beckton, Surrey Docks, Wapping and Limehouse and most recently the Isle of Dogs in October last year.

In each case arrangements had to be made to ensure all the corporations interests were taken care of. For example, in Wapping and Limehouse, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets took over LDDCs development control.

A statement of agreed intentions sets out transfer arrangements. The freehold of the Wapping Dock estate and LDDCs interest in open spaces such as playgrounds and parks all went to LBTH. The corporation also set up funding for maintenance and future work.

The handovers so far have worked perfectly, says Bendan. The process was hard work but the handovers themselves passed off successfully. Residents and businesses scarcely noticed.

The only exception is in the Royals which is still under LDDC control. We are not at a position there where regeneration would happen in our absence, explains Bendan. Not all planned infrastructure schemes have been completed and large areas of development land have yet to be signed up. It is necessary for there to be a successor to augment the normal acts of the London Borough of Newham, says Bendan. The scale of activities still required is such that the local authority just couldnt cope.

That LDDC has to hand on its work in the Royals for someone else to complete is not a blow, stresses Bendan. I dont think we have failed. The scale of the challenge is so big it would have been impossible to do it better.

Regeneration throughout the whole of Docklands would probably be a couple of years more advanced if the recession of the early 1990s hadnt knocked everything back, he adds.

Government development agency English Partnerships, currently busy regenerating the Greenwich peninsula on the other side of the Thames, takes over most of LDDCs responsibilities in the Royals. Bendan reckons EP will need to spend five to 10 years in the area before it is handed over to Newham.

At the same time the Millennium Dome, on the other side of the river on the Greenwich peninsula, will give regeneration another boost. Bendan says it will be a focus for regeneration for the whole East End and will benefit projects like City Airport and the exhibition centre planned for the Royals.

For more than five years LDDC has been decreasing in size from a peak of 480 staff in 1991, to 121 staff in December last year. We have progressively reduced and reorganised our structure, explains Bendan.

Staffing levels will now stay pretty constant until 31 March when almost everybody gets made redundant. A small number will stay on several months to prepare final accounts and other key staff will possibly transfer to EP and the Commission for New Towns.

Bendan does not seem sad that the end is nigh. We are all extremely busy and morale is very high, he claims. Staff are trying to keep up the momentum of regeneration. We are working right up to the wire.

To demonstrate, Bendan, still talking away nineteen to the dozen, packs up, says goodbye and speeds on to his next meeting.

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