How we did it: Opening up east London's river frontage

A new framework promises to help London manage population and economic growth and tempt business and residents eastwards. Matt Ross reports.

Framework producers: team including the GLA’s Colin Wilson (back row, third from left), Havering’s Patrick Keyes (front row, left), GLA planner Natalie Gentry (front, second left) and Barking & Dagenham’s Darren Rodwell (front, right)
Framework producers: team including the GLA’s Colin Wilson (back row, third from left), Havering’s Patrick Keyes (front row, left), GLA planner Natalie Gentry (front, second left) and Barking & Dagenham’s Darren Rodwell (front, right)

Project: London Riverside Opportunity Area Planning Framework (OAPF).

Organisations involved: Greater London Authority, London Boroughs of Barking & Dagenham and Havering, Transport for London.

The London Riverside OAPF is designed, says Colin Wilson, to help "provide homes and jobs in London as the population grows to record levels, creating a strategic planning framework for a major opportunity area straddling two borough boundaries."

Wilson, a senior strategic planning manager at the Greater London Authority (GLA), explains that the OAPF will anchor Havering and Barking & Dagenham Councils’ local plans and the next iteration of the London Plan. Mapping out new infrastructure, housing and employment sites along a brownfield stretch of the Thames’ northern bank between Barking and Rainham, the strategy aims to reduce heavy industrial uses and improve transport to support 26,500 new homes and 16,000 jobs.

The OAPF first went out for consultation in 2011. "The first document was initiated by the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, but 18 months later it was disbanded," recalls Wilson. In mid-2014 the election of new leaders at the two councils – Labour’s Darren Rodwell in Barking & Dagenham and the Conservatives’ Roger Ramsey in Havering – breathed new life into the process.

"Before I was leader we were an insular council," says Rodwell. "It was about turning that around and trying to come out with new thinking, understanding what part we could play in unlocking east London to grow the city." The GLA also needed to change its tune, comments Wilson: "We’ve tried to get ideas from the boroughs so everyone feels they own the plan."

Wilson adds that the GLA tried to "minimise jargon and make it more direct"; consulted widely with landowners and developers; linked the strategy into new developments east of the capital; and set up a strategic board involving borough leaders and officers, key GLA players and Transport for London (TfL). East Deptford in the London Borough of Newham was moved into the neighbouring Royal Docks opportunity area.

Meanwhile, the partners worked together in developing crucial transport improvements. TFL director for borough planning Alex Williams says that even though east London is predicted to take a substantial share of London’s future population growth, this section of riverfront barely registers on his organisation’s measures for public transport links.

The promoters of a new station at Beam Park in South Dagenham estimate it will encourage developers to build 3,500 new homes. "There’s a significant GLA landholding there, and it will enable early delivery," says the borough’s head of regulatory services, Patrick Keyes.

Meanwhile, Barking & Dagenham’s planned Barking Riverside station is now funded. Rodwell is also championing plans to put the A13 in a tunnel, easing congestion and providing land for 6,000 homes. "The A13 is a blockage," comments Williams, calling Rodwell’s plan "the best" of London’s proposed major road improvements. Wilson adds that "after some initial scepticism, it has very strong political support".

So what changed? Political leadership has been crucial, says Keyes: "London’s mayor has been clear in his ambition that his legacy would see the developments come forward, so I imagine that’s translating into the GLA’s priorities." Wilson praises Rodwell and Ramsey for playing "a big part in enabling this to come forward." His colleague GLA senior strategic planner Natalie Gentry adds that this "political support has filtered down, so the officers have been given the time and resources to work on the project".

The boroughs’ new leaders, says Rodwell, recognise that partnership is the only way forward. "We want to be part of the narrative of where London is going: it’s moving east, and we need the infrastructure to succeed." Meanwhile, the resurgent development industry and rising house prices are making it easier to attract investors. With the OAPF in place, says Keyes, "we can articulate a clear plan to developers and build in the infrastructure at the outset". He expects this to alleviate local concerns and marshal developer contributions.

For years, says Wilson, London’s planners have suffered from "an inability to manage land use on a city-wide basis, because we’re trying to do so on the basis of 32 boroughs rather than London as a city". He adds: "The OAPF is part of the solution, showing councils they’re all part of a connected story and if they work together, they can create opportunities."

Rodwell says Barking & Dagenhan is returning to centre-stage in that story. "London’s pulsing again. As the local specialists, we’ve been able to articulate what we can offer but we need no compromise in return. There’s no borough boundaries when it comes to homes and communities and infrastructure."

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