Will depot mistake derail Old Oak Common vision, by Joey Gardiner

Ever since former London mayor Boris Johnson set up Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) last year, the body has been touting its scheme as the UK's largest regeneration project.

It estimates that the West London development could create 65,000 new jobs and 25,000 new homes. But, as the Greater London Authority’s review of the project articulated last month, this will only be possible if some fundamental questions are answered. One is what happens to the new £142m depot for Crossrail rolling stock at the heart of the site.

The depot is set in what is intended to be the commercial centre of a new piece of city, surrounding the planned Crossrail/High Speed Two interchange where 46,000 new jobs are envisaged. But the depot has been built without structural features to allow development above it, and these cannot be retrofitted.

So the full regeneration could not go ahead without knocking down a new, publicly-funded £142 million building, even though the Old Oak Common plans were being drawn up before building the depot. Architect Sir Terry Farrell has described this as the biggest planning mistake he has seen in 50 years.
The potential cost of this failure is now emerging. Well-placed sources have told Planning that demolishing and rebuilding the depot could cost half a billion pounds. In a fair world, this kind of mismanagement would preclude those responsible – such as Johnson – from future consideration for public office.

Even without the depot redevelopment, the OPDC was facing an infrastructure bill of £2 billion, with no guarantee of public funding. Its supporters say that, with the right financing structures and use of Tax Increment Financing, the depot costs could be paid for out of the profits of those doing the over-site development. But this would require ever-increasing development density to generate enough cash.

Not everyone feels super-density is the right answer for this part of London. In the absence of a detailed masterplan from the OPDC, architects worried about the proliferation of tall towers in London have expressed concerns about the thrust of proposals, and neighbouring boroughs are campaigning for mid-rise development that is more in keeping with the locality. Either way, the soaring infrastructure costs are unlikely to leave much money for community benefits, affordable housing and quality placemaking.

The design of such an important piece of city should not be based solely on short term commercial considerations. The masterplan must be viable, but still driven by the best long-term outcome for the area and those living in it.

This may lead the new London mayor and transport secretary to conclude that they must come up with some serious cash to repair mistakes and set the scheme on a good foundation, or else give up Old Oak Common as a bad job.

Joey Gardiner is special correspondent for Planning

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