How we did it: Winning a battle to revive a Thames wharf

Close cooperation between public and private partners has saved a London wharf from redevelopment plans, David Dewar reports.

Reviving the wharf: the Port of London Authority’s planning director Jim Trimmer and (inset) chief executive Robin Mortimer
Reviving the wharf: the Port of London Authority’s planning director Jim Trimmer and (inset) chief executive Robin Mortimer

Project: Peruvian Wharf, London

Organisations involved: Port of London Authority, London Development Agency, Greater London Authority, Brett Group, London Borough of Newham

The Port of London Authority’s (PLA’s) recent £3 million acquisition of Peruvian Wharf in east London signalled the successful conclusion of a long-running battle to secure the site’s future as a working wharf. It was also a successful outcome for the "safeguarded wharves" policy, a cornerstone of strategic planning in London.

Peruvian Wharf lies on the River Thames near the Royal Docks in Silvertown. Until it closed in 1993, it was an operational cargo shipping berth for more than 100 years. In 1997, it was granted safeguarded wharf status under a policy approach established in the mid 1990s and now enshrined in the London Plan.

The policy protects wharves for waterborne freight-handling use unless it can be proved that they are no longer viable for this purpose. But this did not stop developers from bringing proposals in 2004 to pursue a mixed-use development across the whole site. The scheme was opposed by the PLA and the Greater London Authority (GLA) and was turned down by former communities secretary Ruth Kelly in 2007 as contrary to the safeguarded wharves policy.

"The 2007 decision effectively set the boundary of what the policy meant. It confirmed that if a scheme prejudices a site’s ability to handle cargo, the approach would be rejected," explains PLA director of planning and environment Jim Trimmer.

But Kelly’s decision was only part of the story. More work was needed to ensure that cargo-handling operations on the site resumed. "If a site is owned by a developer who doesn’t seek to use it for cargo handling, it’s difficult to actually put any pressure on the owner to do anything as they can just sit on it and gamble on the hope value becoming such that the policy can be ignored," Trimmer says.

The former London Development Agency (LDA) intervened by making a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for the safeguarded wharf area. "This brought the owners to the table," says Trimmer. An agreement was reached with site owner Colpy & Haworth, backed by managing agents Capital and Provident, whereby a CPO inquiry would be avoided if they reactivated the site for cargo handling.

A key part of the agreement gave the LDA an option to acquire the land if the owners failed to resume cargo handling within a set period. But then the 2008 financial crisis hit home. Although potential operators had been found, economic uncertainty led to their failure to trigger the reactivation within the timescale laid down.

The public bodies eventually decided to exercise the option to acquire the site themselves. By this point, the LDA had been merged into the GLA, which then passed on the reactivation work to the PLA. "We triggered the option to acquire the site and pushed through a long process of engaging the site owner," Trimmer says.

Arbitration proceedings were started in order to assess site value and other details of the acquisition. The PLA finally announced it had purchased the site last month. "The planning was the easy bit, but the acquisition has taken the time," says Trimmer. "When you haven’t got a willing seller, it takes a lot longer for these things to happen. But we are now moving from a very long planning stage to a very short implementation stage."

Following the acquisition, the way is now open for operators to resume cargo-handling operations at the wharf. The PLA says freight operator Brett Group is expected to open a new terminal on the site next year.

PLA chief executive Robin Mortimer describes the safeguarded wharves designation as "essential" to the authority’s case at Peruvian Wharf. "Without the restriction resulting from the policy, I don’t think there would be a wharf for us to reactivate," he says. "Strong evidence that protecting wharves for the long term would be justified through increasing use of the River Thames for freight has been fundamental."

Having dealt with planning proposals for Peruvian Wharf since 1999, Trimmer says the successful acquisition is "the culmination of a major part of my career in dealing with the site". He says perseverance was one of the main qualities needed over the years of his involvement.

"Over that length of time, it would have been very easy to say ‘we have given it a go’, but this was not something we were having a bet on. Retaining freight handling at this wharf was in full accordance with the planning policy, so if we were not going to win this one, it was a case of where we would we be with the policy," he says.

Mortimer agrees. The main lesson emerging from the Peruvian Wharf, he says, is that "you need dedication, resources and willing partners - even when policy is on your side".


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