The East London borough of Newham with the scyscrapers of the City of London in the distance

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East London will use Olympics
to change negative perceptions

By Emma Vandore

18 March 2011: When it comes to selling the East London borough of Newham, the toughest audience is Londoners themselves. Decades of industrial decline, joblessness, social deprivation and crime place it far from the British capital’s glittering West End. Jeremy Clarkson, a popular British television presenter, once described Newham as so far East “that it might as well be in Poland.” But decades of investment are starting to pay off: this year, Clarkson has chosen to bring the live arena show of his popular TV series Top Gear to the ExCel centre, Newham’s 100,000 square metre international exhibition centre.

“Quite often in London, people don’t get it,” said Councillor Conor McAuley, who advises Newham’s mayor on regeneration. “People coming from elsewhere aren’t burdened by such baggage.”

He was speaking at an event to discuss developments at Newham including the Olympic Park, Westfield Stratford City, and the Royal Docks organised by the NLA in association with Newham Council. On either side of him sat foreign investors from Germany’s Siemens, Irish property developer Ballymore Group, France’s Bouygues, LandProp Services, part of the investment arm of the Swedish furniture giant IKEA, and ExCel London – owned by ADNEC or Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. The all-day event also heard from two Australian companies: Lend Lease, the property developer contracted to build Stratford’s Olympic Village, and shopping centre giant the Westfield Group. British interests were represented only through public bodies such as the Olympic Park Legacy Company or master planners Urban Initiatives.

“Since we opened, we have spent most of our time and most of our budget changing people’s perceptions” about East London, said Kevin Murphy, ExCeL’s chief executive.

Londoners who do venture East are often surprised how close it is. Newham claims it takes 15 minutes to get there from central London by tube. Rail journey times from St Pancras and Liverpool Street can be as little as 7 minutes. Stratford, Newham’s transport hub, will be the best connected location in Greater London when the new Crossrail line opens in 2017.

Since Sir Robin Wales became Newham’s first elected mayor in 2002, he has been campaigning to “change East London from being a place of poverty which sucks in taxpayers money, sucks in public subsidy, to a place that gives wealth back to the country.”

Not an easy task at any time – and certainly not in the aftermath of an economic crunch and amid deep government spending cuts. Newham is the 3rd most deprived borough in London, and with poverty comes crime. Newham has one of the highest robbery rates in the capital – sure to be a challenge for police during the Olympic Games.

Unemployment is 14.2 per cent, compared with 8.6 per cent across London. Over half of Newham residents have a very low level of qualification, and they earn less as a result (£12,500 less per annum than the average Londoner.) Life expectancy amongst residents is also low: every stop travelled east on Jubilee line from Westminster to Canning Town means represents a year less life expectancy for residents living there.

“People who are poorer die younger,” said Wales. “That’s just wicked. That’s just wrong.”

Turning Newham’s fortunes around means attracting business: besides the low skill set, residents are also suffering from a lack of opportunities. With only 19 enterprises per 1,000 residents - compared to a London average of 44 - the borough is more reliant on public sector jobs, which are being squeezed.

“Newham is absolutely supportive of business and development,” said Wales. “What we want is the jobs that come with it… and relationships that build up and get our people access to those jobs.”

Too often, regeneration projects fail to benefit locals, as jobs and opportunities leak out to better-qualified incomers. Only 12-13 per cent of Olympic jobs are going to local people in the five host boroughs. Part of Wales’ job includes negotiating with developers for ways to get locals into jobs.

Bovis Lend Lease has set up BeOnsite, which offers pre-employment and on-the-job training for a specific trade or skill set. The developer is also sponsoring the Chobham Academy, a specialist English and performing arts academy. Other initiatives include the Crossrail Tunnelling Academy, the Westfield Stratford City Training Academy and London City Airport’s Take off into Work scheme.

Of course, Wales is being helped by the Olympics, which among other things will bequeath the borough an 80,000-seater stadium that will become the home of West Ham football team. But the Games is also a catalyst for private investment. John Burton, Director of Westfield Stratford City, said he accelerated plans to build the largest urban shopping mall in Europe.

“The Olympic Games gave us a date that we had to deliver,” he said. As a result, a 30-40 year investment programme has been brought down to around 15 years.

The 1.9 million square foot development, adjacent to the Olympic Park, is due for completion before the end of the year. It includes 4,500 new homes and nearly half a million square metres of office space and will mean 8,000 jobs, many of them new, Wales said.

Another recent win for Newham is Siemens’ decision to establish its urban sustainability centre at the Royal Docks. Designed as a “showcase” of urban sustainability to explore new environmentally-friendly technologies and new ways of living and working, Siemens expects to attract 100,000 visitors a year. In contrast to the curve of the 02 Arena across the water, the Siemen’s building designed by Wilkinson Eyre is distinctly angular, based on two interlocking crystalline triangular forms.

It was Mayor of London Boris Johnson who persuaded Siemens to come to London, and planning approval was rushed through to allow the pavilion to be constructed in time for the Games. With around 250 Siemens employees located there – and the potential for 50 new local jobs – it is not intended to be a major source of employment. But officials expect this German declaration of confidence to be a real boost to a new Green Enterprise District stretching across East London.

Planning permission has also just been granted for a cable car across the Thames connecting the ExCel centre with the O2, the world’s most popular music venue. Operating at a height of over 50 metres, it is designed to carry up to 2,500 passengers an hour between Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks.

To build momentum, Newham has designated a regeneration area that it is branding an “arc of opportunity” stretching from Stratford down to the Royal Docks – an area one third the size of Manhattan.

The Royal Docks, built between 1855 and 1921 to provide a place to berth for massive ships trading goods from around the world, have lain quiet for some time. The waterside has been slowly filling up again with housing developments joined by ExCel, London City airport and the University of East London. But toothy gaps remain – around 60 hectares at Silvertown Quays and the Royal Albert Basin alone.

What looks like wasteland to some, spells opportunity for others.  The 2011 Newham Investment Prospectus calls the vast spaces “the last great development opportunity in London.” Investing is made easier because the London Development Agency owns much of the vacant land around the Docks.

 “The interest starts with the availability of land and development opportunities,” said ExCel’s chief Murphy, his eye on future expansion plans.

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