The Greenwich Peninsula: Charting 15 Years of Change
August 15, 2010
My daily journey to and from work takes me through North Greenwich Station. It is a hive of activity at most times of the day and evening. Eight different bus routes as well as the Jubilee line meet at North Greenwich, serving tens of thousands of commuters travelling to and from Greenwich as well as similar numbers attending a variety of events at the O2. Indeed North Greenwich is often at its busiest late in the evening as up to 20,000 people emerge from a concert or spectacular show there. Over the coming year it will get busier still as Ravensbourne College opens its new premises and the new office buildings at the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula attract more occupants. The long-overdue upgrade of the Jubilee line will be essential to provide the extra transport capacity necessary to meet the demand. Yet 15 years ago this site was an empty, weed-infested, foully polluted industrial wasteland. No-one came to North Greenwich to work, to travel or to enjoy a concert. No buses or underground service served the site. It was in every sense of the word, abandoned.
The transformation of the Greenwich Peninsula over the past 15 years is a classic regeneration case study and demonstrates in large measure both the successes and the frustrations of the process.
The story starts with transport. Surrounded on three sides by water, with the Blackwall Tunnel frequently choked with through traffic and with no public transport serving the area, the Greenwich Peninsula was a difficult place to get to. Without a transformation in access to the site, regeneration would have proved an impossible uphill task.
So in laying the foundations for the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula we had to secure a public transport hub that would enable large numbers of people to get to and from the area. At the time the Jubilee line was being planned, but originally this did not include a station at North Greenwich. Changing this was obviously vital, and working with all the other partners involved in the Greenwich Peninsula, including British Gas (the original major landowner), and English Partnerships, we successfully persuaded London Transport, and the Department for Transport that the Jubilee line should cross the Thames from Canary Wharf to the Greenwich Peninsula and that a station and transport hub should be built at North Greenwich.
Though the decision has been so clearly vindicated by subsequent developments, the message has taken an extraordinary long time to get through to those responsible for transport planning nationally and in London. On three subsequent occasions in the past 15 years we have had to take up the cudgels and campaign for essential local transport infrastructure that otherwise would not have been approved. The Cutty Sark Station on the DLR Lewisham extension, the DLR extension to Woolwich, and most recently the Crossrail station at Woolwich all had to be fought for. As with North Greenwich, they have when opened more than proved their worth. Cutty Sark is one of the most used DLR stations throughout the day, while usage
of the DLR Woolwich extension in its first year was more than double the level anticipated.
With North Greenwich station agreed, the comprehensive regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula at last became a realistic prospect. Two crucial decisions taken in the late 1990s, one by the outgoing Conservative Government of John Major, the other by the incoming Labour Government of Tony Blair helped determine the character and shape of the new development. The first of those decisions was to hold Britain’s millennium celebrations in Greenwich in a spectacular structure on the Peninsula – the Dome – now the O2. The second was to locate an exemplar new community
– Greenwich Millennium Village – on an adjoining site. The first has had a roller-coaster ride. Initially all went well. The Dome was an iconic design built on time and on budget, but the initial euphoria didn’t last and the Dome rapidly succumbed to a nightmare of negative publicity largely prompted by an opening night administrative fiasco. The organisers managed to leave the entire media guest list, comprising the editors and senior correspondents of most of the country’s most significant papers, radio and television programmes, stranded in the cold for 2- 3 hours before being allowed in. Not surprisingly the Dome got a ‘thumbs down’ verdict from which it never fully recovered. That in turn prejudiced its future use after the millennium year, and it remained empty for several years before its transformation into the 02. In this new incarnation it has proved a resounding success, overtaking Madison Square Gardens to become the world’s most popular music venue. Its future now seems assured – indeed it will host two of the biggest Olympic finals in 2012 – gymnastics and basketball.
GMV (Greenwich Millennium Village) has had a less volatile history –its development not marked by such rapid surges of fortune – but it has equally established a reputation as one of the country’s most significant new urban developments. The village comprises homes for rent and for sale in a ‘pepper potted’ layout that does not differentiate the tenures, and which has been built to exceptionally high design and environmental standards. The local ecology park, primary school and health centre, together with excellent public transport links all contribute to make it a very attractive trail-blazer for sustainable communities.
Watching the wildfowl on the lake at GMV, or the huge flow of concert goers coming to the 02 on a summer evening, it is difficult now to remember just how different the Peninsula was just 15 years ago – a derelict former industrial wasteland. But while the regeneration has in many respects been a spectacular success, it has also had its disappointments. There are still acres of undeveloped land; the progress of the housing schemes other than GMV has been disappointingly slow, and the area still has the ‘frontier’ feel of a new development rather than a settled community.
The recession has inevitably had its impact, but even before the shutters came down in 2007, the pace of development was still disappointingly slow. Outline planning consent for 10,000 new homes on the Peninsula, on top of the 2,500 then envisaged at GMV, was granted in spring 2003. The first 250 of those are now approaching completion, but none are as yet occupied. The lack of any starts in the period 2003 – 2007 cannot be blamed on the economic downturn. Two swathes of land have effectively been blighted – one by safeguarding for another river crossing which has been the subject of discussion for decades but which still looks a long way away from a go-ahead. The other is the victim of an expanded blast zone around a 19th century gasholder imposed by the Health and Safety Executive in the aftermath of the Buncefield explosion. Whatever the justification for the sterilisation of these sites – and I am deeply sceptical of the HSE case – it remains a vivid reminder of the scale of the obstacles that have often to be overcome to secure regeneration of previously developed urban sites.
Despite the disappointment that more has not been delivered in the last decade or so, there is no question that the Greenwich Peninsula regeneration has generally been a huge success. The quality of almost all the new developments carried out to date has been exceptionally high, and the area has the clear potential to become one of the most desirable new quarters of London in which to live, work or relax. Its character is continuing to evolve. With the arrival of Ravensbourne College this autumn a new chapter in the Peninsula’s history will begin as it becomes home to one of the country’s most exciting specialist creative colleges – with its focus on digital media. Beyond that there is the prospect of a substantial new hotel next to the O2, which will help deliver the transformation of Greenwich from a day-trip destination to a location in which tourists can choose to stay overnight as well as to explore the area’s wonderful historic, architectural and cultural attractions. This prospect is of course enhanced by the Thames Clipper Riverbus Service which is now well established as a regular transport link from Greenwich to Central London – an attractive alternative to the Jubilee line to those for whom journey time isn’t the most important consideration.
Add in to the mix, the prospective cable car link between the 02 and the Excel Centre recently proposed by the Mayor, and one can sense that the Greenwich Peninsula is very much an area on the cusp of exciting new developments. The changes over the past 15 years have been remarkable – those likely to come over the next 15 years will be just as significant.