Enveloped on three sides by the lower Thames, the Greenwich Peninsula is probably most familiar to Londoners as the home of the O2 arena. Many will be unaware that the 190-acres of land that surrounds the world’s busiest music venue is also the site of one of the capital’s largest regeneration schemes with up to 10,010 new homes and 325,000 square metres of commercial floorspace earmarked for construction over a 25-year period.
Once home to a vast complex of heavy industry, including the last gas works ever to be built in London, this barren and heavily contaminated wasteland was selected in the late 1990s as the site for a flagship sustainable community. Decontaminated and remediated by English Partnerships, the original Peninsula vision was for a brand new London district – a stable, sustainable, integrated community linked to central London by the new Jubilee Line extension that would, once completed, stand as a totem of urban renaissance and an example of what a well-designed twenty-first century mixed community could be.
Now, a decade and a half on, it’s unclear whether that original vision can still be realised. After a long period of inactivity when, along with numerous other schemes in the Thames Gateway, development on the Peninsula stalled, the earthmovers are once again chewing up the soil. Yet they’re doing so in a very different context than the one in which the original Peninsula vision was conceived. The remorseless rise of house prices in the area, the steady influx of international capital, the Coalition Government’s decision to cut the affordable housing grant by 60 per cent in 2010, the introduction of the “Affordable Rent” regime and a Mayoral administration that has been more than willing to relax its affordability targets and intervene in the planning process to ensure that private development of any kind proceeds – all have made it that much harder for local planners and politicians to secure socially inclusive, integrated and sustainable regeneration.
And so it has played out on the Greenwich Peninsula. The arrival of Knight Dragon Developments Limited, a Hong Kong-based property developer, as sole owner of the site in 2013 quickly led to a welcome resumption of development after a prolonged period of inactivity under the previous joint owners Quintain and Lend Lease. But Knight Dragon’s arrival also heralded a very different approach to regeneration, one that has led to the effective segregation of lower-income tenants from wealthy homebuyers through planning authorisations that have clustered new affordable homes onto the eastern side of the Peninsula away from the glittering towers of Canary Wharf.
Now Knight Dragon have signalled their intent to go one step further by applying for a revision of the 2004 Terry Farrell designed Greenwich masterplan – a document that set the framework for the comprehensive development of the site - in order to facilitate an increase in the number of total permitted ‘units’ from 10,010 to 15,497, many of which would be high-cost, high density and high-rise, particularly those to the immediate west of the 02 arena.
Knight Dragon can’t be blamed for attempting to increase the number of luxury private homes for sale on the site. The private house-building industry is, after all, ultimately a numbers game and as a corporate developer Knight Dragon exists to maximize their profit. Like other developers in the capital, they are simply responding to signals from its insatiable property market and a Mayor intent on achieving his London-wide target of 42,000 new units per year even if it means forgetting about affordability and breaching his own density guidelines (a case in point lies just a few miles west of the Greenwich Peninsula at Convoys Wharf, a scheme called in by Johnson after the developer, Hutchinson Whampoa, accused Lewisham Council of pushing the scheme's viability “to its limits” with their calls for a generous proportion of affordable homes).
Nor can the proposals simply be dismissed out of hand. In a global city that is facing an acute housing shortage (Greenwich currently has over 14,000 people on our housing waiting list) on a complex urban “brownfield” site there may well be some justification for an increase in homes, height and density and Knight Dragon are right to argue that much has changed in the 11 years since the original Greenwich Peninsula development framework was approved. However, once the usual developer jargon about ‘dynamic place making’ has been stripped away, the essential question is whether the revisions that are being proposed will be of benefit to the local area and the local community, not just overseas investors and company profit margins.
In the negotiations that surround Knight Dragon’s proposed revision of the 2004 masterplan compromises may be inevitable but any bargain made must be hard struck. The developers’ assessments of viability must be approached with a critical eye and any proposed improvements to local infrastructure or the public realm scrutinised carefully to determine whether they’re in any way sufficient to accommodate what would be a significant increase in population. Most importantly, a commitment to creating a socially integrated community based on tenure-blind development and a mix of genuinely affordable homes spread across the entire site must be maintained vigorously.
Put simply, regeneration on the Greenwich Peninsula cannot come at any price. London is not Manhattan or Hong Kong and the local community will not tolerate the place they love being carpeted over with scores of high-rise towers containing flats that their family members have little chance of ever living in. Under the prevailing approach to regeneration in our capital even the most successful development project involves complex trade-offs but it's more important than ever that we hold onto the ideal of socially inclusive, integrated and sustainable development that benefits Londoners, not just overseas investors. In this latest act in the renewal of Greenwich’s physical tapestry the principles contained in the original Peninsula vision – of a socially inclusive, stable and environmentally sustainable community that would be respectful of our common heritage and would create thousands of jobs, first-class social and community infrastructure and a vibrant public realm – must be preserved and fought for.