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Revamp brings ‘amazing opportunities’ for entrepreneurial architects in Newham

The run-down inner London Borough of Newham is embarking on a massive regeneration programme valued at £3.7 billion, bringing a windfall of design work, writes Richard Waite

‘Nowhere else in Europe can offer this scale of investment opportunity,’ boasts Newham Borough Council in its economic strategy document.

The ambitious, 48-page manifesto sets out the massive scale of proposed redevelopment in the deprived east London borough, starting at the Olympic Park and Stratford City in the north, down through the £3.7 billion regeneration of Canning Town (pictured top) and Custom House, and on to the Thames and the Royal Docks. This is what the development team calls its ‘arc of opportunity’. It is masterminded by a team led by Clive Dutton, best known for steering Birmingham’s regeneration between 2005 and 2009.

Supporting him is (says Dutton) a ‘red hot senior management team’ – a newly-formed directorate including Philip Singleton, who worked with Dutton drafting Birmingham’s much-publicised Big City Plan, and John East, the former joint leader of the Central London planning team at property advisers Savills and the former head of planning at a trio of London borough councils.

Singleton, a qualified architect and the borough’s divisional director of major sites, arrived in January, lured by the ‘sheer quantum’ of Newham’s regeneration prospects and the chance to influence growth on such a big scale. He says: ‘Newham matters so much to the future of London; we have to make it work… Newham is not near the end [of its regeneration] and we are not tied to going down a particular route.’

This is good news for architects. Singleton and East are both open-minded about the specifics of what happens next, where it happens and about who does it. Singleton says: ‘A hundred different languages are spoken in Newham and [similarly] we want a diversity of practices working here.’ Not that either East or Singleton is willing to hand out projects to the first practice they meet..

‘Don’t just come and ask us for work,’ says Singleton. ‘Come with a developer and some inventive, sustainable thinking. It’s about neighbourhood plan work, as well as looking at ‘meanwhile’ uses. There is an amazing opportunity for entrepreneurial architects.’

The borough is open to design competitions, too. Having selected Studio Octopi to design a £220,000 ‘Olympic’ kiosk for Meridian Square through a contest organised with the Architecture Foundation, it has now launched another competition to find interim uses for three brownfield sites in the Royal Docks. It is here, in this expansive semi-wasteland, where there is most scope for invention.

East, the council’s divisional director of development service, says: ‘The council owns large tracts of land, which in reality are not going to be built on for two or three years. There is scope for competitions and to encourage young firms. Here we have the ability to influence [what architects are used]. And, where we are the major landowner, we can steer it very explicitly.

‘But we wouldn’t want to be condemned to a stylistic straitjacket. It’s about getting really good schemes delivered … and we generally try to work collaboratively with developers from an early stage.’

Interest is already growing in the docks. In September, Siemens secured planning permission for a £30 million Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon-designed visitor centre at the western end.

Elsewhere in the borough, at Sugar House Lane, Ikea is working on a pioneering homes scheme with Anglo-German masterplanners ARC-ML. Other practices to have recently won work in Newham include Rick Mather, with its £12 million Integrated Front Office scheme at East Ham; Make, with a new joint facility for the University of East London and Birkbeck University of London; and Hawkins\Brown, with its Plashet Park MyPlace scheme.

However, the development-friendly attitude has been accused by some of ‘bis.oosterism’ at the expense of integrated long-term urban planning. Where, they say, for instance, is Newham’s Big City Plan? In response, Singleton says: ‘It’s a completely different landscape here. Birmingham is a big city with one heart. In Newham part of the role is creating new centres. The borough needs a plan which gathers together its economic future, as well as the core strategy.’

Meanwhile Newham continues to look at how to harness the benefit of the 2012 Games, long after the circus has rolled out of town. East says: ‘Rather than seeing the Olympic Park as a cash cow, we need to look at what we want it to do for Stratford – namely, how it can influence what goes on around it. [The Olympic Park] can’t be seen as an island.’

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