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Full of eastern promise

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London Docklands celebrated 20 years since its inception with a key conference last week looking to the future, planning and essential new transport links. Peter Murray reports

Delays in the planning system and poor infrastructure are the major threats to London's economy, according to Judith Mayhew, the chair of policy and resources for the City Corporation.

Speaking at the British Council for Offices' 'Docklands at 20' conference last week, she described London as the eighth largest economy in the European Union: 'It is where the dollar, the yen and the euro meet.' But its ability to provide accommodation for the international financial community is being hindered by bureaucratic delays. 'There are far too many fingers in the planning pie - the mayor, who can direct the local authority, the secretary of state, who can call the decision in, English Heritage, who seek to affect decisions, demands for environmental assessments, and the use of the Human Rights Act by opponents to projects.' All this creates an atmosphere of uncertainty among companies wishing to move into the City.

Mayhew stressed the importance of CrossRail in alleviating the City's transport problems and warned against delays. 'We must not have a Terminal 5 situation over CrossRail. We must start building it in the next two years.'

It will take 10 years to build.

Robert John, director of Canary Wharf, saw CrossRail as essential to the economic health of Docklands and the Thames Gateway. He supported a review of the CrossRail route east of Liverpool Street to link the main London business districts with Thames Gateway and the Lea Valley.

John quoted research carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research which suggests that in the next 15 years the population of London should rise from 7.4m to 8.1m, provided it can meet demand for housing, offices and transport. Some 5.6 million m 2ofoffices will be required to meet employment growth in the financial and professional services sector. John suggested that central London and the City will be unable to meet this sort of expansion and that it must be accommodated in east London - and that means investment in infrastructure. The ability of London to expand is essential if it is to remain competitive, he said. 'Docklands saved the City's competitive position in the 1990s. If Canary Wharf had not been built it would have had to be invented. If Canary Wharf had not been built rents would have reached stratospheric levels.'

Canary Wharf is conscious of the need to improve the existing infrastructure as the development continues to grow. Already the extension to the Jubilee Line is overcrowded at rush hours although only 600,000m 2of space has been built; a further 700,000m 2is under construction with another 600,000m 2planned. Jubilee Line capacity will be improved once the signalling is improved, but that will only partially solve the problem.

While tall buildings had been on the conference agenda for many months, the events of September 11 meant that speakers had to rewrite their scripts. 'After September 11 we will all need to reflect, ' said John. 'The simple test is whether clients will still want larger buildings. I believe that they will. Will they still want taller buildings? I believe that they will.'

Speakers from Clifford Chance and Lehman Brothers, both of which have recently taken leases on Canary Wharf buildings, showed no misgivings about occupying towers. Both companies are moving from the City; they wanted to be under one roof and found it difficult to find developments in the Square Mile that could provide enough space. The destruction of the World Trade Center has not changed their minds about being in one building. 'Dispersal is not an issue, ' said Clifford Chance's Peter Charlton.

Judith Mayhew also remained committed to towers and had come hotfoot from the Labour Party Conference - where she had been trying to convince ministers of the need for more of them in the City. However, she was at pains to point out that, compared with New York, towers in London were relatively small: 'We don't have any tall buildings in London - we have mid-rise buildings.'

Mayhew, who in the past has taken an aggressively competitive stance against development areas outside the City, now reveals a more conciliatory tone. 'The brand name of the City compares with Wall Street in its importance to the financial community.' The City is no longer just the Square Mile but 'embraces Canary Wharf and the financial community in the West End'.

Robert John concurred: 'The world outside sees the City/ Docklands as one financial centre.' However, he was in no doubt where the action during the next 20 years would be: 'The future is, as they say, east.'

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