Michael Owens has lived in London for more than 20 years and understands the East End better than most. Now head of Leaside Regeneration, he aims to ensure that local people benefit from the developments on their doorstep
The East End of London has seen some dramatic changes over the years, but the past two decades have been breathtaking.
Bow and Poplar, two relatively run-down and neglected inner-city districts, have become bordered by a dynamic financial district of (in UK terms) high-rise buildings. The residents of the Lansbury Estate are now living, literally, in the shadow of Canary Wharf. This dramatic construction activity at the loop in the Thames - recognisable as the site opposite the Millennium Dome in the opening credits of EastEnders - is carrying on apace. The question is, what impact does Docklands have on its less affluent neighbours?
Those of us who do not live there will never really know what it is like to see our home district totally transformed around us, but Michael Owens is one man who understands the radical changes better than most, and has experienced the rapid pace of change first-hand. As a youth and community worker in the area in the 1970s, he used to take local kids canoeing along the docks. Now, as chief executive of Leaside Regeneration, he wants to attract waterside sports and sailing clubs.
'Canary Wharf, ' he says, 'is one of the most potent symbols of the potential of the area to change. We cannot allow ourselves to be sidelined. Instead, we must make sure that the people who live here are fully integrated into this remarkable renaissance.' Ultimately, he wants to have the ubiquitous prefix, 'upand-coming area' applied to Bow and Poplar.
Given that some media industries and other 'creatives' are already moving into the riverside, he does not think it will be too long before the potential for investment is realised. 'We want a region where The Architects' Journal would want to set up shop.'
Owens, the son of a bricklayer, grew up on the Woodchurch Estate in Merseyside and thought that it was the 'best place in the world'. He went to grammar school and then to Warwick University to study philosophy, but says that it was only when he came to London that he realised what a small world he had lived in. His chirpy Liverpudlian accent belies the 20 years that he has lived in the city.
In the three years since his appointment, Leaside Regeneration - a not-for-profit organisation funded by the London Development Agency - has come to play a pivotal role in the redevelopment of the east Tower Hamlets area, to the west of the River Lea.High on its agenda is brokering businessto-business meetings in the hope that latent development opportunities can be realised.
'Our function, ' says Owens, 'is to know what vacant land or development sites are available, to know the people who own them and to act as a conduit for developers and businesses wishing to make investments in the area.'
Owens is only too aware of the potential to sell off land to the highest bidder for short-term gain, but is committed to design quality. 'I am not interested in having the area littered with low-grade designs, ' he says.
Consequently, he is very active in the formulation and maintenance of the 'Leaside Framework and Vision' document, a site-specific microcosm of the London Plan, which sets out the standards which will be applied to any development take-up within his patch.
The framework document challenges the zoning mentality of the planning authority and, instead, proposes mixed development.
'We cannot be proscriptive about what social activities take place in certain areas.
Cities are more organic than that.We need a sympathetic, enabling plan rather than a rigid masterplan.' To this end, he is passionate about his vision for the area - talking of opening up access to the waterfront, providing quality public spaces and a creative approach to site layout.
Developing a confidence in the area is essential to ensuring that investment takes place. In the '80s, there was a real reaction to the development of the old London Docklands. Many community activists protested that the community structures and sense of local coherence would disappear under the relentless architectural expression of Canary Wharf. The protests took the form of a desire to preserve the existing community 'culture' which many felt was under threat. Nowadays, property prices are rising as a by-product of the Docklands success story. What does Owens think about the changes that have taken place? Has anything been lost?
'Ask yourself what you would want if you were growing up in this part of London, ' he says. 'To be a successful member of a community group? Probably not. People in this area are no different to anybody else.
They want a good job and to live in a nice home, but also they want to be part of the dynamism of living in the centre of a world city.'
He believes that even though there will always be winners and losers in any regeneration exercise, we should be relatively sanguine about the process. 'It is potentially a positive experience for everybody, ' he says.
'With regeneration comes retail opportunities, improvements in infrastructure, more jobs and better facilities. The challenge is to find ways to exploit the opportunities so that local people are players in the process, rather than bystanders.'
As the person who came up with the idea of this month's Lansbury architecture conference, Owens enthuses about the other festival activities. 'The youth events were great, and were actually something that I might have organised in the '70s. But we have just had a French contemporary dance troupe performing in Chrisp Street marketplace on a rainy Friday evening, and, let's face it, in any other part of London, such events are taken for granted, but here it was ground breaking. It raised everybody's standard of expectation.'
'There is still a very real danger that the future course for London will be set and Poplar and Bow could be sidelined, ' he says. Owens, however, wants to ensure that this does not happen under his charge. It looks like the area has a real champion.
Watch this space.