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Old Kent Road redevelopment is set to astound

Paul Finch
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A redevelopment in London’s Southwark creates a deal-making environment which offers intelligent ways of achieving desirable results, says Paul Finch

The excellent retrofit and improvement of what used to be called the Economist complex in St James’s has seen its first phase completed: DSDHA has sorted out the ground plane, which has been renamed the Smithson Plaza, in honour of the development’s original architects, Peter and Alison Smithson. The tower is now the Smithson Tower and is looking pristine, thanks to the architects and client Tishman Speyer. 

Only in London could fine architects be celebrated in Mayfair, while their public housing project, Robin Hood Gardens, is demolished in Tower Hamlets. I wonder if Historic England has contemplated the irony of heavy listing in a rich part of town, and a refusal to list in a poor part, despite its own expert panel (when the organisation was English Heritage) advising that Robin Hood Gardens, should indeed be listed. Same architects, same philosophy, same commitment. A shameful matter for all concerned, not least the council. 

I was reminded of the Albert Chevalier music hall song and its sad refrain: 

It’s the same the whole world over
It’s the poor what gets the blame
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame? 

What’s good for Mayfair is verboten in east London. They don’t appreciate all that clever architectural stuff. 

On a far happier note, but again with history ringing in the ears, I was given a briefing last week on the masterplan for Old Kent Road in Southwark. The project is predicated on the ‘BLE’, the Bakerloo Line Extension of the Underground system going south-east to Lewisham and potentially connecting to overground track and carrying on to Hayes in the London Borough of Bromley. 

The Bakerloo Line’s founder fraudulently transferred funds to help get the line built and ended up taking cyanide

Few now remember the extraordinary early history of the Bakerloo Line (a contraction of ‘Baker Street to Waterloo’) and its founder, Whitaker Wright. He fraudulently transferred funds from other companies he controlled to help get the line built and ended up sued by shareholders. After losing his case in the Royal Courts of Justice in 1904, he promptly killed himself by taking cyanide. The line was completed by other private sector entrepreneurs and proved a huge success. 

Now a similarly ambitious (£3.1 billion) extension project is proposed, but accompanying regeneration will be generated conceptually and managed on the ground by the public sector, specifically through an Area Action Plan produced by Southwark Council. It has created a unit headed by Colin Wilson, formerly part of the GLA planning team, and a champion for many years of smart people-focused regeneration across the capital. Working with Patel Taylor, MaccreanorLavington, Tim Makower and Sally Lewis of Stitch as masterplanners, the team have produced a refreshingly traditional piece of proactive planning which enables rather than prescribes, and where it proscribes it does so by offering intelligent ways of achieving desirable results. 

The kilometre-long project is residential-led, mixed-use, transforming a world of ‘sheds-and-beds’, the sheds having been developed sporadically following extensive bombing of the area in the Second World War. The informing idea behind a programme to create 20,000 new homes (35 per cent social, of which 70 per cent will be social rent) and 20,000 jobs over the next decade, is to create a form of parkway with courts, yards and square creating public ‘rooms’ of landscaped space. 

Development is encouraged by a deal-making environment in which compulsory purchase orders are never threatened, owners are introduced and encouraged to make mutually beneficial deals, including site-swaps, and additional height is offered in return for proposals in the spirit of the plan. The tallest tower looks like one being designed by Terry Farrell at 43 storeys. Detailed applications are expected to respond to design guidance on elements including cladding, and all proposals have to be accompanied by same-scale models. 

Wilson’s team is a one-stop-shop, where the people responsible for delivering the masterplan are also the planners who will deal with applications – a refreshing change which eschews an all-too-traditional development control mentality. This all put me in mind of another music hall song, made famous by Billy Bennett: 

‘Wot cher!’ all the neighbours cried,
‘Who yer gonna meet, Bill
Have yer bought the street, Bill?’
Laugh! I thought I should ’ave died
Knock’d ’em in the Old Kent Road! 

The last line means ‘astounded them in the Old Kent Road’ and this project will indeed be astounding, accompanied by a civilised upgrade of the road itself by Transport for London, whose contribution will be crucial to overall urban design success. This will be a case study in how different approaches and processes can generate significant intensification across London: from Argent’s private sector work at King’s Cross and now Cricklewood, to Nine Elms where housebuilders have led the charge, to Canada Water where Roger Madelin is operating as form of development corporation under the British Land umbrella, and now Old Kent Road where the local authority is leading the charge. 

What this suggests is that planning and regeneration are moving towards a fluid world where one-size-fits-all is a thing of the past. Like those music-hall songs. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • To the list of London area transport-related large scale regeneration initiatives listed in the penultimate para you could add the 'unlocking' of the upper Lee Valley, with the Tottenham Hale scheme featured in the AJ today being just part of the linear urbanisation north to the 10,000 new homes and 6,700 new jobs at Meridian Water, on the Liverpool Street/Stratford to Stansted/Cambridge rail axis.
    And if anyone's looking for the next large scale regeneration opportunity, the view from Eurostar and Kent Coast trains between Rainham and the Thames tunnel portal gives plenty of food for thought.

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