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Old Oak Common regeneration is a train crash and City Hall is to blame

Paul Finch

You cannot make great pieces of city simply by setting housing targets, writes Paul Finch

The biggest housing and jobs initiative in the country, being overseen by the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC), will have to be massively scaled back following devastating findings by the planning inspector in respect of its draft local plan.

In a nutshell, the inspector has upheld the views of the biggest landowner affected, Cargiant, that the proposed plan is a dead duck. He found that, instead of delivering 25,000 homes and 65,000 jobs, the development corporation should scale this back to 14,200 and 37,590 respectively – because plans to develop Cargiant’s land are ‘unviable and ought to be deleted from the plan’.

This all took me back to the summer of 2015, when I started chairing a small design panel for Cargiant and London & Regional Properties. The joint venture planned to redevelop Cargiant’s site (at Old Oak Park, where it employs some 800 people, mostly engineers working to bring used cars up to scratch prior to resale).

Shutterstock  car giant site

Shutterstock car giant site

Source: Shutterstock

The real object of the exercise was to raise the funding to relocate the business. Thus the development joint venture required the rapid production of a masterplan which would also meet the aspirations of the recently created OPDC. 

A year later, at the launch of a public exhibition of the designs, I said the following: ‘We have had four meetings over the past year and the masterplan (by Lee Polisano/PLP) has changed considerably over that period.

‘We regard this as a good thing, because this project is creating a distinctive piece of London in a new way – envisaging a residential district that is urban rather than suburban; mixed-use rather than a residential monoculture; benefiting from existing transport connections but exploiting the relationship to future infrastructure; and transforming an essentially 19th century industrial landscape (canal, railway, manufacturing) into what could be a highly successful example of 21st century place-making.

‘We have always liked the scale of ambition, the mix of uses, the idea of Old Oak park as a cultural destination, not just a residential commuter zone, the improvement and vitaminising of the canal, and the multiple crossings which are another reason this site is so unusual.

‘We applaud the strategic decision to save the Rolls-Royce building, and the adjustments to the idea of different quarters across the area. The placing of tall buildings has gone through many changes and, no doubt, will continue to be tweaked as detailed designs begin to come forward.

‘It is worth saying that the design team working on Old Oak Park has had to tread a careful path between being mindful of the aspirations of the development corporation and local authorities, while developing place-making propositions that may themselves set the tone for the wider development which will take place.

‘As a final thought, the review panel noted on more than one occasion that you cannot make great pieces of city simply by setting housing targets. Old Oak Park has managed to keep a decent balance between density, height and amenity. The success of Old Oak Common as a whole will be dependent on such a balance being delivered successfully.’

You wonder why it took the development corporation so long to produce a plan

We wasted our time. You wonder why it took the development corporation so long to produce a plan; why it failed to stop a Crossrail depot being built which was structurally incapable of enabling development above; why it ignored Cargiant’s concerns and has failed to make any provision for relocation. 

Thus far all OPDC appears to have achieved, at a cost to date of more than £29 million, is the creation of an unworkable masterplan, yet to be made fully public.

On 3 March 2016, the London Evening Standard carried a dramatic headline: ‘Old Oak Common regeneration scheme risks being London’s worst cock-up in 50 years’.

The story reported comments by the doyen of London architect-urbanists, Sir Terry Farrell, about what was happening as a result of over-hasty work on a depot for the Crossrail (Elizabeth) Line at Old Oak/Willesden Junction.

The rush to complete the project, which, as it turns out, was entirely misplaced because the line is going to be two years late anyway – and vastly overspent – resulted in no provision being allowed for pilings that could support construction of offices, homes, shops and restaurants decking over lines. Thus the ambitions of the OPDC were in jeopardy.

Farrell’s warnings, as the report of the planning inspector into the OPDC’s draft local plan makes clear, have been entirely vindicated. Talk of relocating the Crossrail depot at some future stage to allow for development on the Cargiant site, or redesigning the depot to allowing piling, are expensive fantasies, at least for the forseeable future.

The development corporation, now chaired by former British Property Federation chief Liz Peace and run by Greater London Authority veteran David Lunts, appears to have been infected with the fantasy bug.

It has assumed that somehow it will get its hands on a significant part of the Cargiant site via a compulsory purchase order, in order to generate the pre-set targets of new homes and jobs which make the £10 billion project the biggest of sort in the country; and, in addition, to generate the funding for a replacement site for Cargiant to operate.

Planning inspector PW Clark thinks the OPDC is in fantasy land, too. In his report, he says that he is convinced that use of the Cargiant site ‘would not be viable and capable of effective delivery within the plan period, even if it were relieved of all contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure’.

This devastating conclusion, which supports everything Cargiant has been saying in private and more recently in public, is a rebuke to Mayor Sadiq Khan, who described the company’s criticisms as ‘not worth the paper they are written on’.

The development corporation faces further problems as a result of the inspector’s report, in addition to his recommendation that it substantially reduces the number of homes and jobs intended to be generated via development.

For one thing, £250 million of government Housing Infrastructure Finance (HIF) funding, allocated to the project, can only be drawn down if there is an approved local plan.

It also appears that the OPDC’s hopes of benefiting from this funding are jeopardised by the fact that its planned road scheme through the Cargiant site cannot trigger HIF funding, because no housing would be built either side of it following the inspector’s report. HIF money cannot be used simply for infrastructure work.

Just as embarrassing to the OPDC is the inspector’s dead-pan verdict that ‘it is clearly unsound to propose as part of the development plan a development which would not deliver the policies of the development plan itself, both in relation to infrastructure contributions and in relation to affordable housing. Yet, that is what I find would be the case with site allocation 2 (the Cargiant site). It is not viable and so is unsound in itself. It would not be deliverable in a policy-compliant form over the plan period and, because of its significance within the plan as a whole, its inclusion makes the plan itself unsound’.

A compulsory purchase of the Cargiant site simply does not make sense in planning terms

In a further killer paragraph, the inspector points out that delivery of affordable housing is not the only planning matter to be taken into account: ‘Cargiant is a highly successful and profitable business with prospects for growth. It employs about 800 people directly and a further 1,200 indirectly. Its extinction (planning-speak for closure as a result of, for example, a compulsory purchase of its site) simply does not make sense in planning terms (my italics), nor does its relocation at an expense which would preclude the likelihood of paying for any contribution to necessary infrastructure or affordable housing’.

It makes you wonder what the OPDC and its advisers were thinking when they embarked on a foolhardy and ill-judged submission of their draft plan. This is a train crash of a project, and David Lunts, who in an earlier life was a railway signalman, needs to get a grip on a development whose problems can be laid firmly at the door of City Hall under two successive administrations.

London deserves better.


Readers' comments (2)

  • This makes the current mayor no more competent than the previous one - but, that aside, the problem of the inappropriate Crossrail depot is not insurmountable, even in the short term.
    More a question of egg-on-face and eating humble pie, to save the day.
    The superstructure of the relatively lightly constructed train depot should surely be capable of dismantling for re-use elsewhere, while the large number of currently useless Crossrail trains can move for two years (?) to secure temporary store in the vast Bicester M.o.D. depot, which has just become available for exactly such use.
    It could well be possible to pile the foundations and build a heavy load deck over the existing depot tracks with minimal disturbance - just as has recently been done at the Hudson Yards on the West side of Midtown Manhattan (the Heatherwick gewgaw forming the backdrop to Boris's televised piffle from New York the other day is on this deck)
    Not cheap, but possibly more costly to some political and professional reputations than in basic reality.

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  • The solution to the relocation of the Crossrail depot (to allow it to be redeveloped for high value commercial uses immediately next to the new HS2 Station) lies in using the Channel Gate and Atlas Road sites just the other side of Oak Oak Lane from the existing depot site. These publicly-owned sites would become available after HS2 has finished using the sites for construction logistics associated with the new HS2 line. A new Crossrail depot built on the Channel Gate and Atlas Road sites would be connected by a new rail chord from the GWML onto the Dudding Hill Line. This new depot site would be better placed operationally than the existing depot site once Old Oak Common station is open.

    It's not too late to properly investigate this open.......

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