News (and stuff) from London E3

Saturday 26 September 2009


Bromley-by-Bow tube stationIf you've never lived around here, you probably don't know Bromley-by-Bow very well. It has speckles of history and loveliness, but on the whole this patch of London is relentlessly poor, characterised by social housing and tenement blocks. It's home to a large Bangladeshi population, many of whom live crowded into unsuitable apartments hemmed in alongside a gridlocked arterial road. Bromley High Street isn't an alluring retail destination, more a tiny huddle of betting shops, laundrettes and Halal-friendly grocers. If any entrepreneur attempted to open a coffee shop or delicatessen around here, their business would fail within weeks. I wouldn't live anywhere else, obviously.

But, oh boy, is all this about to change? A new amenity-rich district centre for Tower Hamlets is about to be parachuted into the existing neighbourhood, with its focus around unloved Bromley-by-Bow tube station. To the southwest the first part of this transformation is already underway, with Barrett Homes busy erecting shiny blocks on the site of demolished St Andrew's Hospital. But on the opposite side of the A12, around where the Tesco superstore now stands, something rather more astonishing is planned. I'm just back from the consultation event, and I wonder if Bromley-by-Bow is really ready for the approaching onslaught of a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Tesco are the main protagonists here, making the most of the land they own between the dual carriageway and the river. A patch of neighbouring industrial land will be levelled and a brand new twice-the-size megastore constructed, with a 500-ish capacity car park concealed in a subterranean cavern beneath the store. This new Tesco will be an environmental showpiece, so they say, and is scheduled for completion by 2012 (subject to planning permission). In place of the old supermarket will go 460 new homes, which'll be lovely assuming you like living in a glassy green box in the sky. And there'll also be a much needed primary school tucked in beside the river, literally in the shadow of the new Tesco. The usual stuff when regeneration of an area is mooted.

But it's the surrounding extras that've made me gasp, such as a 100-bed hotel close to the station. Even with the Olympics coming up, I find it hard to believe that any visitor would choose to stay in a hotel in darkest E3 (unless it's because the rooms are ridiculously cheap). A new park is proposed beside the bridge over to Three Mills, which it seems can be achieved by replacing the lower extremes of Tesco's existing car park by grass. An extra junction will be added on the A12, and the existing underpass realigned and brightened up. Tesco may also be helping to fund a new library (sorry "Idea Store") to kickstart learning and training for those who can't be bothered to travel the mile to a similar building in Roman Road. And then a whole new shopping mall is planned at "Imperial Square" outside the MegaTesco, featuring 18 outlets considerably more upmarket than any which grace B-by-B today. The aspiration is for high street chains to move in, selling goods that current residents would have to travel miles to buy. But I suspect that current residents aren't the target audience.

What's planned for medieval Bromley-by-Bow is a sharp regenerative tug to lure in Londoners who might never before have considered living here. The Docklands banker; the professional family; the young couple with a hankering for antipasti, weekend cycling and riverside cappucinos - I don't see many of their kind around here at the moment. It'll be quite frankly astonishing if large numbers of folk with disposable incomes begin to colonise my local area within the next few years, but under these new plans also quite possible. I'm a little uncomfortable that a major supermarket chain appears to be the driving force behind one key quadrant of the revitalised neighbourhood, especially given the unqualified architectural atrocity they've recently opened as part of a block of flats along Bow Road. But Tesco were already a major stakeholder in the Bromley-by-Bow development zone, so any future plans were always going to be shareholder-focused and profit-friendly.

On leaving the exhibition, the consultation team were particularly keen that I make my voice heard by filling in a questionnaire, and maybe also a 'support' form. Positive feedback from residents might, they think, significantly increase the scheme's chance of success when it comes up before the Tower Hamlets planning committee. Outside in Bromley High Street some local pushchair-mums wandered by without giving the exhibition a second look. They don't know what's about to hit them.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  Missing the boat

I squeezed in one more Open House visit, rather closer to home, at a completed multi-million pound Olympic construction project. Not the Stadium, nor indeed anywhere that'll host a single 2012 sporting activity, but a big concrete barrier on the Bow Back Rivers. This is Three Mills Lock (at Three Mills), which used to be called Prescott Lock (on the Prescott Channel). It's supposed to be a key part of our commitment to a sustainable Games, enabling building materials to be shipped into the heart of the Olympic Park by water instead of by road. Open House provided one of the first opportunities for the public to get up close to discover how £20m has been spent, and to be shown around behind the perimeter fence by a very knowledgeable lockkeeper.

Three Mills LockIt's a bloody massive lock. After my walk along the Lea last month I'm used to much smaller structures with wooden gates and twee waterside cottages, but this is nothing of the sort. It's three channels wide, with each gate wide enough to take a 350 tonne barge. The gates rotate up, not across, a bit like the Thames Barrier. There's a fish ladder along one side to ensure that scaly finny creatures can still pass up and downstream. And operations are overseen from a squat narrow control tower mid-river, complete with home comforts like a shower for the personnel working within. It's the sort of lock you might expect to find on the Manchester Ship Canal, not on an insignificant East End backwater.

The key to the lock's existence is its location. Downstream the Lea is tidal, with water levels dropping to unnavigable levels for long periods each day. Upstream, now that Three Mills Lock has been built, water levels along the eastern side of the Olympic Park will in future remain constant. That sounds like great news for enabling the import of building materials and removal of waste by river, but unfortunately reality's not quite so simple. Tides in Bow Creek still prevent barges from reaching the lock for 16 hours each day, which cuts back the potential time this route can be operational. As an additional setback the Prescott Channel and Bow Back Rivers haven't been used for major freight traffic for several decades and so have long since silted up. Dredging the channels has taken considerably longer than expected, and so the number of Park-bound barges using the new lock has been, to say the least, disappointing. Just six barges since the lock opened in June, we were told, just six.

Three Mills LockNow stop me if I'm wrong, but an average of one big barge per fortnight is a pretty unimpressive strike rate. The whole idea of funding the lock in the first place was to enable the transfer of waterborne cargo during the peak construction window, and that doesn't appear to be happening yet. To give you some idea of the scale of the problem, Three Mills Lock was originally planned to open last summer, four years before the Games themselves. But the body of the stadium's already up, absolutely none of which has arrived by river, and there's a very real risk that few of the building materials for the remaining stadia will arrive via this watery route. The Park's location slap bang beside Stratford station has allowed use of a far more convenient sustainable mode of transport, and that's rail. Who needs slow meandering river traffic when freight can arrive more easily by train (or, to keep costs down, even by road)?

It looks increasingly likely that Three Mills Lock will prove a construction-time white elephant, but a legacy-phase saviour. By stabilising water levels throughout the Olympic Park, the completion of a post-Games residential 'Water City' now becomes possible. Swish riverside apartments, swanky cosmopolitan cafes and bohemian aspirational culture - all suddenly enabled because the Lea no longer drains away every 12 hours to reveal discarded supermarket trolleys and mud. Three Mills Lock adds millions to the potential value of future properties to be erected further upstream, which can only help to pay back the investment our taxes have poured into Olympic funding. But the lock itself looks destined for an underused future, ridiculously large for the few pleasurecraft that might use it post-2012, and never quite the ecological showpiece it set out to be.

Nobody seems quite sure when the footpaths around the lock will reopen, which is annoying for those of us who used to use it regularly.
Here's a collection of photos of Three Mills Lock, taken by Mat over the weekend
Bits of the Euston Arch were dumped in the Prescott Channel, you may remember.
Legacy plans for the Olympic Park are detailed here (and on this interactive map)
Local residents in Bromley-by-Bow may be interested in Tesco's plans to erect a replacement superstore at Three Mills, relocated slightly nearer the railway, forming the heart of a new district centre for Tower Hamlets. Plans will be on display at Tudor Lodge this Friday (noon-7) and Saturday (11-4).