Planning gone mad (again)

COMMENT: The QE Olympic Park likes to market itself as “the unbelievable place”. And parts of it are quite nice. But now it is finally living up to its billing. For the next few months only, it is offering visitors a really unique offer, to witness the birth of a white elephant.

Fish Island, east London
Fish Island, east London

The Garden Bridge has not been the only bonkers river crossing idea knocking around London for the past few years. Attracting rather less attention is the pedestrian/cycle crossing over the Lea Navigation, planned by the LLDC at the bottom end of Fish Island in Tower Hamlets.

The bridge was born as a tiny footnote to the earliest masterplans for the Olympic Park back in 2005. The future geography of the area was then a blank slate, and the need for a crossing was not proveable. But a crossing offered a political gesture linking the breathless excitement of the Olympic Park with the supposedly deprived and ramshackle so-called Olympic fringe west of the park, then – as now – worlds apart. A bridge, it was thought, would stitch them together. A sort of Checkpoint Charlie in east London.

That the bridge was in an odd location and would require the demolition of one of the most interesting and handsome industrial buildings along the historic Lea was not a matter of concern for Olympians. Just a bit of collateral damage. Anyway, it probably wouldn’t happen.

Fast-forward 13 years. A popular and attractive new bridge to Fish Island has been built, in a location where a bridge should be built, at Monier Road. Fish Island is bursting with new development.

Vittoria Wharf has become one of the most successful and important studio clusters in the area, and perhaps in London. It has been designated an “Asset of Community Value”. It forms part of a delightful cluster of buildings including community café/gallery Stour Space within the Fish Island Conservation Area. It is true regeneration with a capital R. Regeneration to be proud of. As the nature and layout of the legacy environment to east and west of the bridge comes into focus, the purpose and value of the Vittoria Road bridge shrinks to insignificance.

 What does the LLDC do? Take the obvious and sensible decision, and change its mind? Far from it. The bridge has become an article of faith.  A virility test. Despite massive local opposition, without any further proper analysis or options appraisal (aren’t these things part and parcel of significant public investment?) it evicts the artists and commissions the demolition of Vittoria Wharf.

 By the time you read this the demolition will probably be under way. Another bit of London’s local character and value is blown away.

 What do we learn from this story? Perhaps some of this and more:

  • That even when good regeneration outcomes are staring development agencies in the face, they screw up;
  • That planning can abdicate its responsibilities just at the point when its independence, intelligence and judgement, are most required;
  • That the LLDC, whose planning powers are its sole real rationale, is past its sell by date

A sad story all round.

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