Why London is moving east

A unique collection of facilities, and ambitious plans for growth, are making the Royal Docks London’s last great development opportunity. It’s a powerful story to tell.

Next time you go to London’s Royal Docks, keep an eye out for the bronze statue of three dock workers, a short walk from Custom House DLR station. The chap with the trilby, noting down a record of goods out, isn’t some relic of a bygone age. He’s still alive. His name is Pat Holland, and I spoke to him this week about life as a boat-packing stevedore.

It was hard work. He worked most often at Victoria Dock, packing ships heading for Australia. In would come meat, cement and grain. Out would go cars, refined sugar and rum. 500 tons of goods, piled sky high in a ship, helped by the Samson crane, which could lift up to 120 tons at once. He told me it was ‘hard work, a great way to lose weight and good comedy. All for £9 a week wages!’

Then the shipping industry started using standardised containers to shift cargoes around the world. Ships got bigger and docked at Tilbury and Felixstowe. The Royal Docks closed to bulk traffic in 1981. And the next phase of their life began.

Fast forward more than thirty years, and the Royal Docks are considered perhaps the last great redevelopment opportunity in London. There’s a unique collection of facilities already there. London City Airport is the only airport actually in London, with links to Europe, the United States and Asia. ExCeL is a global destination for conferences. The Siemens Crystal is leading thought on the future of our cities.

And look what’s coming. Plans for a £1billion pound Asian Business Port. A proposed £3.5 billion redevelopment of Silvertown Quays as an innovation quarter. A new Crossrail station opening at Custom House in 2018, linking the docks with Bond Street in 17 minutes.

All in all, the rollercoaster of the Royal Docks’ fortunes has a powerful narrative, and is on an upswing. The renaissance of the area, from Long Good Friday dereliction, to inspirational investment hotspot, has the effect of pulling London eastwards. East London has the highest rate of business start-ups in the whole city. It’s home to 42% of all the planned new housing. Its population will grow more than 20% in the next six years.

This week I was at Victoria Dock to deliver a speech, marking the creation of a new learning resource for schools around the Royal Docks, created by London City Airport. I’ve been considering the future of the area. London’s Royal Docks used to be the place where goods from across the world were exchanged. Now they’re becoming the place where ideas from across the world are shared. This new trade has a limitless supply, won’t become obsolete, and has the power to make the docks a global trade destination once again, something I hope Pat would be proud of. It’s arguably the most powerful London redevelopment story around.

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