A 'Regeneration Supernova' Is About to Destroy East London As We Know It

By Dan Hancox

I recently came across two little-known PR artefacts that were produced a few years back by Newham Council. The overcrowded, ethnically diverse east London borough is home to more unemployed people than any other in the capital, but taken together, the PR artefacts seem to prophesise London's future. One is a brochure, the other a three-minute promotional video – shared here after being briefly hosted by a website aimed at foreign investors.

Designed for the 2010 Shanghai Expo (theme: Better City, Better Life) and adorned with on-brand, shocking pink slogans, the two objects functioned as an investment prospectus, offering 1,412 hectares of Newham land to foreign developers and businesses.

A (silent) section of Newham's video for foreign investors

“Look beyond your borders and find your place in the future of London,” the subtitles read. The capital, we are told, “is moving east” – east to Newham? Or to Shanghai?

In the video, the Regeneration Supernova starts in outer space, before crash-zooming through the earth's atmosphere, down through the clouds, and coming to rest above humble Newham. Take a moment to chew over the words: “A Regeneration Supernova is currently exploding across Newham London.” Perhaps they were caught up in the excitement of selling off large chunks of the capital to overseas investors, but it seems the council has had a lapse in caution – a rare slip in the densely euphemistic argot of regeneration.

This is not about "modifying", "modernising" or "improving" a run-down area. No: It is about wiping it out in a "supernova" – a brief moment of total and blinding destruction.

Nova = new. A supernova is caused by the collapse of a massive star – it is marked by an intensely luminous and catastrophic explosion, one that sends out a giant shockwave into space sweeping up all dust and gas in the atmosphere. It is a cosmic detonation and its effects on the existing space around it are without limits. A policy of zero tolerance and maximum Giuliani. Blast clean the dust fragments of history, the uneven layers of messy urban sediment. No beach under the cobblestones, just reclaimed marshland.

What do the council see being left behind after the destruction of the Regeneration Supernova? That's revealed in another Newham Council slogan: an "Arc of Opportunity" running from the north to the south of the borough – a huge swoop of pink from Stratford and the Olympic site that reaches down to envelop what was formerly the Royal Docks, the hub of Britain's trade, the final destination for the plundered wealth of empire, which closed in the 1960s. “The scale of opportunity is 1,142 hectares,” we're told in the video.

CGI mock up of the "Asian Business Port"

In May 2013, it was announced that Newham had found a buyer for the Royal Albert Dock, the largest of the three royal docks. In a £1 billion deal, a Chinese company called Advanced Business Park (ABP) won the right to turn the derelict 35-acre site into a European headquarters for hundreds of Chinese firms.

An astonishing 3.2 million square feet of office space is planned – though it won't be completed until 2023. It is ABP's first venture outside China, and it is a big deal in every sense – for Chinese expansion, for London and for the current Conservative government. “This is going to be the very centre of Britain,” declared Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to Reuters, in an acknowledgement that – like the Newham comms team – he believes the future lies to the east.

In ABP's new glossy brochure announcing the project, Mayor Boris Johnson promises the project will be both “a beacon for eastern investors”, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and a revival of London's waterways, “the throbbing arteries of UK trade and commerce”. It will be “a mini city for Asian companies”, operating 24 hours a day, housing its very own retail and leisure opportunities – this will be nothing less than “London's third financial district”. Canary Wharf both symbolised and hosted the boom and bust of the 2000s, the Lehman Brothers and LIBOR fixers – and, if all goes according to plan, this could be global capitalism's newest fulcrum of financial power.

The CGI projections for what the area might look like feature – as always – white people drinking coffee at outdoor tables, talking on mobile phones, sheltering in the shade of trees. The pixelated ghosts of future commercial expansion.

East London, Newham's video reminds us, is “historically London's gateway to the world”. But where is history's place in all this? Cities are supposed to be palimpsests; ever-evolving refinements of what has gone before, historical epochs written over the top of one another, medieval streets threaded through dazzling modern buildings. But not after the Regeneration Supernova in Newham. After that, we start from Year Zero, where the narrative begins with the computer-generated planning blueprints of an international property conglomerate.

The video – the version we have is silent, but adorned with Mandarin subtitles – is keen to welcome you to an international city: 300 languages are spoken here, it boasts; there are 27 million visitors a year. Because really, you're visiting a "hub", not a place – not a finite or definable locale, limited by fusty old 19th century borders. Elaborate infographics in the brochure show off Newham's “superb transport connectivity” – via City Airport, via Crossrail (coming soon! Probably!) and via the DLR.

Listen guys, we know you're busy, you needn't stay long, it says – but look at where else you can get to from here, the Thames Gateway to the world. Once you've finished your business at Canary Wharf and walked through the gargantuan mall at Westfield Stratford, you can be on the first plane out of here, we promise. This is Newham London, “Where you can fly to NEW YORK. Where you can get the train to PARIS and beyond.”

The video ends with the injunction: “Take your place in the future of London” and the now-dead URL flashes up: www.newhamshanghaiexpo.com. The brand guidelines are clear: in its logo and all official communications, Newham is "Newham London" and it doesn't have a comma in the middle. This is more significant than it might seem: Southwark isn't "Southwark London"; Brent's logo doesn't read "Brent London". Newham Council have attached the capital's name to the borough's to direct their taxpayer funded communications strategy at people outside the borough, outside the capital – outside the UK, in fact. It's as shameless as those flyers you get handed in Piccadilly Circus for places that call themselves things like “The Oxford and Cambridge Royal School of Advanced English” (fourth floor, above a Wetherspoons).

The sales pitch seems to have worked. Johnson released a statement on the ABP deal that gave a clue as to how much London is already “moving east”: in the past five years, the capital has attracted 80 per cent of all Chinese property investment in Europe. Even before this deal, London was the number one capital city for Chinese investment outside Asia in the last decade.

Part of the Royal Docks area (Photo by Chris Wood)

What's in it for China? At the time of writing, Newham remains a pretty unfashionable part of London. But after the Regeneration Supernova, it'll be a strong foothold in the West – in the heart of Europe's financial capital, in fact – with nice views and good vibes to boot. “The area benefits from a large waterfront,” reported the New York Times, “an advantage when attracting Chinese companies because of its importance in feng shui, which holds that water can help the flow of energy.”

I don't know what the ancient art of feng shui has to say about airport hotels, but I bet it's not good. On the approach to the Docklands Light Railway's Royal Albert stop, you traverse a gauntlet of grim, blocky Novotels, Ibises and Ramadas, built to serve the ExCel conference centre / City Airport nexus of transient salarymen.

The TfL map outside the DLR station describes the vacant area that will house ABP as "Royals Business Park". It's a subtle warning from history, a marker of a failed previous coup – the Royals Business Park was a short-lived project stopped in its tracks by the global economic downturn. Otherwise the area around the docks is made up of allotments, A-roads, football pitches and other arenas you associate with quotidian edgelands-type activity. The nearby neighbourhood of Beckton is home to the largest sewage works in Europe. 

The waterfront itself was mostly peaceful when I visited a few weeks ago – there were some gentle ripples in the Albert Dock when the planes took off, and the occasional moment of incredible noise from the jet engines. A few dog walkers, a few plane-spotters, the occasional breeze blowing in from the North Sea.

The Central Offices and Buffet (Photo by Chris Wood)

The one new building on this open wasteland is a massive, showy glass box, a new-build statement of intent, a gleaming 3D plank of Newham Council's Regeneration Supernova strategy. This is Building 1000, and the council spent £111 million moving there in 2010, including £18.7 million on refurbishments, and designer light fittings that cost £1,800 each. It resembled, Local Government Minister Bob Neill said, “a glitzy West End nightclub”. Newham claimed the purchase of Building 1000 was motivated by efficiency, not vanity – bringing 26 different council departments together under one roof. The grim irony is that after only four years the council might be forced to leave already, because they can't offload the older, less glamorous premises they moved out of. In January this year it was announced that ABP will be moving in to the building, too. Which sounds cosy.

As I strolled around the giant transparent walls, watching council officials have their meetings in soft-furnished "break-out areas", Building 1000 seemed voyeuristic and needy in its vanity, shameless in its sales pitch to the businessmen passing by every day on their way to the ExCel Centre or Canary Wharf. Building 1000's official entrance is on the north side, facing away from the docks, but it's the southern side – the one directly facing City Airport across the narrow stretch of water – that is surely the building's raison d'etre for Newham Council. Spread across this facade is a giant shocking pink billboard, measuring maybe 60 feet by 30 feet, emblazoned with the legend "Welcome to Newham London".

A CGI mock up of the development on Newham's now defunct investors' website

Amid all the detritus scattered along the kilometre long site, two buildings remained standing. They used to be the Central Offices and Buffet – colloquially, just "the Central" – both of them Grade II listed, where the dockworkers used to feed and water themselves. Currently, the buildings lie empty and untouched. You'd hope that at least one awkward remnant of history could outlive the smiting hand of the developers.

It will surprise no one that the lessons of the 2008 crash, and Canary Wharf's role as “Wall Street's Guantanamo” (a lawless zone free from such awkward encumbrances as government regulation and good practice), are being quite determinedly unlearned. In its official response to the ABP deal, the Mayor of London's office announced that it was looking into ways to make it “easier and cheaper for Asian businesses to set up and trade internationally from the Royal Docks … As an existing Enterprise Zone, the area already offers reduced business rates, a simpler planning process, and superfast broadband.”

How very accommodating! Boasting speedy internet connections seems almost comically trivial, at first glance, compared to the other concessions and genuflections made – but I guess it's almost like corporate hospitality, or the behaviour of a luxury hotel; here's the mint on your pillow.

ABP chairman Xu Weiping (centre) and delegates look around the derelict site at Royal Albert Dock in May 2013

So who are the buyers? A profile of ABP and Xu Weiping on the Quartz website described the company and its chief as obscure and mysterious, with thinly disguised links to the Communist Party hierarchy. To date, ABP's only significant completed project anywhere is a "Silicon Valley of Beijing" on the outskirts of the city, which, according to Quartz, “raised questions about how Xu obtained rights to build such a massive project... despite having no history as a developer”. “One explanation for the firm’s quick ascension," Quartz continued, "could be close ties with the government, which is not unusual for businessmen in China but could be problematic given that London has billed ABP as a private company.”

Like all great empires, and target-setting Communists, APB are already thinking about their next goal. "We want to build the site far beyond the boundary of the current plans," Xu said last month. "That's what we want to see in east London and we're fully confident we will get it done. We want the community to support us and watch over us to make sure it will be done." The local community don't have a great deal of choice in the matter – if they are even allowed to remain locals, and not say, told by the council that they have to move to Hastings.

Capitalism almost destroyed the docks once before, a century ago. Back in 1909, the government-run Port of London Authority monopoly was formed out of necessity, because the ferocity of competition between rival dock companies was ruining them all. This time, the people of Newham, one of the most deprived boroughs in London, are being promised 20,000 jobs – a figure, one suspects, plucked entirely out of the air – as a result of the Regeneration Supernova and the Asian Business Port's £1 billion arrival. As ever with regeneration, it is not the act of investment, modernisation or construction in and of itself that is a problem – it's who benefits from the regeneration. Will we ever be Royals? I wouldn't hold your breath.

The striking thing about a supernova is the paradox of its purported novelty – it is newly bright, and newly spectacular – and it does totally transform the space around it. It's a star that appears brighter than ever before – emitting enough radiation to outshine an entire galaxy. But because the luminosity is a result of the star's fatal implosion, what appears to be a dazzlingly bright star is in fact just a dazzlingly bright ghost. The star, you see, is dead.

@danhancox

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