Bullish builders defy the doubters : THE BUILDER : DOCKLANDS A SPECIAL REPORT

David Lawson reports on the much needed stability buyers and builders h ave brought to the Docklands domestic property market
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Sir Lawrie Barratt was always seen as an arch-Thatcherite. Whenever the Iron Lady was pictured on a building site he seemed to be at her elbow - usually because they were his sites.

Docklands was a favourite location for this meeting of minds. But when she fell, so did the property market, and the vast new estates became widely condemned as another Thatcherite folly.

Sir Lawrie refused to agree. Builders have come and gone since those early days but this one kept the faith. "We have never stopped work throughout the whole period," says Barratt South chairman David Pretty.

The eponymous head of the company insisted that the area never lost its advantages. He saw them first when Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, virtually dragged builders out to Beckton in the early Eighties to cajole them intotrying a few homes in this untapped market.

Barratt is still there. A new site is under way this year for 100 homes within a stone's throw of the originals. One difference marks the changes that have taken place since those early days, however. The cheapest homes 10 years ago were £25,000; today atwo-bed house would start at £60,000.

One reason why the company has kept going through thick and thin is its flexibility. Public myth shackles Barratt to little brick boxes. There are certainly still many of these; they are also still just as hated by architectural critics - and adored by cash-strapped first-time buyers.

But this image overlooks the converted warehouses; Gun Wharves, between Wapping and the Isle of Dogs was among the first of a fashion during the first flush of Docklands fever, quickly selling out at prices up to £500,000. It also ignores the huge renovation programme carried out while home sales were moribund.

Barratt has quietly turned the giant Downtown Estate in Rotherhithe from a derelict wasteland to a community of more than 500 low-cost and rented homes. Now the company is moving on to replace the Bonamy Estate with 800 homes in a £60m redevelopment withSouthwark Council.

This will boost even further the total of 2,300 homes created on 27 sites over those years. Recently it went even further out on a limb by taking over an office block in Wapping to convert into 41 flats. More than 30 were sold before the scaffolding wentup - mainly to investors from the Far East.

"They see the advantages of the area much more clearly than many people over here who are blinded by prejudice," says Mr Pretty.

New-build is also back in fashion, although many observers thought the company was crazy to start 300 homes in Rotherhithe in mid-1992, says Mr Pretty. "But the area still has the advantages Sir Lawrie had seen all those years ago and we felt the market had hit the bottom."

One difference from the early days is the mock-Georgian designs introduced at Sovereign View, just across the river from Canary Wharf. This - and prices starting at £60,000 - has proved such a hit that construction was brought forward twice and 280 of the 305 houses and apartments have been sold since early 1993.

Other builders have caught on since then, and a flurry of companies has rushed in to tap the resurgent market. Barratt is protecting its interest, however, by snapping up a neighbouring site for another 85 homes in the same style in a price range from £130,000 to £210,000.

"Compare that with more than £300,000 for three-bed homes overlooking the water in the boom," says Mr Pretty. Buyers obviously agree, as 30 have been sold despite the fact that the show house is not due to open until the spring.

Another handful of sites are on the drawing board, although with rivalry between builders back to boom-time levels, Barratt will reveal little.

"Let us just say we are continuing as we began - with confidence," he says."

Comments