Christian Wolmar looks at the controversy that has plagued the efforts of the London Docklands Development Corporation
The London Docklands Development Corporation is being wound up in three years' time. By then it will have spent around £2bn of public money on regenerating the area. Its demise will mark the end of a remarkable experiment in urban regeneration whi ch hasresulted in the construction of Britain's tallest, largest office block, its biggest office development scheme, a new railway system, new road network and an enduring legacy of controversy only partly diminished by the passage of time.

The creation of the LDDC in 1981 was a result of central government frustration at the failure of previous attempts by the local authorities and the GLC to begin the much-needed process of the regeneration of the area left virtually derelict by the closure of the docks. It was, too, a highly political move since a Conservative government was wresting control of the area from a group of squabbling Labour councils, and vesting the LDDC, a body whose members it appointed, with formidable land acquisition and planning powers.

Ignoring the hostility from local politicians, the LDDC set about its task with, at first, modest intentions. It concentrated on getting developers to refurbish existing warehouses mainly for housing and to build low-rise sheds for high-tech jobs or warehousing. There was no master plan and the emphasis was on market-led solutions. There was a lot of effort put into attracting housebuilders, particularly in Beckton at the eastern end of the docks where 5,000 homes have now been built, and on developing transport links.

As Eric Sorensen, the LDDC's chief executive put it "when the LDDC was first created, it took an hour to get in or out of the area as the roads were so bad and there was little public transport."

The concept of the Docklands Light Railway was born and a plan for an East-West spine road, initially drawn up by the GLC, was adopted.

By then, however, the whole scheme for the area had changed with the arrival of an American developer, G Ware Travelstead, who was thinking big. Very big. He drew up a scheme for around 10m square feet of new offices at Canary Wharf, including, of course, the 50-floor tower as its centrepiece. He was taking advantage of LDDC's lax planning rules which essentially allowed any development that complied with building regulations and of the Enterprise Zone rules on the Isle of Dogs which gave tax incentives to developers and exempted them from rates.

Travelstead, however, eventually fell by the wayside as he was unable to raise the cash for the scheme but it was rescued by the intervention of the LDDC's chairman, Sir Christopher Benson, who managed to bring in the Reichmann brothers of Olympia & York, who were already involved in huge developments in Toronto and New York.

They are probably none too grateful for Sir Christopher's persuasive powers, now. While half the development was put up with amazing alacrity, the timing was awry and coincided with the recession and the downturn in property prices. Olympia & York went into administration, but emerged from it in 1993 after a deal to ensure the construction of the Jubilee Line extension was signed up.

The rest of the scheme may never be built. But the Canary Wharf development changed the shape and image of Docklands, and bears the brunt of local criticism. Ben Kochan of the local Docklands Forum said "The scale is inhuman. It just overwhelms people and they find it impossible to relate to."

Mr Kochan's feelings are certainly shared by a lot of people who work at Canary Wharf but Mr Sorensen defends it. The LDDC is building pedestrian bridges across two of the docks to provide much-needed links and said that it is too early for judgements onthe development: "I know that Docklands feels raw and ragged. That's because it is at the moment. You can't judge it after 15 years. You have to give it a lot more time."

Even diehard opponents of the LDDC now accept that some type of development agency was necessary to kick-start the regeneration of the area. But they concede precious little about its achievements.

Mr Kochan said "Hardly any of the developments have helped Eastenders and where there have been improvements, such as the DLR, their benefit to the community was incidental rather than an integral part of the scheme. And they have promoted owner occupation, which has left many people now suffering from negative equity."

Mr Sorensen refuted such opposition and said he is proud of all the LDDC's developments except that he would like to have seen at least one road developed into a "boulevard" rather than an urban highway, to give the area a better focus. And he dismisses the arguments about doing more for the community.

"We have helped with very many community projects, everything from health centres to training, but in the end our brief was limited," he said. "Our area was very specific and did not cover large swathes where there is severe deprivation. It would have required much greater sums of money and we would have needed essentially to take over the running of the local authority, which really wasn't feasible or desirable."

Local authorities would have received a better deal, he said, if they had worked with the LDDC in the early days. "They should have gone with us to the Government and explained how they could help bring about community-based development schemes. Instead,they carped from the sidelines." Now, he said, "they have missed the boat" since most of the LDDC money has been spent.

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