Locals step slowly into alien territory

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The Independent Online
For the vast majority of local people, Canary Wharf is alien territory. They visit, if at all, to shop at Tesco. Around 26,000 employees stream into the secure development every day, but few of them live in the council flats that surround it. Until now, the main work for local people has been as cleaners or canteen workers.

Not that Canary Wharf as a company, or the London Docklands Development Corporation (the government quango that lured the developers in with tax incentives) was ever under any obligation to help the local population.

Unlike the current regeneration project in nearby Spitalfields, the LDDC was a national rather than a local scheme. "The whole LDDC project has been a set of mistakes the present Government doesn't want to repeat," said Ben Kochan, editor of Urban Environment Today magazine. "Regeneration schemes since then have sought to make connections between physical developments and communities."

Belatedly, the recently floated Canary Wharf property group is trying to make up lost ground with the local population. Its managing director, Robert John, said: "One of the big complaints people give is that Canary Wharf just isn't relevant to them. They say it is for businessmen, not the little man in east London."

To encourage local businesses to tender for work, the company publishes a register of upcoming construction tenders on the development. This has met with some success: pounds 111m of contracts have gone to local businesses so far, most of them less than pounds 10,000. Canary Wharf has also set up an apprenticeship scheme for the construction industry and is due to announce that 20 young people have been signed up for this year.

The company realises that if it wants to see the future local population working in its banks, it has to get them early. Canary Wharf has been sponsoring projects in local schools to improve basic reading and writing skills. According to Mr John, whose wife used to teach in George Green school on the Isle of Dogs, around 40 per cent of the pupils have difficulties with reading or arithmetic.

It could be a long slog. Even unskilled jobs are going to outsiders - few of the 2,400 construction workers currently on the site come from the East End. "Canary Wharf has not borne the fruit the local community hoped for," Mr John acknowledges, "but we still have high hopes for the future in that area. As more come into Canary Wharf they look locally for the second generation of workers who will be there in five years' time."

But a lot more needs to be done, and the development itself has been criticised for not allowing space for smaller businesses. A recent document produced by Tower Hamlets' planning department states that "one of the major criticisms of the existing Docklands environment is that it lacks vitality - when the offices close the streets are empty". The same criticism could made of the City of London, but the difference is that the East End of London is a residential area.

There are promises of more jobs. Last year, the Canary Wharf Group commissioned Doug McWilliams, an economist with the Centre for Economic and Business Research, to predict how many local jobs might be available as a result of the development of the Docklands area in the future.

He predicts that by 2010 there could be 160,000 new jobs in east London. Most of them would be in the six London boroughs that surround Canary Wharf: Newham, Hackney, Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets.