So long, Docklands ...and pounds 1.8bn

A Billion-Pound Conservative flagship quango will be wound up in three months' time, with opinion still divided over whether it represented good value for the taxpayer or was a monumental waste of public money.

Since its formation in 1981 by Michael Heseltine, the then Environment Secretary, the London Docklands Development Corporation has received pounds 1.8bn in taxpayers' money. In addition, Docklands has swallowed 80 per cent of London's transport budget since 1981, a figure which does not include the new Jubilee Line extension. While the rest of London suffered from a worsening transport system, senior Tories, notably Mr Heseltine and the two Prime Ministers, Mrs Thatcher and John Major, poured pounds 2.2bn into road and rail links for just one part of the capital.

On 31 March 1998 the corporation will cease to exist, bowing out in a blaze of publicity, emphasising the success of the Canary Wharf project and the building of new homes in the former docks complex in London's East End. In one area, the Royal Docks, more than pounds 400m of public money has been spent, but without any noticeable benefit.

Executives can claim Canary Wharf is over 92 per cent let, that 73,000 people now work in Docklands compared with 27,000 in 1981, and almost 22,000 new homes have been built in the area.

Much of the employment created is not new to London but represents jobs relocated from elsewhere in the capital. The total is also thought to include temporary staff working on Docklands' construction projects, such as the Jubilee Line. Local people have not reaped the benefit of the job bonanza: the area remains one of the poorest in the capital with severe social problems. Neither, too, have they seen an improvement in housing. While some home schemes have been directed at local people, Docklands has spawned numerous luxury developments beyond the reach of most eastenders.

At one stage the corporation employed 500 people, many of them in marketing and selling. They have promoted Docklands heavily overseas, attending international conferences and trade fairs. Despite this effort, commercial tenants tend to have been drawn from companies already operating in London. Other areas of the capital, particularly the City, have suffered as the LDDC has fought an aggressive campaign to woo firms away.

And, while attention has focused on the belatedly successful Canary Wharf project, to the east a huge swathe of the old docks is still undeveloped. In the former Royal Docks, Victoria, Albert and George V, 70 acres of land remains virtually empty, with little prospect of immediate large-scale commercial building.

The University of East London is planning a campus in the Royal Docks but no major office projects are under way. Clearing the Royal Docks has cost the taxpayer pounds 400m so far without any tangible benefit.

A spokesman for the City of London Corporation said: "Docklands as a whole has received an extremely large amount of public money. It has been so heavily dependent on public money that when the Tories say it is an example of free market capitalism they are talking nonsense."

A property expert said the LDDC had made, "a useful contribution to the London property scene. It helped to free up space and to keep rents down a bit".

A former leader of a local council said he thought the LDDC and its Tory backers could have done a lot more. To have built an airport in the middle of Docklands but to not have given it a rail link was, he said, "stupid", and the lack of job creation he described as "disappointing". There was a shortage of affordable housing when the LDDC began, said the council leader, and there is still such a shortage.

A spokeswoman for the LDDC said the corporation had been presented with a vast amount of land in need of regeneration. That had largely been achieved. The recession slowed down some schemes but confidence had returned. She acknowledged that some people thought the Royal Docks too far from central London, but she was confident that space there would be let. A business park and an urban village are planned.

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