Light in the East End

Sewage plants out, swish canalside homes in - but will Newham's glitzy makeover impress the locals? Robert Nurden joins some Londoners on a 'regeneration' tour
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The Independent Online

The minibus tour got off to a bad start. The window of Amba's general stores had been kicked in, and the cardboard taped around the gaping hole was flapping in the wind. A burnt-out car, stuffed with litter and with its doors and wheels missing, stood abandoned a few yards down the road.

Tecca, our guide, directed our attention to the 19th-century bathhouse, now known – after a £15m makeover – as the East Ham Leisure Centre. Inside, sopping towels and sepulchral chambers had been replaced by a fitness suite, two pools, a sports hall, a climbing wall, a café and a sun garden, all the work of Newham council's in- house architects.

This was the council's weekly "regeneration" tour, a two-and-a-half hour trundle round this poorest of London boroughs. The group included seven Age Concern volunteers, fellow-East Enders who had lived in the borough all their lives. What would they make of the makeover?

By 2010, Newham is expected to be a major business location and a place where people will choose to live. With the proceeds from the land it was selling off for showcase development, the council would tackle unemployment and build affordable homes and seven new schools. "Believe it when I see it," muttered Joyce from the back of the bus.

The London Borough of Newham, for more than a century the capital's dumping-ground, is entering a 15-year cycle of unprecedented development that promises to be as notable as Barcelona's glitzy makeover for the 1992 Olympic Games. Sewage-treatment centres, bombed docklands, crumbling factories and chemical contamination on a vast scale will give way to stately waterways, leisure parks, high-quality housing, an exhibition centre and an international rail terminal. For part of the master plan, the council has even brought on board MBM Arquitectes, which was responsible for turning the Catalan city into a major tourist destination.

Some buildings, such as the international gymnasium at Beckton, Ian Ritchie's Regatta Centre, Moxley Architects' Excel Exhibition Centre, Edward Cullinan's University of East London's halls of residence, City Airport, and Stratford's Cultural Quarter incorporating Burrell Foley Fischer's Picture House and Levitt Bernstein Associates' performing arts centre, are already in place. Most is yet to come.

"Regeneration is about more than improving the physical environment," says Jackie Lindre, major projects co-ordinator for Newham regeneration. "It's about providing housing for key workers, good transport, schools and jobs. Architects can dream up fantastic visions, but unless the local people benefit, it won't work.

Over the next few months, the council, through the borough's 10 community forums, is seeking the views of residents. The tour, she said, was another way of getting local people involved. "We chose MBM for the Lea Valley development because it came up with the most innovative scheme. What you often get are slight improvements and marginally better industrial units, but MBM's master plan will totally transform the region."

Out goes dirt, in comes clean. There will be workspace for the media, culture, hospitality, and research and development industries. No more dark alleyways, and lots of wide, open vistas that will help cut crime. "Of course, there will be some issues such as housing where we shall have to compromise, but these will be minimal," says Lindre.

As the bus turned on to the A13 (itself being widened to eight lanes), Tecca points out Beckton's Alpine Centre, which, the council discovered, has the wrong kind of snow. The existing dry ski slope is to be turned into a snowdome so that people can practise on artificially created, genuine snow all year round.

Not far away, another project – by Aukett Europe – will usher in a £500m business park, and, on the site of what was once the largest gasworks in Europe, Tesco is to build its largest-ever store. It will even sell cars 24 hours a day. "If we buy one, will we get one free?" asks Betty. The East End way of life may be dying, but cockney wit lives on.

The colourful Beckton Globe service centre was sectioned off into desks for health, jobs, welfare, social services, leisure, education and housing. It's the prototype for five others in the borough so that no one would be more than 15 minutes from a drop-in centre.

At the one-mile wide Excel centre – designed to be the Covent Garden of east London, with 8 million visitors expected annually – we stop for coffee. Derek Stone, a former Harland & Woolf shipbuilder and bread delivery salesman, looked up at what claims to be the biggest column-free structure in the world. "None of this regeneration business will benefit me," he says. "But as long as it brings wealth into the borough, I suppose it's a good thing."

Joyce, from Canning Town, looks glum. "It's upsetting, seeing all this," she says. "It's too flashy. It used to be such a friendly place, all the streets close together. They should be spending money on building a decent hospital and cheaper houses, not nightclubs for 2,000 yuppies."

We watched as a smart suit swept out of the lift of Lifschultz Davidson & Techniker's Royal Victoria Dock footbridge that so magnificently spans the water. "Bet he doesn't even know there used to be ships here," murmurs Derek. Tecca is getting tetchy. At Gallions Reach, she points out the "bridge that went nowhere", a truncated structure choked by nettles and buddleia. It was to have been a link across the Thames to Abbey Wood, but environmental protesters objected and it was never built. Now, three new river crossings are being proposed – the Thames Gateway and Silvertown Crossing for cars, the Woolwich Crossing for trains. The £1bn venture would ensure the total transformation of the local economy. But the south bank is resisting.

The West Ham, Stratford and Canning Town areas, referred to grandiosely by Newham as the Arc of Opportunity, have been earmarked for the boldest facelift. It is here that MBM's master plan envisages a new canal that will wind its way, east of the river Lea, through four "cities" known as Water, Green, Street and Casual, from Stratford down to the Thames. Up to 15,000 canalside homes, parks, walkways, locks and narrow-boat moorings will be constructed. "The number of brownfield sites makes the project similar to Barcelona, where we brought the city to the sea," explains David Mackay, a partner at MBM. "We found a filthy, polluted backyard, where water was the great wasted facility – along with beautiful Jubilee Line stations that no-one was using.

"Now, the lost Lea Valley is gaining an identity. Apart from the international rail terminal [to open in 2007], there is another proposed city of 3,000 homes, but they will only be affordable if the private sector keys into community needs. If the long-term vision prevails, I can promise architecture comparable to Barcelona. Too much compromise, and a fantastic opportunity to create a really unique space will be lost."

Back on the bus, the tour was coming to an end, and we piled out into East Ham high street. What did Joyce think of it all? "Well, it's opened me eyes," she retorts. "Not sure I should have bothered, though." Clearly, the locals need a lot more convincing before regeneration and architectural schemes become part of their vocabulary.