3,500 soldiers set to bed down in a 'prison' warehouse

Grade 1 listed Tobacco Docks tops MoD's barracks shortlist, writes Andrew Johnson

At least Tobacco Dock looks like a barracks. The former tobacco warehouse in the shabby end of London's Docklands is thought to top the Ministry of Defence's shortlist as it desperately scrambles to find accommodation for the 3,500 extra troops drafted in to guard the Olympics.

With its curved corners and sheer windowless brick walls the Grade 1 listed warehouse, built in 1811, could also pass as a desert fort. Or a prison.

The building, one of the most important in London according to English Heritage, is owned by an investment company called Messila House, which in turn is owned by the secretive Kuwaiti Al-Hasawi family who have just bought Nottingham Forest football club.  

In the 1990s it was turned, bizarrely, into an olde-English style shopping mall. Inside there are two floors of York paving stones, red telephone boxes and iron lanterns. There are no customers, though, they never came. And no tenants, they didn't come either, and all the shop units are empty glass hutches where unfortunate troops will no doubt find themselves sweating in the double greenhouse effect caused by the large glass roof across the entire structure.

The elongated arched entrances are gated and mostly boarded up with chip-board now. On one side two rusting iron tall ships – the Three Sisters and the Sea Lark – cry out for a lick of paint in dry dock. On the other an overgrown wasteland waits for the economy to turn so it can be built on. It is all a far cry from the swanky St Katherine's Dock development, full of yachts and restaurants, two minutes up the road.

The MoD said yesterday that some of the extra 3,500 troops would be placed in existing London barracks such as Regent's Park; or at the make-shift camp site in Hainault or HMS Ocean, moored on the Thames, were the 11,000 troops already earmarked for the Games will bed down. But the majority will have to be placed elsewhere and quickly before the Games get underway.

"Tobacco Dock is exactly the sort of place we're looking at and there aren't too many places like that – large areas that are easily adaptable," the spokesman said. He added that no leases have yet been signed but they will need to be in the next couple of days if the necessities of an army – portaloos, kitchens, camp beds – are to be installed in time.

Soldiers will, of course, sleep anywhere – even in the street according to the Falklands Marine commander Major General Julian Thompson.

But with public and military up in arms over the debacle that has seen many squaddies lose holidays and recuperation after exacting tours of Afghanistan, the last thing government ministers need is to make them unhappier.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said yesterday he was concentrating on ensuring the troops were given "reasonable" accommodation, with "good food, good recreational facilities, good wi-fi and broadband connectivity". He'll be aware the public is watching to see if it is delivered.

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