How to cre­ate a town from scratch

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion col­lege. Ex­ist­ing hous­ing stock – high and low-rise, tow­ers and ter­races, ur­ban and sub­ur­ban – will be im­proved, and its parks, lakes and canals will be land­scaped. The big­gest el­e­ment is a pro­posed £4bil­lion new town cen­tre, com­plete with shops, of­fices, houses and a DLR sta­tion. By 2050, the pop­u­la­tion will have more than dou­bled to 100,000.

“It’s two dif­fer­ent worlds: the world of the new, and the world of sen­si­tive change,” says Lewis. “And all the bits and pieces in be­tween.” It is, he ac­cepts, a huge chal­lenge for a com­pany used to work­ing on rel­a­tively small self-con­tained projects but which “scooped up” Thames­mead in 2013 af­ter ac­quir­ing Gal­lions, the hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tion that pre­vi­ously man­aged the es­tate.

Es­tate re­gen­er­a­tion is a di­vi­sive sub­ject but so far there’s lit­tle sense of or­gan­ised op­po­si­tion, other than a group of pri­vate land­lords un­happy with a com­pul­sory pur­chase or­der that’s been placed on their prop­er­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Bex­ley’s Labour coun­cil­lor Danny Hackett, most res­i­dents sim­ply want Pe­abody to at­tend to the sort of de­tails Gal­lions over­looked – new win­dows, leaks, trou­ble­some neigh­bours.

Lewis quotes an 80 per cent pos­i­tive re­sponse fol­low­ing two years of con­sul­ta­tion, and says that when so­cial ten­ants whose homes were be­ing de­mol­ished were told they could move to any Pe­abody es­tate in Lon­don, all but two chose to re­main in Thames­mead rather than move to Covent Gar­den or Pim­lico.

That sug­gests peo­ple still feel good about Thames­mead, which was built by the Greater Lon­don Coun­cil (GLC) in a spirit of dy­namic op­ti­mism. These were new homes for a new era, planned and built by the public sec­tor on marsh­land be­tween Plum­stead and the Thames.

The dra­matic first phase was a unique mix of con­crete and wa­ter, with tow­ers and low-rise ter­races sur­round­ing or­na­men­tal lakes. Early res­i­dents loved their new neigh­bour­hood, with its mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, well-fit­ted prop­er­ties and ac­cess to river and marsh.

It was only as the es­tate ex­panded, the GLC was dis­banded and so­cial hous­ing be­came re­garded as homes of last re­sort, that ne­glect and de­cline set in. Thames­mead be­came in­di­vis­i­ble from its role as the back­drop to Stan­ley Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange, as a hard-to-reach place of dystopian ul­tra­vi­o­lence. Even in to­day’s pro-Bru­tal­ist age it is eas­ily over­looked: noth­ing in Thames­mead has been listed.

That in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity should be solved by the open­ing of the Cross­rail sta­tion at Abbey Wood and a promised DLR ex­ten­sion. For Pe­abody, this is more than just build­ing homes: the hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tion pro­vides skills train­ing for res­i­dents and builds much-needed com­mu­nal spa­ces. It will be a long-term process, with the first de­vel­op­ment of 525 homes com­plet­ing in around 2021.

That new hous­ing will over­look Thames­mead’s South­mere lake, which was in­tended to be an in­ter­na­tional yacht ma­rina but cur­rently houses a small flock of geese. The es­tate is re­mark­ably wild: there are horses and 30,000 trees.

The build­ings grouped round the lake demon­strate the dif­fer­ent shades Thames­mead has to of­fer. There are con­crete tow­ers, which Pe­abody will show­case as her­itage build­ings. A squat ter­race of va­cant prop­er­ties will be re­built with shops on the ground floor, while the strik­ing an­gu­lar boathouse will be­come artist stu­dios, a crèche and café to draw life to the lake. The east­ern as­pect is com­pletely open; be­yond lies a huge com­mon, pop­u­lated by wild­flow­ers and ponies, and past that is the Thames.

Pe­abody wants to cre­ate bet­ter ac­cess to the river that gives Thames­mead its name. The town is cur­rently de­fined by a cu­ri­ous lack of in­ter­est in the river – Lewis points out that houses near the Thames don’t even have win­dows over­look­ing it. wants to cre­ate cir­cu­lar pedes­trian routes and at­trac­tions around the river to pull peo­ple back and forth.

Pe­abody’s big­gest plans are re­served for north-west Thames­mead, the pro­posed lo­ca­tion of the new DLR sta­tion. Here lies badly used land; drive-by re­tail and over a mile of un­de­vel­oped wa­ter­front. “We have done block plan­ning for 11,500 homes and a fur­ther mil­lion square feet of non-res­i­den­tial use,” says Lewis. “That will cre­ate a new neigh- bour­hood, pred­i­cated on the DLR com­ing over from Gal­lions Reach. If City Hall de­liv­ers the DLR, we can cre­ate a new neigh­bour­hood which will pro­vide a mas­sive boost to Lon­don’s hous­ing needs and cre­ate the town cen­tre Thames­mead de­serves.”

Al­though Thames­mead is part­ner­ing with com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ers – one new block of 1,500 homes near Plum­stead is be­ing built with Berke­ley Homes, which will leave Pe­abody to run the 550 af­ford­able houses – Lewis em­pha­sises that Pe­abody doesn’t need to ob­serve short-time fi­nan­cial tar­gets.

“We can be pa­tient in­vestors,” he says. “Our first phase would not make sense to a com­mer­cial de­vel­oper, be­cause we are pro­vid­ing a new li­brary and com­mu­nity cen­tre. Some phases are cost-neu­tral, while others are loss lead­ers and some pro­vide a re­turn – we can look at it in the en­tirety.”

Lewis pre­vi­ously worked at Letch­worth Gar­den City and notes par­al­lels with that utopian gar­den city move­ment. Thames­mead is blessed with 185 acres of green space, five lakes, four miles of canals and three miles of river­side. Lewis feels all this can be bet­ter ex­ploited, both for the ben­e­fit of res­i­dents and to raise funds for fur­ther in­vest­ment. “What gives this place its iden­tity and unique­ness is the green and blue spa­ces,” he says. “Peo­ple love the space, the clean air, the sense of tran­quil­lity.”

Pe­abody, the trust founded by a Vic­to­rian phi­lan­thropist in 1862, is a cu­ri­ously ap­pro­pri­ate part­ner for a hous­ing es­tate birthed in an ethos of post-war ideal­ism. Both were rooted in the be­lief that some­thing rad­i­cal needed to be done to cor­rect glar­ing de­fi­cien­cies in Lon­don hous­ing. Lewis’s chal­lenge is to en­sure that the val­ues of both Pe­abody and Thames­mead re­main rel­e­vant in the 21st cen­tury, when rather dif­fer­ent prin­ci­ples dom­i­nate.

“If you go back to when Ge­orge Pe­abody founded us, it was about pro­vid­ing peo­ple with de­cent homes and a sense of pur­pose. That is still the thread that runs right through what we are do­ing,” says Lewis. “That’s why the first phase of 525 homes is be­ing di­rectly de­vel­oped by our­selves, so that we stay in con­trol. It’s our state­ment piece and every­body is watch­ing.”

Pe­abody’s plan for the new Thames­mead, main; be­low, the es­tate in 1984

The clock tower in the town cen­tre

A Clock­work Orange, be­low; Gold­crest Close, Thames­mead, be­low left

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