Magazine article The Spectator

Cheep, Cheep, Canary? the Bottomless Dock Comes Asking for Another L2 1/2 Billion

Magazine article The Spectator

Cheep, Cheep, Canary? the Bottomless Dock Comes Asking for Another L2 1/2 Billion

Article excerpt

I would just as soon it sank, but the investment bankers in Canary Wharf are trying to float it. They hope that investors will put up L2/2 billion for shares in their offices down in Finanzplatz Dockland. I would say that quite enough money, public and private, has been poured into this bottomless dock already. It is a cautionary tale and begins with a commercial suicide. When London's dockers finally put themselves and their employers out of business, they left a wasteland behind them, and Margaret Thatcher's government chose it to try out its new policy of actively not intervening. Inside the dock wall it established a government-free zone: no subsidies, no fussy planners, no rates and no taxes. This experiment was working, on a modest scale - a warehouse here, an office there - until the banker and polymath Michael Von Clemm changed the scale out of all recognition. He inspected Canary Wharf as a possible site for his bank's back office and conceived the idea that it should be a new site for banks' front offices. He moved his own office further and further away, but he conjured a suitably grandiose scheme from a developer called G. Ware Travelstead, who I always thought was an anagram - Great Waters Laved? Waste Gravel Trade? Walter Savage Terd? However you shuffled them, the sums did not add up, and the project was fading when it caught the eye of the Reichmann brothers, who adopted it. It was easily assumed that these secretive Canadian developers could not be wrong. Only the much-mourned Bruce Kinloch (evoked by Damien McCrystal on page 17) maintained that the sums were the same and still did not add up. The Reichmanns were Downing Street's favourites and Canary Wharf was its ideological showpiece. Official visitors to Britain would be hauled along to see it and invited to marvel at what nonintervention could do. It made a nice outing for them, even if the poor peons on the spot persisted in complaining that they had been sold down the river and marooned there.

Off the rails

THE polite way of putting this was that Canary Wharf deserved a proper infrastructure. A toy railway linked it to the City. The staff, as I remarked, were courteous and the views were striking, which was better than the other way about, but the toy trains could not be made to work. Millions would have to be spent on them. Soon the government was propping up this monument to nonintervention by hurling public money at it. The toy railway was re-electrified. A tunnel under Limehouse Harbour bypassed Narrow Street and worked out (in pounds per yard) as the most expensive road in Europe. Then came London Underground's extension to the Jubilee Line, whose dots on the map joined Bermondsey and the Surrey Docks to Stratford-atte-Bow. This unpromising venture found itself with a new purpose: bringing tube trains to Canary Wharf. (The Dome was to follow.) The trains are running five years late and have not yet arrived, but fortunes have disappeared down their tunnels. No wonder that the rest of the Underground is stagnant with failed signals and stalled escalators. For the last 15 years, four-fifths of all transport investment in London has been diverted to Docklands. …

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