How east London’s answer to Venice turned into a ‘ghost town’

Under the flightpath of London City airport stands what was considered by Boris Johnson a key tenet of east London’s revival.

Proposals for the redevelopment of a 35-acre site included creating Britain’s answer to Venice, a snowdome and Chinese schools. Designed to coincide with international interest in London around the Olympics, a lengthy tendering process was dominated by Chinese investors.

In 2013, Johnson, then Mayor of London, awarded the contract to little-known Beijing-based Advanced Business Park (ABP). The £ 1.7bn deal was to feature offices, shops and homes, and create thousands of jobs.

A decade later it has been described as a “ghost town”. Construction stopped more than two years ago with ABP having secured only a handful of tenants. Its chairman Xu Weiping, meanwhile, is unable to return to China after a Beijing court enacted a travel ban and tough spending restrictions over unpaid debts.

“The Royal Albert Docks was supposed to be the jewel in the crown of London’s only Enterprise Zone,” says Unmesh Desai, a Labor Assembly Member for the area. “But the promises of the previous mayor that the developer, ABP, would deliver thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of inward investment into the UK economy have clearly not materialized.”

City Hall has tried to remove ABP from the stalled scheme, serving a final termination notice in February. Earlier this month six of the development’s buildings were put up for sale by Savills after the company fell into administration.

But perhaps the seemingly scrambled route to secure a developer served as a warning for how things panned out.

Courting China

According to minutes of meetings by consultants Drivers Jones, Deloitte and London and Partners, released under the Freedom of Information act, interest from a wide range of Chinese businesses was courted in an era of different relations with Beijing.

Civil servants warned in internal emails that Chinese investors were on “a steep learning curve as regards investing in / buying land in the UK, particularly from the public sector”.

In a memo from the now defunct London Development Agency, meanwhile, another said any Chinese developer would need a greater degree of “hand-holding”.

In 2011, a trip to China was planned to gauge the interest of parties wanting to build on the Royal Docks.

Shaanxi Tianhe Enterprise Group, whose primary business was bookselling, were hosted in Deloitte’s Beijing headquarters by five consultants acting on behalf of City Hall, and one from the London Development Agency.

It wanted to establish a “Quick Chinese” school, which guaranteed conversational Mandarin after four weeks in a partnership with The Mountbatten School.

In the meeting, officials representing the UK passed over a pre-prepared list of British estate agents, in a demonstration of the level of hand-holding.

Other meetings were held with Zongchen, primarily a motorcycle manufacturer, at Deloitte’s headquarters in Chongqing.

CSST International, a security firm, also said they were eager to have a meeting due to Beijing’s “walk-out policy” at the time, which encouraged leading entrepreneurs across sectors to tap into billions of pounds in credit from the Chinese National Credit Bank and invest in international projects.

And Han Guangyun, chairman of Chongqing Taizheng Group, spoke of his desire to “[emulate] the Chinese dragon… in the spatial arrangement “of the project that incorporated a Confucian academy and recreated a” Chinese Venice “on the Thames where cruise ships could dock.

Chinese projects turn sour

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