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Old Oak Common: Will 2017 prove a turning point?

With major decisions due on its future and a review under way into the company set up to oversee it, the next 12 months could be make or break for this enormous regeneration project and the huge challenges it faces.

It aims to be the gateway to the UK, a transport ‘super-hub’ acting as a first stop for travellers arriving at a newly expanded Heathrow heading into London, Birmingham or beyond.

It will also form a major part of the UK’s largest infrastructure project for a generation: High Speed 2.

But with key decisions over the future of Old Oak Common in the balance, can the estimated £29bn project with a station once disparagingly dubbed ‘Wormwood Scrubs International’ realise its potential in 2017?

For decades the sprawling 134 ha Old Oak site was the industrial backwater of west London, with factories, freight sidings and car showrooms jostling for space within a spaghetti of railway lines and the Grand Union Canal.

The first stirrings of a plan to transform the area arrived in 2011 via architect Terry Farrell and Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, who saw the arrival of HS2 as a chance to transform an area the size of Canary Wharf into a new mini-city accommodating up to 25,500 homes and 65,000 jobs less than 5 km from Hyde Park.

With more than half the land in public hands – Network Rail, the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd hold just over 95 ha between them – top politicians have seized upon Old Oak as a positive argument for HS2’s ability to unlock economic potential.

Question marks

Yet despite the formation of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) in January 2015, questions over both land and funding continue to plague the project.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has described his predecessor Boris Johnson’s handling of the deal that transferred the land to the OPDC, set up by the Greater London Authority, as a “mess”. A mayoral review into the issue published in November called for central government funding to help pay the £2bn infrastructure bill. Since then the situation has been left in limbo.

Old Oak Park Cargiant Grand Union Canal

Old Oak Park Cargiant Grand Union Canal

Old Oak – Grand Union Canal

OPDC chief executive Victoria Hills admits that the deal does need to be looked at: “Old Oak is a significant development opportunity; it’s not good enough to say, ‘Over to you, it’s part of the usual London settlement’.

“There’s an opportunity for us to put together a business case for why we need upfront infrastructure funding in tandem with the memorandum of understanding being looked at again, and that will be the new chair’s priority”

Victoria Hills, OPDC

“The mayor has reconfirmed his commitment to Old Oak, but what he is asking the government for the same level of support [£310m] that has been given to Ebbsfleet [site of a proposed garden city]. We won’t be bringing forward any big bill contracts until we are in a position as either landowner or infrastructure deliverer.

“I think this could be a decent ask for a future Autumn Statement or Budget. There’s an opportunity for us to put together a business case for why we need upfront infrastructure funding in tandem with the memorandum of understanding being looked at again, and that will be the new chair’s priority.”

With only a third of the £2bn infrastructure bill for Old Oak expected to be raised through Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 payments, the appointment of a new chair to replace the now-departed Edward Lister is overdue.

Tackling the Crossrail ‘cock-up’

The OPDC is expected to announce an appointment this year. Aside from funding, one of their priorities will be the fate of the newly built £142m Crossrail depot which sits on prime development land at the heart of the Old Oak site.

To allow Old Oak to reach its development potential, both the depot and the new HS2 station need to be decked over, with some estimates of the cost to demolish or retrofit the depot alone totalling up to £500m – more than twice what it cost to build.

The issue is a source of embarrassment for Transport for London, with Terry Farrell describing it as potentially London’s “worst cock-up” in 50 years. Up to 12,000 homes may be at risk if a solution can’t be found.

Old oak view from willesden junction

Old oak view from willesden junction

Current view of the Old Oak site from Willesden Junction

Ms Hills says action needs to be taken over the future of the depot, but dismisses the £500m figure as pure speculation. “I think that’s completely over the top. Depots are not gold-plated entities; they are steel sheds with tracks in. All the figures are hearsay until TfL has finished a study into options for the site.

“We don’t need to start demolishing any Crossrail depots any time soon. The HS2 station is going to be a building site for the next eight or nine years, so no-one is expecting to see anything built by the time the station opens.

“We’re pretty agnostic about whether [the depot] stays or goes as long as development can happen. However, there needs to be a plan agreed with the mayor in the next 12-18 months. It’s intrinsic to the design of the masterplan as well as the HS2 station, [and] there’s a need for certainty. You need to know if there’s a deck or not.”

HS2 and history repeating

Ms Hills is also battling to ensure the new HS2 station avoids becoming a re-run of the Crossrail depot debacle further down the line. Like Crossrail, HS2’s funding did not account for a development deck and the issue isn’t central to the delivery of the new rail line.

According to HS2’s procurement timetable, bidding station main works is expected at the start of 2018, with contracts to be awarded om 2019.

“We are having continued conversations with HS2 about the technical and commercial viability about putting more development around the stations,” Ms Hills adds. “That may involve some additional enabling works which they weren’t previously planning to do. Our role as a corporation is to influence them on why they should think about doing this instead of directly funding this ourselves.”

“We’ll give contractors enabling packages. If an OSD was approved we’d create another package and tag that on the end. The amount of work the enabling contractors do will be dependent on how much work we may want them to do”

HS2 spokesperson

This raises the possibility of HS2 awarding more work to its enabling works contractors – but the client says the decision is ultimately out of its hands. “The decision to allow for an over site development (OSD) would be for the DfT to make,” an HS2 spokesperson says.

“If they instruct us to do it, we’ll do it. We haven’t yet set all the work that enabling contractors would do – we’ll give contractors enabling packages. If an OSD was approved we’d create another package and tag that on the end. The amount of work the enabling contractors do will be dependent on how much work we may want them to do.”

HS2’s activity at Old Oak extends beyond the station itself. As the largest works compound on the first phase of the route, up to 25 ha of land given over to HS2 will remain a building site for the next decade as four tunnel-boring machines dig out 30 km of tunnels beneath London for the route.

The next King’s Cross?

Despite the immediate issues, Ms Hills is looking to the long term. “By the early 2030s a lot of the big commercial sites such as King’s Cross, Wood Wharf and Croydon will be full up,” she says. “London needs to build a lot more Wood Wharfs if it is to retain its global status. I think the sweet spot for Old Oak is that it’s zone 2/3 – it’s not Canary Wharf or the City; it’s something else.”

The OPDC has called for a “bold and deliverable” vision for the area that will only start to come together late next decade. Of the 28 initial bids for the £3m masterplan contract, seven teams led by practices including Farrells, Allies & Morrison, Grimshaw and Hawkins\Brown have made the shortlist, with the winner expected to be announced in the coming months.

A masterplan is urgently needed to ensure development is co-ordinated. Up to 11,000 homes – almost half the total anticipated – are at pre-application stage. Ms Hills, who returned from a trip to Hong Kong in November that included a visit to MTR’s mammoth new rail terminus in Kowloon, describes the masterplan as a “game-changer”.

Old Oak Park Cargiant Rolls Royce Gardens

Old Oak Park Cargiant Rolls Royce Gardens

Cargiant’s Rolls Royce Gardens

“All the shortlisted teams for Old Oak are world-class, the team that is selected will come up with something amazing working with us,” she says. “If you look at what MTR has done in Hong Kong, it’s so seamlessly integrated [that] it’s conducive for people to use public transport. They have a model to deliver development at the same time as delivering rail upgrading. Why haven’t we done more of that in this country? We don’t do things like that.”

The OPDC has commissioned a study into the potential primary uses for Old Oak that will feed into the masterplan, helping to make sense of the size of the opportunity. From the O2 Arena in Greenwich to the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, London’s regeneration projects tend to attract landmark tenants. Old Oak will be no different, according to Ms Hills.

“When Argent was putting together its masterplan at King’s Cross, it didn’t know it was going to get a university or Google – it was one of those brilliant masterstrokes. If you think about Stratford: if someone at the time said, ‘We’ll get the V&A and the Smithsonian out here,’ people would have thought they were ridiculous.

“People have mentioned a super casino and an extreme sports complex for Old Oak. We know that London is looking for new space for a concert hall. We’ve had lots of early thoughts but they will change and evolve. We’ve also had a lot of interest from overseas investors.”

QPR and busy neighbours

One landowner who is certainly keen to impress its own vision is Queens Park Rangers FC, which has long held ambitions for a new stadium away from Loftus Road.

QPR’s chief operating officer Mark Donnelly says the club can function as a hub for the area: “Any big regeneration needs community facilities as well as just housing. A stadium could offer healthcare facilities, a police safer neighbourhood team, a café, a library, or any other number of other community uses. Stadiums are identifiable and accessible, which makes them attractive locations for public sector uses – a focal point for the community.”

Old oak landowners map

Old oak landowners map

The club has entered into a joint venture with Genesis Housing Association to deliver homes on “significant” sites it owns in the area and has won planning for the first 605 homes in the OPDC’s £175m Oaklands scheme. Galliford Try has been appointed to the project, with work expected to start early next year.

Genesis Housing assets and investments executive director Jeremy Stibbe says the Oaklands scheme is part of a long-term strategy by the association in the area: “For Genesis this is a strategic proposition. Our board has agreed to a £100m landbanking facility which was set up for the area; however, how we invest that is to be decided.”

“The challenge that Old Oak has is ensuring the infrastructure is unlocked and there is connectivity between the various parts of the site”

Jeremy Stibbe, Genesis Housing Association

According to Mr Stibbe, the key to delivering Old Oak is allowing access. “The challenge that Old Oak has is ensuring the infrastructure is unlocked and there is connectivity between the various parts of the site.”

His view is shared by London and Regional Property’s development director Geoff Springer, who is charged with delivering its own £5bn scheme on the vast 19 ha Cargiant site to the north of the new HS2 station.

Masterplanned by PLP and Arup, the project is split into six neighbourhoods centred around a new London Overground station and includes 7,000 homes, the tallest tower in west London and up to 1m sq ft of business space dedicated to start-ups and SMEs.

The success of the Cargiant scheme, however, relies heavily on TfL and Network Rail approving a new £140m-£150m viaduct for the railway running through the heart of the site, while the mayor’s recent review stated that the case for a new station “still needs to be proven”.

For Mr Springer, the very idea that a viaduct wouldn’t get built is unthinkable. “It’s more than key,” he says. “It is fundamental to the project as it makes the permeability of the site happen, and it brings people from Harlesden and Kensal Rise into our site and the HS2 station.

“It’s the most important structure in the whole scheme. If you look at what happened with the Crossrail depot, where people were short-sighted, we don’t want the same mistakes to happen on our site with the viaduct.”

According to Mr Springer, a planning application for Cargiant’s site is expected to be lodged in Q2 2017, with work on the first homes beginning in 2020/21 and delivered no earlier than 2023.

He adds: “We have two years of pure infrastructure work to progress on, and we have to spend the best part of £200m to get the site going. We will have landmarks and great architecture. What we don’t want is a new piece of London which is turned over with ugly buildings.

“We are not having any landmark office buildings, we are not targeting that market. We are targeting start-ups and small businesses so they can grow. That is the strategy – this is not an office centre.”

With many important decisions still up in the air, 2017 could be make or break for the future of Old Oak, and it may take some bold political decisions if the grand vision for the scheme is to be turned into reality.

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