Convoys Wharf campaigners propose alternative vision

‘Deptford Is...’ the group campaigning to prevent the development of Convoys Wharf in its proposed form, has unveiled their alternative vision for the site.

Last week, shipbuilding historian Richard Endsor and Deptford boat builder Julian Kingston presented a proposal “to bring shipbuilding back to Deptford's former royal dockyard.” They propose to build a full-scale replica of the Lenox, one of Charles II's warships, which was originally built at the King's Yard in 1678. They say:

Apart from reconnecting Deptford to its maritime history, this project would offer training in traditional crafts and skills, apprenticeships, educational and employment opportunities for local people, as well as creating a tourist attraction to complement neighbouring Royal Greenwich.

The Hermione project, in Rochefort, France, attracts a quarter of a million visitors per year who each pay €15 to see the ship under construction, demonstrating that such a heritage project could be self-sustaining, as well as bringing increased footfall to Deptford town centre, having a hugely beneficial impact on the local economy...  

The reopening of the riverfront walkway should take the opportunity to acknowledge the history of the site by recreating the seven bridges that would originally have crossed the seven openings connecting the dockyard basins and slipways to the river.

We love the idea of a development that celebrates the area’s maritime heritage (although arguably, we’re already pretty well served by maritime Greenwich) and makes better use of the riverside than the what’s currently on the drawing board. If a consortium capable of delivering such a project, was proposing it, we’d be raving about it. But at the moment, it’s just a nice idea, put forward by some enthusiastic and knowledgeable people, not a genuine alternative. They are up against one of the world’s most liquid property developers, who are at an advanced stage of planning and who own the site. The developers aren’t tearing down history; they are building over its foundations. As Kieron Long wrote in the Evening Standard recently:

This isn't just any slice of the river. Convoys Wharf was formerly the King's Yard, built by Henry VIII in 1513 as London's military dock and known across the world. It was the harbour to royal yachts, where Francis Drake was knighted aboard the Golden Hinde in 1581, and where Elizabeth I's Spanish Armada-defeating fleet was built. It is a place of astonishing, nationally important historical significance.

Greenwich, just a mile down-river, with its colonnaded Old Royal Naval College, has become a world heritage site and will officially become a "Royal" borough next year. But it was Deptford that built the boats that made England powerful enough to conceive of and fund that architectural set piece in the first place…

The site today is rather eerie, a huge expanse of concrete with a few Sixties and Eighties warehouses still standing. There are no roads and no sense of how it all once fitted together...

The King's Yard has long lost its Tudor character. Since the Second World War, successive idiotic owners chose to demolish the remaining buildings on the site and fill in the basin and slipways. Most jaw-dropping of all is that in stages between the Sixties and as recently as the Eighties, a Tudor storehouse was demolished and its foundations concreted over so that huge distribution sheds and warehouses could be built.

Hutchison Whampoa proposes to create a development that would represent a major investment in the area, providing new jobs and homes for the borough. The proposals have been watered down from the original master plan and are somewhat uninspired. The transport strategy is deeply flawed and the developers should be asked to do more work on it before consent is granted. River buses are the easy but implausible get-out for every riverside developer. And as English Heritage notes:

The one real attempt that was originally proposed to interpret the site's history in the new development, i.e. the creation of a significant area of public open space that evoked the dockyard basin in front of the Olympia building, has been 'fine-tuned' out of this latest application. In our view, the creation of a tangential link with the river as now proposed is a distant second best relative to the original proposal.

Nonetheless, despite its flaws, Convoys Wharf could be a new destination development, with a cultural space at its heart and a few minor sops to its riverfront setting. At this stage, the best strategy would seem to be to focus on securing better transport links and a better use of the riverside.

[Full disclosure, our day-job employer, Edelman, does some work for News International and its parent company, NewsCorp. News International has a stake in the proposed development by Hutchison Whampoa. Edelman's work for NI / NC is unrelated to this project and views are BC's own.]