Canary Wharf comes of age at 30 with highs and lows in business and security

10th February 2018

What was once the economic decline of east London with the closing of the Millwall and Royal Docks has turned out to be a four-fold expansion of the local economy and 200 per cent rise jobs in just three decades.

Those are the findings of a 30-year review this week of Canary Wharf Group which began rejuvenating a decaying Docklands back in the 1980s.

Canary Wharf is now a thriving business and retail hub with 120,000 people working there.

It wasn’t always like that. The economic heart of the community had gone with the decline of the Millwall Docks in the 1970s.

Poverty spread, with the Isle of Dogs reaching 50 per cent unemployment at one point, according to anaysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Things began to change for the better with the redevelopment that was to follow.

“Canary Wharf Group has had an unrivalled economic and social impact on east London in those 30 years,” Poplar and Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick said.

“The company has integrated the regeneration with the surrounding area and is engaging the community to tackle the issues that remain.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing in the early days. Canada’s Olympia & York conglomerate which began construction in 1988 was banking on the London Underground expanding eastward — but it was too long in coming under Maggie Thatcher’s government.

The DLR opening in 1987 put Docklands back on the London map. Yet it wasn’t enough to stop the developers going into receivership in the 1990s, before a rescue plan which brought the whole project back on track.

Jobs in Tower Hamlets since then have quadrupled, now reaching 280,000, including almost 150,000 in the business and shopping district alone.

The local economy has grown four-fold with £28 billion of economic output, compared to £5 billion back in 1988. That’s a rise of 466pc, if you do the maths, compared to the London average growth of just 123pc.

But its success as a financial magnate was also its Achilles heel when it was targeted by the massive IRA bombing of the Midland Bank tower in 1996.

Security has long been tightened since — although there have been occasional slips, like the daring ‘night-scape’ scaling the tower rooftop a year ago.

The business world has had its ups and downs staged at Canary Wharf, with the collapse of Leman Brothers in 2008 which sparked the Recession.

Nevertheless, economic activity would have been almost 70pc less and employment 60pc lower had Canary Wharf “never existed”, the 30-year review would have it.

Canary Wharf Group chairman Sir George Iacobescu has been on a mission for three decades which he says still has a way to go.

“Our ambition was to transform a declining dockland, shifting London’s centre of gravity from ‘west’ to ‘east’,” he tells you. “Canary Wharf has come of age at 30, but our work is not done yet.”

Unemployment for Tower Hamlets has nearly halved from 13-and-a-half per cent to around seven per cent in the past 10 years alone, he points out, while London’s overall fall was down by only a-quarter.

His company has also put £15 million towards the East End’s community life on its doorstep with grants to local sports clubs, neighbourhood groups and charities. It pays for 200 arts events a year.

Canary Wharf today has 940,000sq ft of retail outlets with 300 shops, cafés, bars and restaurants as well as 20 acres of urban parks which attracted 50 million visitors in 2017 alone.

Some 40 towers and other high rise buildings have sprung up where once desolate quayside warehouses had stood. Another 19 are under construction and 32 more are on the drawing board.

Sir George has a busy time ahead, it seems, for the next 30 years.