It was billed by Boris Johnson as a dazzling “beacon for Asian investors”: a £1.7bn complex of waterside offices that would become “London’s third great business area” after the City and Canary Wharf. As mayor of London in 2013, he promised it would be a dynamic “city within a city”, humming 24 hours a day, with Asian companies lured here by tax breaks working on Beijing time and breathing new life into a long-derelict stretch of east London’s Royal Docks.
Almost a decade since Johnson signed the deal with the Chinese developer ABP (Advanced Business Parks) to build his dockside fantasy, the area is a ghost town. About a tenth of the project has been realised: a row of pristine office blocks marooned in a sea of tarmac and overgrown scrubland, with no tenants in sight. Last week, after years of uncertainty and missed deadlines, the Greater London Authority finally kicked the developer off the project, citing lack of progress on the scheme, leaving the future of the 14 hectare (35 acre) site up in the air.
Visiting the place today feels like walking through a computer generated image of a correctional facility. It has the air of a bleak open-air prison for white collar criminals sentenced to purgatory in a haunted business park. An endless grid of identical windows extends down either side of Mandarin Street, the district’s central thoroughfare, punctuating the relentless 200 metre long facades of grey brickwork. A row of spindly trees punctuates the desolate scene while a lone security guard glides to and fro in an electric golf buggy, occasionally stopping to sweep up an errant leaf, keeping the pavement spotless for his community of imaginary occupants.
“There’s not a single office tenant here,” he says. “Not one. They were trying to rent them out, then the pandemic happened and – poof! – we got ourselves a ghost town. A Job Centre finally opened here a few months ago, so at least I’ve got some company now.”
The project was conceived at the heady pinnacle of Sino-British relations, described as the dawn of a “golden era” when the deal was toasted at a lavish ceremony at Mansion House in 2015 by the then prime minister David Cameron and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Chinese money was flooding into London at a rate of knots, funding Thames-side towers that offered “a brand new level of luxury”, with five-star room service and en-suite karaoke parlours. Some of those projects have since ground to a halt as a result of the collapse of the Chinese property market, along with Brexit and the pandemic. Construction work at the Royal Albert Dock stopped in 2019.
“I used to be a billionaire,” ABP founder Xu Weiping told the Guardian in 2020, “but not any more. The virus is only one of the reasons. Brexit has caused a lot of my UK assets to depreciate.” Documents filed with Companies House in December last year show ABP made a loss of £13.2m in 2020, more than 10 times as much as in 2019, and had financial liabilities of £14.5m.
Struggling to lure Chinese tenants with the onset of the pandemic, Xu launched a last-ditch plan to convert the 21 offices he had built so far into 2,000 self-contained, covid-proof micro pods. “Inside this cube, the person can do their work but also have a rest and relax,” he said. “Each cube is equipped with a multifunctional wall, including a coffee maker, a mini fridge and a day bed,” designed so that workers would never have to leave their 3m x 3m capsule.
My requests to visit the brave new pod-working future were sadly never granted, and the GLA served a final termination notice to ABP last summer. Its parent company, Dauphin Holdings, registered in the Isle of Man, took over the obligations of the agreement, but a further termination notice was served on Dauphin in March this year. ABP has now collapsed into liquidation following a series of winding-up petitions from creditors.
Today, the place has a Ballardian air. On a sunny weekday lunchtime, a ripped topless man is the sole inhabitant of the district’s central square, doing press-ups on the manicured lawn and admiring his reflection in the empty plate glass windows. After a long time walking the length of the blocks, trying doorways and pressing buzzers in search of life, I find another man sitting on a kerb sipping a coffee. An office worker, at last?
“We’re filming an advert for Marks & Spencer,” he tells me. “It’s an ideal location because there are never any people around. If we’re careful with the shots, we can sort of make it look like a normal place.”
The eerie, film-set quality comes in part from the way it was built. In order to save time, the development was entirely designed in BIM (Building Information Modelling), so that the buildings could be made in a factory in modular components and quickly assembled on site. The flawless, computer-generated look of the brickwork comes from the fact that these are not brick walls but thin “slips” of brick stuck to 9m x 4m concrete panels, which were then barged here and hoisted into place at a rate of 10 panels per day. Look closely and you’ll see the tell-tale joints of sealant where the panels meet, like a glitch in the matrix.
The intention of Farrells, who were the master-planners and architects of the buildings, was to create a “new dockside typology” inspired by both docklands warehouses and the Georgian terrace. Which sounds sensible enough. But the resulting place has been bleached of all character and nuance, as if designed at a diagrammatic scale and simply printed out on a production line – a chimera of a London street, lost in digital translation.
The collapse of the project will be no surprise to anyone who has followed this troubled scheme from the beginning. Just like the empty cable car nearby, the loss-making ArcelorMittal Orbit, the overheating Routemaster bus, and the ill-fated garden bridge, the Royal Albert Dock plan bore all the hallmarks of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty: an overblown vanity project built on shaky foundations.
When the deal was first announced in 2013, Johnson promised that London was in a “no-lose position”, claiming the scheme was “backed by the Bank of China” and that numerous tenants were already signed up – not just to rent but to buy the buildings. A Channel 4 News investigation the following year, however, raised key concerns over ABP’s track record and its “cosy” relations with those involved in the tender process. It alleged that ABP, and their partners in Chinese local government, were involved in the forced removal of residents from their homes at the site of their one completed development in Beijing. Amateur video footage appeared to show demolition teams tearing down a family’s home with all their possessions inside. Johnson told Channel 4 that he was not aware of this but that ABP’s human rights record in China “wasn’t relevant to the tendering process”. ABP has strenuously denied any connection to the evictions, and says the development was already completed at the time that the footage was shot.
The investigation also revealed that ABP shared a Beijing office with London & Partners, the mayor’s agency for attracting foreign investment, which was a “stakeholder” in the procurement process. London & Partners confirmed it shared offices for a period with ABP but said this was purely for logistical reasons, and it denied having a role in deciding who won the Royal Albert Dock contract. ABP disputed any claims of impropriety, and said it went through a “robust and thorough” tender process.
Separately, the report said, the Chinese-born wife of a junior Home Office minister appeared to have played a role in supporting the bid, while at the same time donating considerable sums to the Conservative party. The programme said Xuelin Bates, a property developer who married the Tory peer Lord (Michael) Bates in 2012, had held talks in 2008 with Xu Weiping, and made at least one trip to China paid for by the Chinese company. She also formed a company called London China ABP, but dissolved it before it was due to file accounts, and has donated more than £206,000 to the Conservatives since 2010. Lady Bates said any donations she made were purely personal and London China ABP had no connection to the Chinese firm, which also denied any knowledge or involvement in her actions.
“The whole thing has been a disaster,” says one nearby cafe owner, who had been looking forward to increased footfall from the new offices. “I don’t see anyone taking on the project for another decade at least.” In the meantime, at least London has the perfect deserted film set for shooting the next zombie office-worker apocalypse.