Poisoned by gasworks and left derelict, the Lower Lea Valley is crying out for regeneration. But before that happens one of the biggest compulsory purchase orders in history has to be given the nod. Mark Leftly reports on how this unprecedented land deal is taking shape

So far, it has cost £400m and, at 312ha, the London 2012 land assembly is one of the biggest compulsory purchase orders over a single area in history.

It is also a CPO fraught with difficulties and involves more than 2000 interested parties. The land grab is, in short, about as complicated an exercise that any development or property director can undertake.

One tough job

The particular development boss in mind is Gareth Blacker, who holds an equivalent role, director of Olympic lands, at the London Development Agency. He is currently awaiting on the decision of trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling on whether to grant the CPO approval. A public inquiry hearing objections to the CPO was held from May until 4 August, and last month was sent to the Government Office for London, after which Darling will decide what to do.

“The block of land is unique, there’s nothing like it in recent times,” acknowledges Blacker. But he still expects Darling to make a quick decision, on the basis that the government already acted decisively when the LDA bought up land to bury 50 unsightly pylons in the Olympic zone last year. Blacker is hoping that the CPO can be confirmed by the end of the year.

As it stands, Blacker has already secured agreements to buy up 93% of the freeholds to the land it requires to build the Games. When secured, this land will be leased to the ODA.

He hopes to secure some more agreements before a CPO is necessary, but is not overly optimistic: “We’ve got 7% to go – we’ll get a little bit more by agreement, we’re pretty close on some. But my feeling not many more by agreement.”

There has been some anger among businesses and residents who feel pushed out. But as the head of property at the ODA, Ralph Luck, puts it: “A lot of the jobs are going to be replaced and relocated elsewhere, but that’s part of what regeneration is about, a process of re-use and change.”

The block of land is unique, there’s nothing like it in recent times

Gareth Blacker, director of Olympic Lands, ODA

However, the level of unrest from local businesses and landowners has fallen. Initially, 400 objections were made to the public inquiry, but there were only 83 representations made in the event itself. Blacker argues that the real figure was only half of that, with 40 representations coming from Clays Lane residents, which will make way for part of the Olympic Village.

At the start of the inquiry, Michael Finlay, the managing director of local contractor PA Finlay, alleged that 3,000 jobs would be lost as a result of the Games – that’s a net figure against those that the Games would create. Such hyperbole seems to have calmed. For a start, the LDA has increased the amount of land it has gathered by 7% since the start of the inquiry, and there was something of a breakthrough when it secured a relocation deal with one of the Games’ biggest critics. Local smoked salmon producer Lance Forman agreed to have his premises moved just 300m away, and did not protest at the inquiry.

Relocation, relocation, relocation

This is the kind of deal that the LDA’s Blacker needs to make ahead of July next year, when all the land will be needed to have been bought, ready for the construction programme.

A CPO does not necessitate the buying party relocating those forced to move. However, it is a move the LDA has decided to make, although it should be remembered that one of its key jobs as

a regional development agency is to promote economic growth. It felt compelled to relocate – or at least compensate – those businesses that have suffered. Together with Solihull-based developer Rosemound it has two major sites in east London’s Beckton and Leyton locations on offer for relocation.

The Beckton site, at 23 acres, is the larger and will provide 470,000ft2 commercial space, with a further 165,000ft2 at Leyton. The sites, currently being remediated, will be ready by March next year, and more than 75% is already under offer.

There is about 60% of the accommodation here that there was in the land assembly area. However, Blacker says that other space is also available on the wider market and there is a total of 1 million ft2 available from the LDA when smaller sites in the Royal Docks, Bromley-By-Bow and Beam Reach in Havering are added in.

A lot of the jobs are going to be relocated, but that’s part of what regeneration is about, a process of re-use and change

Ralph Luck, head of property at ODA

The development sites will obviously not be ready for some time, so some businesses will be given temporary accommodation. It is quite an upheaval, but Blacker’s team is acting quickly. It acquired the two major relocation developments back in 2004 in expectation of a ‘yes’ vote for London from the International Olympic Committee. Blacker says: “'We took the view that we wanted to make sure that businesses weren’t lost to the area.”

Rosemound is the LDA’s joint venture partner in the development of the sites.

Decision time

At that juncture, of course, he would also be hoping for Darling to have taken the decision to throw out the objections and let the CPO go ahead. For the power lines it was easy – there were few objections to a land acquisition that would remove these monstrosities, but this has been a more difficult task.

But then this was always going to be. The LDA was obviously quite prepared for that, again buying up land ahead of the International Olympic Committee decision. If London had lost, this would have still been freed up for regeneration, just at a slower rate.

As it eventually happened, though, Blacker needs to get his hands on the land by next year. Ahead of even the construction work, the LDA needs to remediate what is essentially derelict land poisoned by gas works and dozens of different industrial uses. Without being able to assess the state of all the lands as yet, it is not even certain what this remediation will cost, though £200m is the best guess.

Only at that point will preparation for the Games truly be off and running.