On a balmy Friday in mid-August, down on the Thames by London’s Docklands, it is calm. You can count on one hand the number of barges that pass through Canary Wharf in a day.

The bustling heart of London’s industrial trade and cargo was long ago replaced with luxury riverfront apartments – one penthouse loft conversion at Ballymore’s Goodluck Hope boasts “unparalleled views” according to property listing websites, with a £1.85m price tag.

But after decades of fierce battle with housebuilders, ports and local authorities are closer than ever to unlocking the Thames for logistics once more, replacing road traffic with sustainable tidal transport and bringing new uses onto the waterfront.

In August, the UK’s largest port businesses Forth Ports Group and DP World announced a joint freeport bid for the Port of Tilbury and London Gateway. This partnership aims to create a centre for imports in a free-trade zone, with the ability to expand and develop land around the Thames Estuary.

“The big prize is to see a market developed for light-freight and last-mile logistics,” says Robin Mortimer, chief executive of the Port of London Authority. The public trust controls the 95-mile length of the Thames and is working in partnership with the two port owners. “The model is to see deep sea ships coming into the port, unloading and then getting light freight onto the river and into the wharfs in London.”

Mortimer says this has been sped up by the relocation of Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfield markets to Barking, which has provided a new anchor tenant.  The PLA is also swooping on old wharfs to bring them back into action.

It doesn’t mean the end of beds by the Thames, but as the river reawakens it is becoming a catalyst for mixed-use developments, combining beds, sheds and also boats.

Housebuilder wars

Royal Wharf, Wood Wharf, Ailsa Wharf, Morden Wharf, Limmo Wharf, Baltimore Wharf – the list goes on, and they are all resi schemes. The UK’s most prominent developers, such as Galliard, Berkeley, Canary Wharf Group, U+I, Clarion, Telford and Grainger, have flocked to industrial land around the Thames. These are providing thousands of homes, and show no sign of stopping.

“You have, let’s face it, lots of fantastically beautiful apartments in old warehouses in Wapping and the Isle of Dogs,” says Mortimer. “But the downside of that was that it kind of turned its back on the river and it was a missed opportunity, in terms of having a more vibrant use of the river frontage for residential and other uses.”

The PLA, the Mayor of London and the communities secretary have agreed 50 safeguarded wharfs, specifying that waterborne freight must be incorporated into new developments. “Having had a massive period of development of non-river use, there was a late realisation that if that continued you’d effectively have a non-economic river, a sterile river that couldn’t be used,” says Mortimer.

The conflict with residential landowners has intensified after the Greater London Authority strengthened the protections around Strategic Industrial Land sites in 2017, which has locked away more land in the Docklands for logistics.

The saga of Peruvian Wharf is just one example. Last year the PLA reopened the wharf frontage after a 17-year legal battle. The 19-acre site had been intended for residential, but the SIL policy ultimately saw it carved up, with the PLA taking 3.7 acres on the waterfront through a compulsory purchase order, L&Q taking a chunk for housing and Gazeley (now GLP) acquiring the bulk of the site for the UK’s first three-storey warehouse. This will transform it into an inner-city distribution hub, called G-Park London Docklands.

Separately the PLA has secured building materials company Brett Group as its main tenant, which will use the waterfront site as a terminal to transport its goods on the river.

New bedfellows

In another industry first, developer Regal London is combining flats, industrial and an active wharf in a single scheme at the 3.5-acre Orchard Wharf on the East India Docks Basin.

The protected wharf neighbours Ballymore’s 804-home Goodluck Hope, and sits on the eastern edge of the East India Docks Basin on the Leamouth Peninsula. It has been vacant for 30 years, despite attempts at both resi and aggregate industrial development. Regal London has spent the last three years working up plans for a hybrid scheme of 826 flats, atop a 83,260 sq ft box for waterborne freight. (See news story: Regal London plans £800m beds and sheds at Orchard Wharf)

“The big question has always been about protecting the capacity of the wharf,” says Regal London’s planning director Steve Harrington. “To enable the residential element you have to demonstrate that you are maximising and future-proofing the ability of the site to use the river.”

While the other active wharfs focus on transporting aggregate construction materials and waste – heavy industrial uses – Orchard Wharf, like G-Park, has honed in on higher-value, last mile logistics.

The site will offer occupiers a gateway to Canary Wharf, on the border of the 5,000-home Thameside West, City Island and thousands of homes in the Docklands.

In exchange for this, the commercial income provides an additional funding stream, alongside institutional investment in build-to-rent, to bring forward a viable development and pay for the private market homes that will later be sold. It’s logical, but far from straightforward.

“This is hugely challenging, structurally,” says Harrington. “We’ve managed to do it in a way that the resi stands alone. While it is two uses in one building, it has been designed in a way that they don’t impact on one another.”

Five resi blocks with isolated cores will sit above the industrial box, with a central raised podium across 1.2 acres providing a residents’ garden and viewing platform. The developer has devised three options to connect the 15m high box to the river. It plans to install a containerised loading bay, with a crane to carry freight from barges into the warehouse (pictured), but is also considering options for a pontoon or jetty.

“This isn’t the template for all of those wharfs, but there are a few exceptions to the rule,” says Harrington. “We are talking about bringing products to the site and taking them off the road network. There is huge potential for that new trade route on the river.”

Economies of scale

Tapping into the true potential of the Thames means creating a wider network, but Savills logistics director Dominic Whitfield says this is restricted by limited land.

“Freeing up capacity on the roads is a brilliant idea. We do a lot of work for one of the freight operators and they would love to do more, not just waste and building materials,” he says. But with the major wharfs already converted to resi, there is a limited number of large sites suitable for on-boarding or even smaller off-boarding points.

“For logistics to be efficient you need a decent-sized yard,” says Whitfield. “It’s all about economies of scale, keeping the pound in the punters pocket, rather than on logistics,” he adds. A large warehouse over 100,000 sq ft needs a four-acre site, whereas most of the remaining safeguarded wharfs are around one acre.

If a handful of those larger wharfs are utilised, Whitfield says a hub-and-spoke distribution model could work. A case in point is DHL, which began trialling delivery barges on the Thames last year. But intervention is needed to create a bigger movement. “It would take the government to really make it happen, some proper infrastructure and strategic thinking,” says Whitfield.

Momentum is picking up on this front. Thames Estuary Growth Board launched a plan this summer to increase the freight on the river by 25% over five years. Additionally, the PLA has set a goal to move more than 4m tonnes between wharfs every year, to take 400,000 lorries off the road.

As the Thames Tideway Tunnel – London’s 25km “super sewer” project – comes to an end, many smaller wharfs dedicated to transport building materials are expected to come to market. The PLA is awaiting secretary of state sign-off on a revised list of safeguarded wharfs, which would group sites to create larger industrial pockets.

Next to Peruvian Wharf, the PLA’s latest purchase, Royal Primrose Wharf, will become a protected site. At the same time it will release two other smaller sites, Sunshine and Manhattan, providing almost five acres for housing.

“Rather than it being a hodgepodge of industrial and non-industrial, we consolidated the industrial uses in one area and then released the other area for housing,” says Mortimer. He emphasises that he is not anti-housing – after all, there is still a huge demand for homes, and such neighbourhoods add value to previously closed-off areas. But in a new era of development, he hopes the river can be more than just a nice view.

“In the 1980s the development of the Docklands was all about what happened on the land,” says Mortimer. “In the 21st century, when we think about good places to live and connecting with the environment, we need the next round of development to be more integrated.”