Dare to dream, minister

The scale of the work to be done before the Olympics is huge. But if Tessa Jowell put the area’s waterways at the heart of the plans, it could transform the face of East London

Published in the Evening Standard, 6 October 2005

Tessa Jowell ought to get on a plane. Or a boat. And she should do it soon.

It?s not that the Culture Secretary needs to get out of town. Rather she needs to get a new look at the city which she ? perhaps more than any other cabinet minister ? will shape over the next seven years. As the Olympics secretary, her decisions will affect the way London looks not just in 2012 but for decades afterwards.

Hence the plane ride, ideally coming into City Airport. What she would see from the air is something that?s all too easy to miss from the ground. She would see that East London, and especially the zone set aside for the Olympic Games, is covered by patch after patch of water.

It?s not just the Thames, but the wide lakes that are the Royal Docks. Then, the River Lea and a long, winding ribbon of canals and reservoirs, snaking its way from Greenwich in the south to rural Hertfordshire in the north ? including a stretch which girdles the very chunk of Stratford which will house the Olympics.

Which is why she should next get on a boat. That?s what I did a few days ago, guided by a group of dreamers, local leaders and property developers who have come together to form the Water City Partnership. They have a plan to clean up this forgotten network of waterways, to link them to each other and the neighbourhoods they pass through until they have made East London nothing less than a ?water city.? Areas whose names have for more than a century been bywords for decay and deprivation ? Mile End, Poplar, Bow ? could instead become associated with waterside cafes, cycle-paths and afternoon boat-trips: a British Amsterdam.

That sounds fanciful, if not deluded, until you get on the water. You can do it by hopping on a barge just around the corner from Bromley-by-Bow tube station. And within minutes you are on a quiet, picturesque stretch of canal. Trees hang low on both sides; a heron perches watchfully. There are bull-rushes and natural bamboo.

What renders the whole scene bizarre is that you are still walking distance from the noise and grime of one of London?s ugliest areas. The Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road is thundering away and yet here, just by it, is a waterway that could be in the heart of the English countryside.

?There?s a Venice here and no-one sees it,? says Andrew Mawson, the Christian minister and ?social entrepreneur? who has dedicated 20 years to the regeneration of East London.

Except this is not a treasure which lies complete, waiting only to be discovered. There is work to do. As the canal passes by Pudding Mill Lane and heads towards Stratford ? on the loop around the future Olympic site ? the happy delusion that you could be in sleepy Devon or bucolic Somerset is soon shattered. Here the banks of the canal are marked by scrap metal yards and old, belching factories. There?s a pile of car doors; a rusting cement mixer. Wild Alsatian dogs clamber over the dumps, scavenging for food. You pass bricked-up warehouses and rundown council housing, their backs to the water.

The task, then, is crystal clear. First, the area needs to be tidied up. Next, the latticework of water needs to be exposed, so that the people of East London can actually see ? and get close to ? the water that runs right through their communities but which remains invisible and inaccessible. That may take big work ? like digging out a new canal from Canning Town to West Ham ? but also small steps, like constructing a few yards of towpath or lighting a jetty here and there, to turn what are now no-go areas into thoroughfares.

But there also needs to be first-class building work all along the waterfront, replacing the old unloved boxes with blocks of flats or streets of houses that would face the water and open onto it ? whether through balconies or even boardwalks and promenades. The trick is to do as Amsterdam has done ? and make the water part of the city.

And lest you think that?s impossible, you end your barge trip in the Limehouse Basin ? an area once so written off, the authorities wanted to drain the water and concrete it over. Now it is stunning, with a marina, waterside cafes and top-end housing. Some day, say the Water City faithful, all of Leaside could be like this.

It?s a problem typical of London. Other cities with water, whether Paris or Chicago, organise themselves around it. They want to look at it all the time, placing the best buildings by it; people want to eat, drink, stroll or cycle alongside it. Yet when it comes to the Thames, let alone the Lea, we almost always turn our back on it. (The South Bank is an honourable exception.) By St Pauls, the best views of the river belong to two car parks and a refuse centre. We build our roadside barriers in such a way that we cannot see the river when driving; whole stretches of it remain unseen and out of bounds.

But the solution could be just as typically London. The men who built this city ? whether it was Joseph Bazalgette and his sewers or Charles Yerkes and the Tube ? were dreamers who dared to think big. Their schemes probably sounded as unrealistic in their day as a Venice of the East End sounds now.

So what does Tessa Jowell have to do? Remarkably little. She needs to lobby for