Saturday, August 27, 2011

Who owns Convoys Wharf?

As reported at Brockley Central, Crosswhatfields and elsewhere, a revised planning application has been submitted for the future of the Convoys Wharf site on the riverfront at Deptford (documents here). I hope to look at this in more detail, but for now just want to look at the question of who owns the site.

The application has been jointly submitted by News International (yes them) and Convoys Investment S.A.R.L. News International need no introduction as the former owners of the site. At one time they used it to import newsprint, and indeed Convoys was the focus of pickets in 1986 in the dispute that erupted as Rupert Murdoch pushed through plans to relocate the printing of The Times and The Sun to Wapping and break the power of the Fleet Street printworkers. In June 1986 there was a major fire at Convoys Wharf, with arson related to the dispute widely suspected at the time.

In 2005 NI's property wing, News Property One Ltd, entered into an agreement to sell Convoys Wharf to a new company, Convoys Investment S.A.R.L. (S.A.R.L. stands for Société à responsabilité limitée - French for a limited company - for some reason Convoys Investment seems to have been registered in Luxembourg!) This company is jointly controlled (50:50) by two companies, Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. The latter started out as the company running the docks in Hong Kong, and now owns and/or manages waterside sites across the world, in addition to '3G' mobile phones and Superdrug among many other things (see its structure chart). Just under 50% of the company is in turn owned by Cheung Kong, , its partner in Convoys Investment!

It's confusing, but as they say on The Wire, follow the money. Ultimately the real power is is Li Ka-Shing, chairman of both Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. He is one of the richest men in the world, having made his fortune through Hong Kong property development and then expanding to mainland China and elsewhere. And just like at News International, the Chairman had his son installed as a major figure in his company - Victor Li is Vice-Chair of Cheung Kong.

Although they have sold the site, News International still have a financial interest in the development of Convoys, as part of the sale involved entering 'into a profit participation agreement with News Property which provides, among other things, for Convoys to pay News Property for any additional area "over which planning permission comprising private residential housing is obtained...."' (Forbes, 18 May 2005).

News International and Cheung Kong go back a long way. As the Independent reported in 1993, the latter sold their Hong Kong satellite TV station, Star TV, to Murdoch in a deal brokered on his yacht. As part of this deal, Li Ka-Shing secured a 2.7 per cent stake in News Corp, making him at the time the third largest shareholder after the Murdoch family and Citicorp, the US bank.

Whatever people think of the details of the proposed scheme, it is clear that the driving force behind the proposals is the interests of two of the most powerful companies in the world. They no more care for the interests of people in Deptford than they do for those labouring under the military dictatorship in Burma (where Hutchison Whampoa run the main ports) or for the families of Millie Dowler and Daniel Morgan (both families affected in different ways by the dubious actions of News International operatives).

What is happening at Convoys Wharf is a travesty of the word 'planning'. Instead of any real consideration of local needs or meaningful involvement of local people, there has been some cursory consultation on a scheme developed by architects with a brief set by the minions of Murdoch and Li-Ka Shing. The least we should be expecting is that the social gains of any new development should be maximised in terms of social housing and genuine community facilities. But we should also be considering whether there are other options entirely for this major site. Whether Lewisham Council will be willing or able to challenge the plans remains to be seen. The planning powers of local authorities to stand up to developers have been progressively eroded, and in any event cash-starved councils are likely to say yes to any scheme that offers them increased revenue in the short term whatever the long term loss of alternative opportunities.


Andy said...

Informative read! We are just cogs who turn their big wheel

simply radical said...

Fascinating - thanks for unravelling it for us. You might be interested in my latest blog post on the Heygate Estate profiteering project in Elephant and Castle (which contains an urban woodland):

and also the planned 'Sporting Village' on Surrey Canal Road which will destroy 300 small independent businesses, including the studio of a renowned sculptor and also the home and studio of an artist who lives on site!

Deptford Pudding said...

We all need to write to the planning dept and object to these proposals.
But we need to object on planning grounds only and I don't feel competent to be so precise. Does anyone have any ideas? Any planning experts out there?

The Grim Reaper said...

Convoys Investment S.A.R.L. purchased the site from News International in 2008 for £50million (half the amount set out in the 2005 sales agreement). There is still an overage clause by which News International get an extra payment (presumably if planning permission is granted for more than x residential units).

Back in 2005 LB Lewisham resolved to approve News International's planning application, but the matter was not formally referred to the Mayor of London or the Secretary of State (a requirement due to approximately half the site being a safeguarded wharf)and no planning permission was ever granted.

In early 2007 then Secretary Of State Ruth Kelly upheld a planning inspector's recommendation after a lengthy public inquiry that Peruvian Wharf in Newham should remain a safeguarded wharf and refusing planning permission for residential development. This was the first serious test of the safeguarded wharf policy and greatly strengthens the force of the designation regarding Convoys.

The Lewisham policies pursuant to which the planning committee resolved to grant permission are long gone, the Department of Communities and Local Government refusing to allow Lewisham to'save' them.

All in all Lewisham should refuse the application.

Having said that, there is now an acute shortage of employment land in and around Deptford and it is important to refer to that in objections.