On my way to interview Excel CEO Jeremy Rees, I caught the DLR to Custom House. Despite it being mid-morning, it was packed.
Not quite rush hour, but filled with smartly dressed people, lanyards and passes hung round their necks.
The Royal Docks’ vast events venue had 11 shows on last week and the infrastructure was showing signs of strain.
With the arrival of Crossrail, that may have been the last time I use the DLR to make that trip.
The Elizabeth Line’s slick new service offers alternatives that make some routes on public transport completely redundant.
No longer will those in Canary Wharf trundle on little red robot trains through Blackwall, East India, Canning Town and Royal Victoria to get to Excel.
Something lost, but so much gained. Crossrail will have an enormous impact on London as a whole, but its launch – even in its current, limited form where it operates as three distinct railways – will especially be felt in east and south-east London.
Here prosperity has followed connection – the Jubilee line extension delivered the fillip necessary for Canary Wharf to flourish and Stratford to take off after the 2012 Olympics.
Now the purple thread of rapid rail will pull Abbey Wood, Thamesmead, Woolwich and the northern strip of the Royal Docks right into central London.
All will be connected to the Wharf as never before, knitting these areas together to bring change and opportunity, as space is distorted and journey times to west central London are cut dramatically.
This is the dawn of a new chapter and, perhaps, few are as well placed to ask what might be written in it as Jeremy Rees, given its myriad benefits to Excel’s operation.
“Crossrail answers one of the very large questions in the capital, which is: ‘How do you get from west London to east London with as little friction as possible in a comfortable environment, at a sensible price?” he said.
“From our customers’ perspective, they’re really excited about it, because while they’ve run successful events, exhibitions, conferences and corporate events, there was that element of friction.
“Much of our audience is international, largely flying in through Heathrow and the Elizabeth Line very dramatically reduces the time it takes to get to Excel.
“In the past, delegates will have paid for taxis that might have taken anything from two to three hours to get to the venue. When direct services begin, that will be cut to a little over 40 minutes.
“So, theoretically, that means people can spend that time trading, engaging and talking with their prospective customers at the venue.
“That’s quite an interesting prospect – if you extrapolate the figures based on the million visitors who came to Excel in 2019, with 90% coming through Heathrow, that’s 900,000 people spending an extra two hours here, which is 1.8million meeting hours.
“That’s an awful lot of engagement with committed people who have come from abroad to attend an event.”
It’s tempting, when writing about Crossrail, to simply descend into stats. The line brings 68% more people within 45 minutes of Excel and a massive 9.2million to within two hours of the venue, for example.
Similar stories about other organisations will be written across London, of course. But equally important will be the psychological impact.
“A very large amount of decision making in the industry is based on an emotional response,” said Jeremy. “Where there was travel friction that people may have worried about, that has been eliminated.
“This is why Crossrail is a truly exciting, amazing project. London was already an incredibly strong proposition relative to other top tier cities around the world and this opening really gives us an opportunity to shine a light on what we have to offer.
“People will be able to move very quickly and easily – suddenly Excel is Canary Wharf’s exhibition and convention centre – it’s a few minutes away, less than the time it takes to walk the length of the venue.
“If you think what that means, are we also now able to fulfil that role for Whitechapel, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street and Paddington?
“I think it will drive a different type of audience for us too – people who are time-poor for whom popping across London used to be too much, but who can now make a one-hour trip to deliver a keynote presentation because it’s only 10 or 15 minutes on the Elizabeth Line.
“We’re expecting a boost in the seniority of visitors, and for people to stay at events longer.
“All of this adds yet another layer of value, demonstrably proving internationally that London is a great proposition, and that investment in infrastructure is really important.
“It’s something the Mayor Of London has advocated for and pushed, and it’s a huge credit to TfL for pushing this forward, as well as the Government for being supportive.
“The great challenge that London has is that it’s in a very competitive marketplace internationally, and, in order to continue to thrive and not just survive, we need to continue to invest in our infrastructure, to enhance our product, to underline why we’re a great place to live, engage, work, invest and base your business.
“It’s a great place for events because we’re surrounded by leading businesses in IT, insurance, finance, pharma and life sciences.
“Making Excel really easy to get to for these people means the shows we host will be even more successful, creating a virtuous circle as greater numbers of people will want to come to London. Crossrail is a big shot in the arm for business – we expect our audiences to increase between 10%- 20%.”
Locally, it’s relatively simple to join the dots. The Elizabeth Line will have the obvious impact of improving connectivity for those living in Royal Docks and along the rest of the line.
But the expected transformational benefit on businesses based close to Custom House should also deliver jobs, activity and focus.
Those extra visitors will need services – firms that depend on footfall can expect a significant boost and that means jobs, fresh openings and development.
Excel itself is embarking on a huge expansion to its east to provide an extra 25,000sq m of event space, increasing the venue’s overall floorspace by 25%.
“To the question: ‘Is London, the Government and business investing in transportation infrastructure?’, the answer is a resounding: ‘Yes’.
“So we’re playing our part by investing and enhancing our facilities to make us more attractive as a cultural asset and maximise everyone’s experience when they come to visit our capital. It really adds to what is already a compelling proposition and it’s going to be great for the Royal Docks.
“The Elizabeth Line will help create social mobility and opportunity as businesses here open, grow and expand. It also transforms where people can live in terms of their commute to places like Excel, Canary Wharf and Paddington.
“It’s also going to create competitiveness around the hotel proposition here, given the easy access to other parts of London.”
There’s also a story to be told about sustainability. Jeremy said Crossrail’s ability to join up areas of London could mean those travelling internationally for business would be more likely to spend longer in the capital rather than taking trips to multiple destinations.
“Aside from the boost to public sector travel, which is great for the environment, for international delegates, the reduction in travel friction the Elizabeth Line brings means you can connect to the wider ecosystem more easily,” he said.
“You can be at an amazing seminar at Excel and a couple of workshops in the morning, then whizz to Tottenham Court Road for a spectacular lunch and be back in an hour and 10 minutes for your afternoon.
“That’s got to be more compelling than being in one place at one time. London is getting to grips with the question of how you square off trying to drive a large amount of international business and tourism with the carbon impact that has.
“One of the solutions to that will be creating carbon avoidance, which means doing a lot on a single trip to London and then leaving.
“That’s interesting for the capital because, if you’re travelling to second, third or fourth tier cities, you’re likely to only be able to do one thing before you have to fly somewhere else.
“In London, you can easily combine meetings with cultural experiences, perhaps with the whole family but only travelling once, probably saving six or seven trips elsewhere and so creating a carbon deficit.”
A t present, the journey from Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood takes a little over 40 minutes.
The various Frankenstein options available involve much chopping and changing – the Jubilee line, the DLR, the 486 bus and Thameslink can all come into the equation. It’s anything but direct.
But, if the seers are to be believed, all that’s about to change. When Elizabeth line services start running (perhaps as early as March, if the optimists have it right), Abbey Wood is set to be the end of the line for Crossrail’s central and eastern section.
That will put it squarely in touch with a whole swathe of central London, which is currently much trickier to travel to. The Wharf itself is expected to be around 11 minutes’ ride on a single train.
Why does this matter? Effective transportation is the lifeblood of regeneration. In east London, this is best demonstrated by Canary Wharf itself, which struggled as a project until the Jubilee line extension arrived.
What such connections mean for residential areas is possibility – the ability to rapidly access different parts of the city and the things they offer makes living in an area a richer experience.
It’s also a two-way street. Visitors come back the other way, further enlivening a place and befitting its residents.
But as project director, Matt’s enthusiasm isn’t drawn solely from the opportunities Crossrail will bring.
It’s because he already knows what the area has to offer and can see how it will continue to develop over the course of the next three decades.
“We are under way on a the delivery of around 20,000 homes at Thamesmead,” he said.
“We completed our first development – The Reach – a couple of years ago, we’ve just started on a site at Plumstead in partnership with Berkeley and we are currently delivering what we’re calling Southmere Village – phase one of our regeneration of south Thamesmead near Abbey Wood station.”
When completed, Southmere will see 1,600 homes built across four sites close to Crossrail, new public space in the form of Cygnet Square and The Nest – a library and community centre – as well as commercial space for shops, restaurants and bars.
The scheme offers a mixture of properties available for social rent or to buy either on a shared ownership basis or via private sale. Residential blocks Starling Court and Kestrel Court are due to complete in the coming months, with strong sales reported.
A collection of one, two and three-bedroom shared ownership properties is set to launch at Crane Court on February 12.
Matt said: “Our properties have sold really well – I think people are really buying into the wider vision for Thamesmead.
“Over the last two years in particular, everybody has woken up to the importance of green space and proximity to water and the impact they can have on your life, your health and your wellbeing.
“That’s what we have here – Thamesmead has five artificial lakes with Southmere the biggest and they’re connected by a network of canals.
“They were designed as a surface drainage system but it means we have these fantastic assets that people can enjoy, surrounded by really impressive green spaces.
“Peabody owns, operates and manages all of these areas so we’ve got overall control of everything that’s going on in the area and that has a real impact for not only the people we’re trying to bring to the area, but also existing residents.”
Beyond the infrastructure, Peabody is also working to boost the cultural capital of Thamesmead, perhaps best known for its Brutalist architecture.
This served as a backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian cinematic nightmare A Clockwork Orange and, more recently, in the music video for The Libertines’ What Became Of The Likely Lads.
Matt said: “We’ve got a huge programme that we’ve been operating for the last four or five years.
“That includes things like a regular one-day festival curated by local residents in Southmere Park, which attracted 6,500 visitors last year.
“People who may never have heard about the area or visited it are starting to hear about it and it’s starting to draw people in, which has been fantastic.
“We’ve also set up a culture forum so people living here can help shape what goes on locally.
“That’s grown and grown – we’ve supported theatre productions and a live performance of the film Beautiful Thing, which was made in Thamesmead a few years back.
“It’s these sort of things we want to do – grass-roots, community-led projects that are really accessible.
“We’ve had dance troupes, drummers and gymnasts perform in housing estates – things that are visual and tangible that people from all backgrounds, young and old, can really enjoy.
“This year we have a project called Fields Of Everywhen, which will see two artists inflate and fly an enormous hot air balloon made from tapestries that capture the personal stories of local residents.
“They spent two years working on it and finding out what makes Thamesmead tick. These activities are being driven by Peabody and we’re here for the long term.
“We expect there to be around £10billion of investment in Thamesmead over the course of the 30-year plan.
“For example, with funding from the Greater London Authority, we’ve refurbished a building called the Lakeside Centre on Southemere Lake to provide artists’ studios, a cafe, a training kitchen and a nursery – that’s being operated by Bow Arts.
“Next to that we’ll shortly be letting a contract to build a boating and sailing centre to be run by the YMCA, which has operated on the lake for 30 years.
“It’s about making sure we’re providing amenities for everybody to enjoy with activities like kayaking, sailing and paddleboarding.
“Eventually we’d really like to open up the canal systems so people can use them to move around Thamesmead in addition to the cycle routes and pavements.”
The shared ownership properties set to be released at Crane Court offer prospective buyers open-plan living areas, balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows in distinctive brick-clad blocks within easy walking distance of Abbey Wood station.
“They will be fantastic places to live,” said Matt. “We’ve tried to maximise views over the lake and newly built Cygnet Square where people will have all the amenities they need on hand.
“There’s car parking in secure courtyards under the blocks with podium gardens that are communal but for residents only.
“There will also be an on-site concierge service with a residents’ lounge that people can use to work from if they choose.
“Combine that with the restaurants and cafes, which will be opening around the square later this year, and that will give people a lot of flexibility if they’re not going into the office.
“I’ve already seen people logging into the Wi-fi on seats around the lake with their coffee and doing the first two hours while sitting by the water.”
When investing in property, there’s also the future to think of and Peabody has big plans for the wider area including an extensive development to the north west of Southmere along the banks of the Thames.
There it hopes to attract an extension to the DLR across the river from Gallions Reach, further boosting local connectivity – not a bad time to get in on the ground.
Prices for shared ownership properties at Crane Court start at £91,500 for 30% of a one-bed, based on a full market value of £305,000.
Two and three-beds start at £118,500 and £153,000 respectively for the same proportion, based on full market values of £395,000 and £510,000.