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What Do You Get if You Cross China or Thames Water?

Posted: 26/01/2012 14:51

A short sequence of my feature documentary The Rime of the Modern Mariner rests on a tiny park in East London from where the British Empire and the world - via the high seas - discovered one another and an early incarnation of globalisation was born and berthed. You can view a clip here:

Now home to a spectrum of zealous joggers, picnicking families, reflective pensioners and cricketing school kids, King Edward Memorial Park - then Ratcliffe Cross - sat in mooring silence as Captain Cook charted courses and even discovered the astral passage of Venus from his room next to the pea-souped dock. Cargoes of the most exotic forms landed here in colossal quantities; opium from China being a notable unfurling into the cultural weather, as vividly depicted by Dickens, Conan-Doyle, Wilde and other literary magicians.

How will history view the latest engagement with China the East End has (once again) had imposed upon it? It was announced last week that China's sovereign investment fund has bought a significant stake in Kemble Water, the parent company of Thames Water. Probably unknown to the former, the latter is locked in an intractable war with residents of East London, over its plan to build a "super-sewer" on the only green public space in East London from where the Thames is still visible.

The 80s redevelopment of the London Docklands meant that land values sky-rocketed and thus the only residents able to enjoy the view after centuries of vibrant river life and cast-iron community were multi-millionaire new-comers.

As city parks go, this one is unique. In the most densely populated borough in Europe, Tower Hamlets; the child poverty capital of the UK, it is by day a genuinely harmonious mix of those affluent residents and a bigger, steady stream of poorer East Enders of many ethnic backgrounds enjoying a very rare green space and even rarer view of the water and its wildlife.

And so a furious but coherent public campaign to urge Thames Water (and its new Chinese shareholders) to build on brownfield and not green-field land has commenced. Over 10,000 residents have signed a petition in opposition, many marched to City Hall to receive the support of Mayor Boris Johnson (and opponent Ken Livingstone); elected MP's, councillors, London Assembly members and MEP's or every political colour have responded to incredible pressure from those who gave them office and joined the battle.

Converted wharf-house luvvies such as Dame Helen Mirren stand shoulder to shoulder with Bengali mothers from adjacent tower blocks in fierce defence of the green space. But not only are Thames Water not listening, allegations have emerged which if true, would move the corporation closer to Chinese security services when dealing with public dissent than any high-finance investment deal.

At a consultation meeting late last year, members of the campaign group to save the park circulated their petition; one even offered it to a covert security officer Thames Water have been recognised to use at these events.

In a sinister development that has prompted the local council to take action and the MP to table parliamentary questions, it is alleged the corporation's plain clothes security official then accosted the female leader of the campaign and listed private details of her background and identity, much of which could not have been known without professional profiling - a not unheard of corporate tactic to cause intimidation. The event was witnessed by others, and had its desired effect.

At a more recent public meeting, Thames Water officials were questioned on the "profiling" issue and offered rather vague denials, mostly in the form of slowly shaken heads from the top table.

I personally asked a rather truculent Richard Aylard - Director and "special adviser" to the Thames Water CEO - who specifically would stand to carve most profit from the inevitable savings "nearer the 10 than one hundred million mark" of building on the park as opposed to an identified, viable local brownfield site: Thames Water? Its parent Macquarie group? Now, I suppose, the Chinese government? As a former Private Secretary and now equerry to Prince Charles, Mr Aylard has become highly proficient in dodging difficult questions, as he demonstrated by twice ducking mine.

But these questions, particularly in light of the Chinese acquisition, will not go away. In 2009, historian and now Labour MP Tristram Hunt wrote movingly about the working mirror to the globe this area has always represented, and specifically about the same Chinese sovereign investment fund buying £880 million in shares of the Canary Wharf Group, the thicket of glass towers that overlook the park.

Regardless of its tactics or intransigence in the face of almost unanimous public anger, the home-grown corporation and the eastern super-power should know that this acquisition will not be as easy a takeover, because the consequences - whilst apparently insignificant to them - are heartfelt to the people who live here; an ingredient globalisation and its trans-national overlords often under-quantify.

 

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