Floating an idea: The £1 billion China trade project in London's Docklands

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When Australian property developer Geoff Baker’s great-great-great-grandfather was a convict in a prison hulk on the Thames, waiting to be deported to Sydney for stealing a book, little did he know that 228 years later one of his descendants would return to England, armed with an ambitious £1 billion “China on Thames” property plan.

Baker is talking about his ancestry as he looks at the winding river from the bar of the Shangri-La Hotel on the 35th floor of the Shard. The burly 60-year-old lawyer is in town to reveal that he is spearheading Sydney-based investment firm ASF’s first UK venture, likely to be on a controversial site in London’s Docklands. 

The move could mark a significant fillip for Theresa May as she hunts for trade deals in Asia for post-Brexit Britain.

The company, which is listed in Australia, concentrates on property development and is backed by a string of Chinese investors. It wants to create an exhibition centre of more than two million square feet in the capital. About 300 companies, mainly from China, would be able to lease space for offices and showcasing products. It could also feature the first working boatyard to be built in London in generations. 

The venture would create somewhere that “Chinese companies from the manufacturing, tech and fashion industries can showcase their samples and goods to UK and European potential buyers,” explains Baker, who splits his time between Australia, China and Cambridge, where his wife has just completed a PhD. 

“UK innovators and developers may also want to set up a presence in this trade hub to work co-operatively with Far East manufacturers rather than travel there and be overwhelmed by seeking help and partners in that region,” Baker adds.

He refuses to discuss precisely where ASF wants to build, confirming only that it is looking at the Docklands area. 

However, it has emerged that the firm is one of three shortlisted to become the Mayor of London’s development partner for the 24.7-acre Albert Island site in east London’s Royal Docks. London & Regional Properties is reportedly also a bidder. 

The area in Beckton, overlooking London City Airport, currently comprises a marina, the campus for the University of East London and large areas of scrubland. The land, earmarked for development by former London Mayor Boris Johnson in May last year, is the last remaining part of the jigsaw of regeneration in the Royal Docks. The area was described by City Hall at the time as being “within an arc of opportunity running from Stratford down the River Lea to the Thames that has £22 billion of development potential”. 

Baker still refuses to confirm his master plan is for Albert Island but says he is convinced the planned hub would work well by the Thames, and businesses would flock there. “Water is cherished by the Chinese, and the Docklands area is where trade with the East originated, and for centuries it was a critical staging point in the UK for trade with China.”

He adds that  it would appeal to manufacturers and retailers in Britain and Europe “because the hub would be easily accessible by flying into an airport, or getting the Eurostar into London. An extra runway at Heathrow would be an added bonus”.

A similar concept to ASF’s proposal is coming to Manchester. Hong Kong property firm G-Suite Holdings last year secured planning permission to convert a 200,000 square-foot Grade II listed mill into a hub in which companies from China and other emerging Asian markets can exhibit and sell their goods. The development, to be known as Red Warwick, will also be open to the public. 

Baker’s move is a shot in the arm for London amid property jitters after the EU vote. “Brexit or no Brexit, our investors are convinced our plan is completely suited for London,” he says. 

Richard Zhang, head of property agent CBRE’s China Desk in London, is also bullish. “This is a continued sign of Chinese investor confidence and their appetite for opportunities in the capital and UK post-referendum,” he says.

“We expect inward investment into London property to remain strong over the next few years. As London grows eastwards, locations such as the Royal Docks will become increasingly important in meeting the rising demand for commercial and residential space.” 

Not everyone is happy about more Docklands construction. Progress on the redevelopment of Albert Island is dependent on City Hall resolving a dispute with an existing tenant — the Miller family, which own Gallions Point Marina.

Leigh-Jayne Miller, who has run the marina with her father for a quarter of a century, is fighting eviction. “It all boils down to money and property developers again — now there’s a surprise,” she says wearily.

But with so many property developers desperate to get their hands on such a rare development opportunity in London, it is unlikely the land will remain a blank canvas for long, and it is expected a winning bidder will be selected by the end of the year.

Baker is hoping his vision from the East for east London will get the nod to drop anchor.

Source Article from http://www.standard.co.uk/business/floating-an-idea-the-1-billion-china-trade-project-in-londons-docklands-a3391386.html

November 10, 2016 |
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