top of page

'Knowledge Cities 2023' report part one - at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, Whitechapel

Above: Future Cities Forum's 'Knowledge Cities' event in the Council Chamber at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, Whitechapel - with contributions from among others Barts Life Sciences, MedCity and NHS Property Services

Future Cities Forum's 'Knowledge Cities' took place at the former 18th century Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, now sensitively converted to Tower Hamlets Town Hall.

The first part of the discussion asked questions on how the design of the new life sciences district in Whitechapel will ensure quality of place and opportunities for STEM education for young people. Barts Life Sciences has a vision - based on the adjacent location of the Royal London Hospital and the Queen Mary Biosciences Innovation Centre - to transform the future of healthcare, not only for the people of London and the UK, but globally.

Its ultimate ambition is to build a new life sciences campus that will provide a space for researchers, scientists, and clinicians to work directly alongside businesses and entrepreneurs, creating the healthcare solutions of tomorrow. This will allow Barts Life Sciences to share ground-breaking ideas, develop new ways of working, improve health outcomes, and reduce the costs faced by health systems.

Grant Bourhill, Managing Director of Barts Life Sciences, explained the vision:

'Our aim is to develop one of the largest life science clusters in the UK and we want to drive health outcomes, economic prosperity and turbo charge educational aspiration and performance. This is an area of economic disparity and poverty with children born underweight but within their childhood experiencing obesity. If we can create more jobs across healthcare here we can help the community. Each of the proposed five clusters will help different areas of the community and this is a place where people have five times the rates of diabetes than elsewhere and it follows then that we are also looking at the problems of heart disease.'

Grant was asked what the unique selling point for the life science district considering it will be competing against other hubs in the UK and around the world:

'I tend to answer that by looking at what is really unique here. We are the second largest health trust in the UK, Barts runs the largest number of commercial clinical trials anywhere in the NHS and we have the connection with QMUL with 30,000 students and specialisms in data science. We are based in the middle of a very diverse community, probably the most ethnically diverse in London. We have a partnership with the private sector which will provide some compelling infrastructure. The opportunity lies in the collaboration of these adjacent organisations, adding an industrial base and it is the density here that makes the place special.'

Above: view from the rear of the Town Hall towards the new Royal London Hospital and development sites for the Whitechapel Life Sciences district

Life Sciences Programme Director for Barts Health NHS Trust, Sven Bunn, spoke of the need to create new opportunities for research:

'It is important to bring scientists together to create new treatments for our communities with new types of drugs to treat diseases. However, we have a problem with early detection of illnesses and these diseases are much more difficult to treat at a later stage. We need new screening programmes and help on the genomics side which Professor Langenberg at QMUL is working on. We need intervention tools much earlier in order to close the gap in health disparity.

'It is a good thing that scientists are becoming more assertive about the facilities that they require. It is also great that we have twenty one separate biobanks with stored samples. These are powerful tools that will help scientists in their work here and will help attract scientists with this facility to want to work here.'

Whitechapel original masterplan for Tower Hamlets Council, circa 2012, courtesy of BDP - with redeveloped historic hospital left of High Street.

Whitechapel is an historic area of London with many existing old buildings and busy roads, so dropping a new life sciences hub into it has its challenges. BDP was hired to work up the original masterplan for the new Whitechapel district. Following completion of proposals for the new Whitechapel Crossrail station, BDP was appointed to develop a 15-year regeneration vision to stimulate economic development and physical growth in the area, which is one of the most deprived in London. This new vision for Whitechapel was adopted as planning policy as the Whitechapel Masterplan Supplementary Planning Document.

As a result of the planned Crossrail investment (now completed and opened as the Elizabeth Line), the area faced significant development pressure and the masterplan provided an overarching framework to piece development sites together and ensure high-quality placemaking that would enhance its character. The policy framework sought to respond positively to the rich architectural heritage including a wide range of listed buildings and conservation areas.

The Whitechapel Masterplan provides for 3,500 new homes, community facilities, seven new public parks and spaces, and a new university and commercial campus which will create around 5,000 jobs. The plan also seeks to create a more cycle and pedestrian-friendly environment.

Extensive consultation with the community and key stakeholders was undertaken. Initial engagement sought to capture the issues and aspirations of various stakeholders through a variety of different engagement methods, including meetings, workshops, a project website, postcards and press releases.

Gergana Draganova, Urban Design Director at BDP, described what the benefits were when it was drawn up and how she sees it developing:

'Well the original vision was for 2030 and looking back to how it was then and now, I am very excited to see how different it feels. Of course like today when there is a problem on the Elizabeth Line with a train blocking travel from Paddington it isn't great, but the spaces in the station on arrival convey a very different place. There is more work to do in the public space in front of it, building connections along the main road and the use of a green spine to provide a healthy environment not only for workers but for the community.

'There is a shortage of green space in the borough and what is becoming more important now in master planning everywhere is the mix of uses. We must create more interesting places for local people to socialise in, to walk around encouraging them to walk rather than use the car and that all adds to better health and life expectancy. We must create a network of spaces.'

Above: life sciences development sites to rear of Tower Hamlets Town Hall

How does Rob Beacroft, Developer at Lateral, feel his company can ensure quality of build in embarking on the new life sciences building project?

'It is a real challenge and not just for the building that we are engaged with but for the cluster more widely. How do we integrate those buildings with the community? How can we make them accessible? Science buildings have traditionally been inward facing and we want to put science on display to make it normal to see scientists in white coats going about their experiments.

'We have carried out research into who is likely to want to work here and how we can support the local community. We see our role as developers as making healthcare opportunities accessible and shaping our world for the better. We have focused initially on helping two primary schools with STEM education and ensuring there is an understanding that you don't need a PhD to work in life sciences. Our pilot schemes have been really successful because the kids enjoyed them and now we are rolling the programme out borough wide.

'The investor market is challenging with few sectors apart from life sciences performing well. So this sector has attracted attention from a lot of developers but you need the technical knowledge to get into it and to have the flexibility to cater for the science of the future. Flexibility costs and it is a specialism. Maybe a year ago any developer thought they could do it but not now, so I think the standard of design will remain high.'

The Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone, courtesy of Grimshaw

What is the scale of competition around the world for investment and talent for leading life science hubs? Grimshaw has deep experience of delivering life science hubs and districts. In 2020, it created The Shenzhen-Hong Kong Science and Technology Innovation Cooperation Zone alongside the Shenzhen River in the west wing of the Cooperation Zone. The firm states how it positions Shenzhen and the Greater Bay Area at the fulcrum of science and technology innovation:

'The architectural premise for the proposed buildings is one derived from relationships, relationships between architecture and the environment, people and experience. The programme consists of 100,000m2 of state of the art research and development space, 46,000m2 of laboratory space, 5,000m2 convention and exhibition centre, a municipal substation and retail.

The Municipal sub-station is nestled into the raised landscape, special and general laboratories and enclosed in the cylindrical buildings whilst an innovation tower sits in between the two lab buildings. The convention and exhibition centre has it’s own address and is positioned to overlook the Shenzhen River – connected vertical campus.

Designed as a dynamic next generation workplace with interconnecting floors and double adaptable height spaces enhancing vertical connectivity, a central warehouse type floorplate allows maximum flexibility of use, wrapped by a perimeter space which houses support spaces for the workspace. A kit of parts of different work settings can be utilised to create a wide range of different configurations.

By contrast in London, Grimshaw's Ben Heath who joined the discussion felt that investment in life science hadn't delivered yet in this part of London for the immediate community:

'This is a richly diverse community with the super wealthy working in the City and the very poor living in Poplar. There has been a touch of the Wild West with money lying around to invest, but if you didn't have the technical skills you couldn't do well out of it. Science buildings are difficult to integrate into the community. They have been fortress-like with the need for security. It is a sensitive ecosystem to build and hard to get it right.'

Above: crossing to Whitechapel station from Tower Hamlets Town Hall and the Royal London Hospital - which is now served by the recently opened Elizabeth Line, as well as Overground and District underground lines

Balancing the need to preserve historic environments while building 'the new' was something that Claire Brady from Historic England took up in the debate:

'We do know that heritage is vital for new districts and communities and there is a lot of connection between heritage and wellbeing. You have to balance the needs of the community here and new people who are coming in. The knowledge quarter in King's Cross has made connections with its community. Proper landscaping and introducing cafes for people at the British Library has been so important, making it a real place for people. There is a huge demand for low cost affordable work space and these cafes have provided that. The Library itself is listed.

'Planners in Tower Hamlets will have their designated heritage areas and we are working on our High Streets Action Zone which includes Petticoat Lane in the borough. We are working to restore buildings and the quality of what is there but we must be careful not to gentrify, boosting house prices. There must be the kinds of services that people want to get them to work here and policy makers need to work really hard to protect uses.

Historic England states:

'Wentworth Street in Tower Hamlets is better known as 'Petticoat Lane' from its association with the rag trade and long standing street market. Today, the independent family run retail of colourful fabrics and the predominantly Bengali communities give the Wentworth Street Conservation Area (currently on the Heritage at Risk Register) a strong vibrant character. Many buildings are vacant and a number have also deteriorated due to lack of maintenance. Poor quality shop fronts, and doors and windows at street level are having a detrimental impact here.

'There is potential to boost this area which has retained much of its historic quality and charm. This underused and neglected high street could better serve residents as well as workers and visitors from Aldgate, Spitalfields and the City.

The High Street Heritage Action Zone will restore shop fronts and facades, explore how upper floors buildings can be reused, provide maintenance training for building owners, and restore the Victorian public toilets at Leyden Street'

Claire added:

'In Camden city fringe you saw expansion and a taking over of Hatton Garden making it really difficult for the jewellery makers to work there, so this mustn't happen. At Historic England we get involved in all levels of planning and try to protect things that are good about areas. We want to work with TfL on better outcomes for the roads in the borough.'

Above: CGI of southern entrance to new life sciences building facing the Royal London - part of the proposed Whitechapel Road life sciences district (Allies & Morrison for NHS Property Services)

Planner Gareth Gwynne at Tower Hamlets Council joined the discussion to comment on the vision for the borough and current concerns:

'We must have good public realm and safe guard our heritage aspects. There is the Church of St Philp to the rear of our new Council building and adjacent to one of the new life science district plots for instance. We must work sensitively when introducing new buildings. It is challenging and part of continuous dialogue. There have been some criticisms of the new Royal London Hospital, but people also know the public benefit of it. There was a different planning consensus when it was built and the ideas of good public realm planning wasn't there, so we don't want to repeat that. We want large developments in the future but done in a sensitive way.

'Post pandemic I think everyone is a lot more aware of the development of life sciences. At the Council I am most concerned about managing growth and changing benefits. We want to bring wealth, homes, offices and employment to the borough and the benefits should be shared with those most in need in the community. When Canary Wharf was built it didn't reflect the demographic area, but these days we have a responsibility to make sure benefits are shared for health and for young peoples' careers. We must make sure that obligations attached to consents are locked in and that good public realm is provided. We need to make sure that where we live and work is better, that good comes from new labs for science and for local people.'

NHS Property Services' Director of Investment and Development Management Adrian Powell joined Future Cities Forum's discussion. He leads teams which have sold over 550 surplus properties in the last 10 years raising over £500m for reinvestment in the NHS and releasing land for over 8,000 new homes. NHSPS' potential future development pipeline has over 100 capital projects, investing several hundred £m and enabling the delivery of thousands of new homes, many for NHS staff. Adrian also leads a multidisciplinary team on behalf of DHSC to deliver the new life sciences cluster of almost one million square feet in Whitechapel, including an anchor life sciences research facility for Queen Mary University of London.

In July 2018 the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) purchased five plots of land in Whitechapel from Barts Health NHS Trust to support the development of a life science cluster, building on the shared vision of local partners at the Royal London Hospital and Queen Mary University London (QMUL). It described its remit:

'NHS Property Services Ltd, (NHS PS) is a DHSC-owned company, which exists to support the NHS to get the most from the estate. NHS PS has been instructed to secure planning permission for a flexible development which can be used for a broad range of life science and knowledge-based activity.

'To achieve the life sciences vision for the area, secure best value for the land and generate much needed revenue to reinvest back into the NHS, we intend to sell the sites with planning permission for life science buildings to a developer with the required experience to deliver the plans.

'This pioneering project will unlock surplus NHS land and unleash investment in innovative life sciences. It will benefit researchers, entrepreneurs and help NHS patients access new diagnostics and treatments more quickly.'

The issues of 'going higher' as in the question of tall buildings was touched on by Adrian:

'It is an interesting concept. We have already reduced the height of buildings in our planning application. But land supply is very constrained here. We want to make the most of opportunities to deliver flexible buildings, respecting the sites in the conservation areas. We have tried to maximise the envelope and compromise too, locking in the quality of design and open spaces but also functionality.

Adrian was asked how the five separate plots relate:

'Well we have a masterplan and a range of sizes of plots which we hope to deliver to an emerging market sector once the buildings are there. There are questions to be asked around investor confidence and whether the tenants will come? We have a phase of timing and want a consistency of ground floor approach. Most of the old derelict hospital buildings were inward looking so we want to turn them inside out to let the light in.

Above: water-colour sketch (from Allies & Morrison) of the proposed pavilion building, and public realm surrounding St Philip's church in Whitechapel

'Life sciences is still an emerging sector and we have such a heritage here. We haven't approached it lightly, we have kept the facade of the old outpatients' building. But new labs have vibration demands for experiments and they need to switch uses during their life. Investors will need to know there is a long term interest here.'

Creating a sustainable place or 'town within a city' in a science district for local people has its challenges. Fred Pilbrow, Founder of Pilbrow & Partners spoke about the planning of a new 'green heart' at North Acton in London. Fred explained:

'To be honest the plan didn't start from a long base. Our client Imperial College London was able to think in the long term though and think about the sensitivities of getting places to work. What could we do with an empty building in the middle of a car dominated space. So apart from residential, we are providing a hotel and flexible work space.'

Imperial College London commissioned Pilbrow & Partners to prepare regeneration proposals for One Portal Way. The site is strategic. It is the largest and most central development site in an area that has been subject to significant investment and yet which still lacks a well defined town centre. Pilbrow & Partners proposals establish this centre through the creation of a major new public park. Three tall buildings at the apexes of the triangular site mark points of new public permeability. The proposals deliver a balance of employment and residential space leveraging Imperial’s knowledge and contacts to draw innovative technology and life science businesses to North Acton.

Fred continued:

'Imperial realises that Portal Way is some distance from scientific clusters but it sees huge opportunities as the site is next to Park Royal which is London's largest industrial district. It sees low cost work space driving academic relationships - there are lots of specialisms such as 'dark kitchens'. They have looked at UC Berkeley in California where the university research departments have relationships with adjacent industrial zones, and they want to see that in London, perhaps as a revival of 'west tech', reflecting the fact that in the 1930s lots of light engineering innovation was happening in Acton and Park Royal - they want to bring some of that back.'

Future Cities Forum will be publishing the second part of its 'Knowledge Cities' report shortly.

One Portal Way, Acton, courtesy of Pilbrow & Partners


Recent Posts
bottom of page