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Aerial view of Stratford, East London and the Olympic Park area

2022 Geolog archive

11th December

From plastic to Notpla

Last week, one of the many recent start-up companies in Hackney Wick, Notpla, hit international headlines by winning the Earthshot prize for innovative solutions to climate change and environmental issues. Notpla won the 2022 prize in the category “to build a waste-free world” for their invention of an alternative to plastic, made from seaweed and plants. The prize was awarded by HRH Prince of Wales in Boston, in front of a worldwide television audience to huge fanfare and global acclaim (I’m not sure who gets to benefit more, the Prince of Wales and his public image or the rest of us but, leaving that question to one side, it was quite an achievement for a small start-up from Hackney Wick).

Hackney Wick, for those of you who don’t know it, is an unlikely location for a company with a growing international reputation. Notpla is based in Queen’s Yard, a collection of old industrial premises ranging from a Victorian former warehouse to a row of 1960s factory sheds. The company started here in 2014, creating a range of natural and biodegradable packaging products, such as a bubble to hold liquids, a coating for food containers and a paper for the cosmetic and fashion industry. At the London Marathon in 2019, Notpla made thousands of little containers filled with Lucozade for the runners to grab, drink and swallow the container! This year they have made over a million food boxes for the takeaway chain, Just Eat.

But, the interesting thing is that this is not Hackney Wick’s first connection with the world of plastic. Back in the middle of the 19th century, the world’s first plastic was manufactured in Hackney Wick. In 1866 the Birmingham-born inventor, Alexander Parkes, established a factory on Wallis Road to produce a material he named Parkesine. The factory was not commercially successful and did not last long. In 1869 he signed over the patent rights for Parkesine to the Xylonite Company. They specialised in producing billiard balls from Parkesine, replacing ivory and tortoiseshell that had been previously used. It is even more interesting to know the first plastic products were seen as desirable and durable commodities that saved the lives of thousands of elephants and tortoises – thus making them sustainable. A far cry from the millions of tonnes of single-use plastic we churn out today, that ends up being dumped in landfill sites or clogging the oceans.

Hackney Wick has come full circle – from the invention of a material that turned from a blessing into a curse, to finding a natural material that could be the solution to the global problem it helped to create.


16th September

Elizabeth – RIP

I have found myself strangely affected by the death of Elizabeth II. I have never been a great royalist, though I’m not truly a republican either. I suppose I am more of an agnostic on the question of the royal family – neither a great admirer nor convinced by the alternatives.

So, why would I be affected by the Queen’s death? It is probably that her seventy years on the throne have more or less coincided with my own lifetime and all the key events (and scandals) of her reign have been the backdrop to my life. In remembering her life, perhaps I am simply reflecting on my own – and, of course, my own mortality. But, before I become too philosophical, let me tell you a story about one of the Queen’s many visits to east London.

It happened when she came to open the new City Airport, beside the Royal Docks, in 1987. There were noisy protests outside the airport that day by local people who were worried about the impact of aircraft noise on their lives. Partly to deflect the demonstration, protestors were invitied into the airport to meet the Queen, presumably with her consent (it might even have been her suggestion). When one of the protestors explained their concerns to the Queen, she was quite sympathetic, observing, “I know what you mean. We have exactly the same problem at Windsor Castle, under the flightpath for Heathrow!”. The Queen had a habit of finding the right words and of keeping everybody onside. Over the years, I have often found myself in accordance with her Christmas messages. She was able to quietly express her Christian faith without anyone feeling that she was pushing it down their throat.

Here in east London, Elizabeth’s name will not be forgotten. The Olympic Park from the 2012 London Games has since been renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Who could forget her descent into the stadium on a parachute for the opening ceremony? And, only earlier this year, the Queen was finally able to open the new east-west Crossrail line, now called the Elizabeth line. Perhaps, in the same way as Queen Victoria’s name is often associated with places in west London (Victoria itself, the Victoria line, the V&A Museum), Elizabeth’s name will be associated more with east London. That would be no surprise since so many of the new developments in London during Elizabeth’s reign have been in the east.


4th June

At last – the Elizabeth Line!

On 24th May, three and a half years overdue and at least £4 billion over-budget, sections of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) were finally opened for passengers. The 73-mile railway line, when fully opened in May 2023, will run from Reading in the west, through central London to Shenfield in the east, with branches to Heathrow Airport and Abbey Wood in south-east London. Ten new stations have been built for the central London section, which connects Paddington and Canary Wharf. It is envisaged to increase London train capacity by 10% with trains carrying up to 1500 passengers. It will reduce journey times, with a journey from Canary Wharf to Heathrow cut to 45 minutes. Work on the project began in 2009 and, at its peak, employed 10,000 workers directly and 50,000 in the supply chain. It is the biggest infrastructure project for a generation in the UK and has been met with both praise and criticism.

Positive impacts

The Elizabeth Line will make it easier to travel around and do business in London and the south-east. It will reduce congestion on the region’s transport network and link the capital’s major commercial and business districts more effectively than ever before. This will attract further investment, both domestic and foreign, thereby creating jobs and boosting the regional economy. It will also help London to maintain its status as a global financial hub.

The 3.5 million tonnes of earth that was dug up during construction of the line’s stations and 13 miles of tunnels was transported to the mouth of the Thames at Wallasea Island where a nature reserve was developed, which now attracts a huge number and variety of birdlife. It also acts as a nautral defence against coastal flooding.

The line will act as a catalyst for regeneration. It is predicted that it will support the delivery of 90,000 new homes along its route. This extra hosuing capacity is much needed in the south-east of England. A number of the poorest London boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets and Newham, have seen a huge rise in investment as a result of the line and it is hoped that job prospects in these areas will improve and deprivation decline.

Negative impacts

The project focusses infrastructure spending in the south-east to the detriment of the rest of the UK, contrary to the government’s ‘levelling up’ policy. Transport spending per year in London is £944 per person, compared to £314 in the West Midlands. Local councils in northern cities, such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, feel that the growth of their economies is being hindered by a lack of investment in transport infrastructure, widening the North/South divide.

Property pirces and rents have soared in places such as Whitechapel and Custom House in east London. Local people, who had to put up with years of disruption during the construction phase, have been priced out of the housing market and feel that they have benefitted little from the development. Gentrification of the areas by young, mainly white, professional incomers from other parts of London and the UK have made local residents even more marginalised.

Environmental gains are regarded as questionable by some critics who claim that it would be much better to invest in local integrated networks of bus and cycle routes that benefit more people at lower cost.


7th May

Better late than never – Elizabeth line to open

Almost four years late, and £4 billion over budget, the Elizabeth line in London is finally due to open on 24th May. As luck would have it, I will be away that week and will miss the celebrations as our local station at Forest Gate in east London is finally connected to Heathrow Airport and Reading in the west. Before you start to feel sorry for me, I should point out that the new trains have been running on the line for over two years and, if I need to get to Heathrow, I can already do that with a couple of changes in London. But, with the Elizabeth line open, a journey that would currently take me an hour and a half will be reduced to about an hour.

Construction on the Crossrail project (as the Elizabeth line has been known until now) began in May 2009, at almost exactly the same time as we began running urban fieldwork with schools in east London. Tunnelling began in 2012, just before the London Olympics. All the years since we have been investigating with students what impact the line might have on different locations in London. Originally, completion of Crossrail was due in December 2018, but the date has been pushed back several times until, eventually, they gave up predicting and simply promised that it would be ‘soon’. Now we know it is to be 24th May.

So, what difference will the Elizabeth line make when it opens? Apart from speeding up journeys across London, it is also set to increase the capacity of the London Underground system by 10%. Before the pandemic, it seemed that the new line could not come soon enough, with the existing lines full to bursting. Now, with fewer workers commuting in and out of London every day, ironically there is less urgency for the line to be complete. Who knows whether the city will return to its previous bustle, with more companies allowing staff to work from home. Those living in other parts of the country, outside London, may look resentfully at the £19 billion spent on the new line and wonder how many bus routes and suburban railways could have been improved for that money.

For Londoners themselves, the jury is still out. There is suspicion that the prime motive for the Elizabeth line is to provide an express route for bankers in Canary Wharf to get to Heathrow. It is interesting that the station at Canary Wharf was the first to be complete almost ten years ago, as if in eagerness to get the Elizabeth line up and running. There is no doubt that Canary Wharf will be one of the beneficiaries of the new service, but other places may benefit too. Custom House, the next stop along the line from Canary Wharf and one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, will have its first connection to central London. And, in the opposite direction, Whitechapel, another once poor neighbourhood on the edge of the city centre, has seen rocketing property prices in anticipation of the Elizabeth line.


8th February

Madison Square Garden in Stratford?

Madison Square Garden, a US corporation have proposed to build a ‘sphere’ on the remaining land managed by the London Legacy Development Corporation, which is in the centre of Stratford beside the station and the bridge entrance to Westfield Shopping Centre.

The company launched a slick publicity campaign, fronted by DJ, Maya Jama, with their application to explain the benefits. The venue could hold events with a capacity of up to 21,000, with bars, restaurants, night club and casino, providing 3,200 new jobs of which one third would go to local people. The sphere will have an outer ‘skin’ of LED light displays up to a height of ninety metres. Also proposed is a new entrance and ticketing hall for Stratford station.

However, most local stakeholders do not want the development for various reasons, including noise, light pollution and safety. Stratford station is already dangerously overcrowded on narrow platforms, especially on Saturdays with Westfield shoppers and the best part of 60,000 supporters after the West Ham United game. Opponents include Newham Council, local resident groups and the local MP, Lynne Brown. Other arguments against the project include lack of proper infrastructure and sustainability and the type of jobs, mainly low paid.

A decision on the application has been delayed with the LLDC claiming that it hopes a decision will be made before the May 2022 local council elections. This is after three public consultations and the intention for the decison to be made by September 2021. The LLDC is due to hand back control of the Olympic Park area to Newham Council during 2022. One could ask, is the LLDC doing a “Pontius Pilate” to delay, so that Newham Council is left with the decision which may be unpopular in some quarters?

Social housing with green space in the centre of Stratford is a popular alternative suggestion. A square with a real community garden might be more appropriate at the heart of Stratford than the misleadingly-named Madison Square Garden of the proposal.


Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London
Footer image
Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London