6 January 2016

Reg Ward: the man who transformed London’s Docklands

By Jack Brown

Today marks five years since the death of Albert Joseph Reginald (‘Reg’) Ward, former Chief Executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation, an unconventional public sector outsider and a crucial creative force behind the regeneration of London’s Docklands.

Reg Ward’s role in Docklands’ transformation was pivotal, and yet was never formally recognised, with the Chief Executive edged out of his post in mysterious circumstances shortly after the final deal for the transformative Canary Wharf development was signed in July 1987. Yet the unusual approach of this public sector entrepreneur was, for good and for ill, essential to the redevelopment of Docklands and the birth of London’s ‘second City’ on the Isle of Dogs. His work should not be forgotten.

The son of a miner, Reg Ward was born on 5th October 1927, and grew up in Gloucestershire. Progressing through the grammar school system to become the first in his family to attend university, he studied Medieval History, and then Fine Art and Architecture, at Manchester University. Ward then worked as a tax inspector, before moving into local government in his 30s, holding a range of public sector posts, including stints as Chief Executive of Irvine New Town Development Corporation, the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and later Hereford and Worcester County Council. It was an eclectic CV and somewhat bizarre career path that led Reg Ward to Docklands in 1980.

London’s Docklands was a different world at the start of the 80s. The docks of the East End, once the engine room of the British Empire, had rapidly fallen silent with the advent of container shipping. Thousands of jobs had been lost in the rapidly depopulating and increasingly derelict Docklands. The London Docklands Development Corporation was established by Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine to reverse this decline. Tasked with ‘priming the pump’ for private investment by acquiring and clearing up land, putting in infrastructure and actively marketing the area to the private sector, the LDDC represented the latest of a series of attempts to change the fate of Docklands, as successive governments sought a solution to the problems of the area. However, where others perceived a problem, Reg Ward saw opportunity – and it was this outlook that saw him land the biggest job of his life.

After preparing for his interview in a typically unusual fashion – taking three days off of work to walk the banks of the River Thames and paint pictures of what a redeveloped Docklands could look like – Ward wowed the panel with his enthusiasm and vision. That a time-pressed civil service failed to take up his references before offering him the job also helped his cause: in the weeks following his appointment, former employers began to come out the woodwork with tales of a preexisting tendency to rub people up the wrong way, failing to consult or seek permission if he thought an idea may be blocked. However, these personality traits accompanied an immensely creative mind, charming persona and an ability to find a way through bureaucracy.

A failed attempt to remove Ward from his post within the first year only emboldened the Chief Executive, who was already in the midst of feverish dreams of what was possible in Docklands. As Eddie Oliver, Financial Controller and later Ward’s Deputy Chief Executive of the LDDC, describes, ‘You knew that every week Reg would have ten ideas, and nine of them would be bloody stupid, and the tenth one would be bloody brilliant.’ Yet despite some far-fetched ideas falling by the quayside, such as an underwater aquarium beneath the docks, or a sea-plane landing port for the Royal Docks, many of the major projects that helped to transform Docklands were conceived in this period, including the Docklands Light Railway and London City Airport. An early decision to end the current practice of filling in the docks, as seen in Wapping and Southwark, and electing instead to see the water – and the history of the docks – as an asset, was also crucial to today’s Docklands.

The LDDC elected not to produce a traditional Master Plan for the area, deciding instead to remain flexible and adapt to the requirements of the market. However, Docklands was not entirely ‘market-led’. Reg Ward was a excellent deal-maker, and took an active and interventionist approach to ensuring that the permissive planning climate of Docklands still led to developments of a certain quality. Some of these early deals would land the Chief Executive in hot water, and Ward often relied on his exceptionally high-calibre small team of officials to get him out. However, these deals helped build momentum, and gradually the fate of Docklands began to change.

And then, suddenly, Canary Wharf arrived. The larger-than-life American property developer Gooch Ware Travelstead built upon the idea of banker Michael Von Clemm, assembled a consortium of banks and conceived of an entire new financial district for Docklands to rival the City of London. Ward allied himself to Travelstead – many said too closely – while the Canary Wharf project developed over a two-year period between 1985-7. At the heart of this close collaboration was an option agreement for the Canary Wharf site, designed in part to avoid the requirement to consult the Department of the Environment before land disposals were confirmed. Unsurprisingly, the civil service was not impressed.

Ultimately, neither Travelstead nor Ward would survive the process, with Canadian developers Olympia & York buying out Travelstead’s consortium and building Canary Wharf, and Ward’s retirement from the LDDC announced in September 1987. However, when he officially left the LDDC at the end of the year, looking forward to spending time with his family and travelling the globe as a consultant, Reg Ward left Docklands transformed.

The emergence of Canary Wharf played an important role in forcing the City of London to loosen its previously restrictive planning policies, paving the way for today’s tall towers and keeping London competitive as a global financial hub. Canary Wharf itself is set to expand massively in the coming years. The Millennium Dome and the Olympic Park built on the legacy of the LDDC, with Canary Wharf and the regenerated Docklands playing a pivotal part in gradually shifting the capital’s centre of gravity eastwards. As his former boss Lord Heseltine notes, that Reg Ward’s pivotal role in this process was not formally recognised remains a great shame.

Reg Ward approached his task in his own way, and was branded ‘a dreamer with both feet planted firmly in mid air’ while at the LDDC. The Chief Executive’s three-dimensional, visual approach to his job, coupled with an insatiable appetite for his work and a tendency to act first and ask permission later, played a crucial role in driving one of the most incredible transformations of a declining area seen in Europe, changing the face of the capital and possibly the UK.

As one civil servant who dealt with Ward observes, the Chief Executive was ‘neither at all like a traditional civil servant, nor a traditional businessman. He was much more the entrepreneur, and younger than his years. That sort of laddish lad, who gets impatient if he gets held back from what he sees as the right thing to do.’ This public sector entrepreneur’s politics were never clear, even to those close to him. What was clear was his desire to get things done, and by any means necessary. It is unsurprising that this tendency eventually rendered him intolerable to the civil service. We can only wonder if such a character, employed by accident and removed from his post shortly after his biggest success, would be allowed to exist and thrive today.

Reg Ward

Jack Brown is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, and works at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. He is working on a history of Canary Wharf and Docklands.