Inside the London megaport you didn't know existed
London Gateway was built by Dubai, is twice the size of the City of London, is run by robots, has the world’s largest cranes – and it’s where everything you buy will soon come from. London’s docks are back in business
Once the capital's lifeblood, London's docks have long since faded to little more than a garnish of maritime nostalgia on riverside real estate. Where once burly dockers hauled crates of exotic cargo, now bankers engage in international trade of a less visible kind. The physical economy of heaving stuff to and fro has been replaced by the streamlined global flow of finance, conducted in anonymous glass towers.
Or so the story goes.
It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that London's docks are back – on a bigger scale than ever before. Running almost 3km along the Thames estuary is a £1.5bn new megaport that has literally redrawn the coastline of Essex, and wants to make equally radical shifts to the UK's consumer supply chain.
Welcome to DP World London Gateway, the latest international trophy of the oil-rich emirate of Dubai, and one of the biggest privately funded infrastructure projects the UK has ever seen. It is a gargantuan undertaking (on the scale of Crossrail, Terminal 5 or HS2) that’s projected to have a bigger economic impact than the Olympics – but you might not even know it was happening. The port has been up and running for almost two years, with two of its six berths now complete and a third well on the way. But, unlike the daily controversy of runways and commuter trains, the cumbersome business of how 90% of our goods reach us from all over the world doesn’t tend to impinge on the public psyche.
Satnav certainly hasn’t caught up. As we drive out to the sprawling sandy landscape, the blue dot floats out into the Thames, from whose depths this new quayside has been summoned. Over 30 million tonnes of silt was dredged to make this artificial land mass, which extends 400m beyond the original shoreline, a process that saw the largest migration of animals in Europe – with 320,000 newts, water voles and adders relocated to a new nature reserve nearby. The sheer scale is impossible to comprehend from the ground: the facility is twice the size of the City of London.
“You used to be able to see the water from the road,” grumbles my taxi driver, as we glide along the pristine tarmac of the privately funded roads from the nearby town of Stanford-le-Hope, past signs for the estuary hamlets of Mucking and Fobbing. “Now they’ve moved the coast, all we see is sand and cranes.”