London’s Docklands lost 10,000 jobs between 1978 and 1981. Over the same three year period 9,000 people left the area. Within a decade, this post-industrial wasteland had begun its transformation into Canary Wharf, the ‘second City’. But what did the local communities make of this? And what did Weggie and Wally Crow, two cockney gangster puppets, have to do with it?
The background: Enterprise Zones and the London Docklands Development Corporation
“Borough authorities… tended to look too much to the past, and too exclusively to the aspirations of the existing population, and too little to the possibility of regenerating Docklands by the introduction of new types of industry and new types of housing” – House of Commons Select Committee Report,1981
After being elected in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government took on high unemployment and dereliction in areas such as Docklands that had suffered acute post-industrial decline. Developers willing to risk projects there were rewarded with a 10-year scheme of incentives that included full corporation and income tax exemptions, no rates on industrial and commercial properties for 10 years, no development land tax and simplified planning procedures.
This took place under the purview of the London Docklands Development Corporation, founded in 1981 by Michael Heseltine. The LDDC typified the Conservative government’s commitment to private enterprise at the expense of state intervention and public provision. The Corporation was not designed to provide social housing, community support, health facilities, or any other public-spirited functions – the responsibility for which remained with local authorities – but instead it devised a market-led strategy that slashed through red tape to lure developers and new businesses to the area.
“We didn’t have time to be nice to people”
Unfettered by the lengthy consultations and conventional planning practices that dictated the pace of developments elsewhere, the LDDC shocked local residents with the speed with which it transformed 5,000 acres of previously derelict land. The Corporation was unpopular among Docklands residents who felt the Corporation ran ‘roughshod’ over locals. As one LDDC executive told sociologist Janet Foster:
“Some of us felt that perhaps we ought to open up a dialogue with the communities here, but in the end we took the view that once we got involved … that pretty well every proposal and policy formation had to be debated, countless meetings … we would never get anywhere. We would fall into exactly the same traps our predecessors [had] … there would be a lot of debate, a lot of talking, a lot of plans and very little action, and the government was determined that things should happen here … [so] we kept our heads down. We didn’t have time to be nice to people, to consult with people, because we actually had to demonstrate that this experiment … was the way forward.” (3)
To grasp the veracity of the LDDC’s regeneration programme, it is useful to consider the state of housing in Docklands. In 1981, only 5% of housing was owner-occupied, with the remaining 95% split between local authorities. The LDDC considered the proliferation of social housing to be problematic in terms of their plans for large-scale urban regeneration – how were developers supposed to get a slice of a market dominated by local authority housing? – so they took action. Between 1981 and 1988, the LDDC encouraged private house building to the tune of 15,000 new homes. By 1991, 38% of housing stock was owner-occupied.
The Corporation, staffed as it was by a majority of middle-aged, middle-class white men, needed an endearing public face if it was to effectively court attention. The Docklands crow was introduced as the cuddly face of the LDDC soon after it was founded. Part loveable mascot, part neoliberal beanie baby, the crow starred in television advertisements and billboard campaigns targeted at business owners, City workers, developers and Londoners who had written off Docklands due to its lack of suitable housing and job prospects.
Perhaps the best of the trio of TV ads (see above), set in a pub, features Weggie and Wally Crow, a pair of cockney crow gangsters discussing the ‘cheeky boys’ moving into their ‘manor’ and building houses only to immediately sell them for a profit. When Weggie asks after a fellow crow who unwisely advised them not to invest in Docklands, the scene cuts to a bird stuffed head first into a cement mixer, while Wally insists that no one knows what became of Arthur, the bird for whom a lack of business acumen proved deadly. (2)
The Docklands Community Poster Project
The LDDC’s campaign was busy persuading outsiders to take a chance on Docklands, but what about the people there already? It didn’t take long for community groups such as the Docklands Forum, the Joint Docklands Action Group, the Docklands Consultative Committee and the Docklands Community Poster Project to mobilise against the LDDC and its lack of regard for local people.
The Docklands Community Poster Project (DCPP), founded in 1981 by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn, worked to highlight East Enders’ concerns about the extensive redevelopment programme happening on their doorsteps. Leeson and Dunn were initially approached to produce a single community-focused poster that would highlight the negative effects of the developments, but following a series of consultations with tenants and local action groups, one poster soon snowballed into a project that became the primary cultural arm of an entire campaigning community.
The DCPP were given a series of modest grants from local boroughs and the regional arts board, and the project also won the support of the Labour-controlled Greater London Council (GLC), who contributed a “significant grant” (4).
The DCPP’s artwork presented damning perspectives on the LDDC’s plans for the area. From 1981 to 1991, the posters appeared in select locations all over Docklands. Rumours circulated that unhappy LDDC members went so far as to destroy the hoardings, but this hasn’t been proven.
The People’s Armada
Another example of the DCPP’s creative community activism was the People’s Armada to Parliament, a trio of events that it organised alongside the Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG) and several other tenants’ rights organisations in the mid-1980s. Once again the GLC offered funding, as well as access to Jubilee Gardens, a pier directly opposite parliament where passengers could disembark safely. The DCPP and JDAG arranged for a series of impressively-decorated pleasure cruisers to travel down the Thames from a variety of locations in Docklands, each one full of working-class families, some middle-class newcomers, pensioners, and enthusiastic youngsters along for the ride.
Over a thousand people sailed down the Thames during each Armada. Ken Livingstone was the centrepiece of the welcome committee at Jubilee Gardens, and members of the Labour shadow cabinet were grilled on how they would address the situation.
During the third Armada in 1984, every politician present was given a copy of the People’s Charter for Docklands. The charter was the product of the collective efforts of 123 local groups, and it demanded increased spending on housing, particularly genuinely affordable council housing, more investment in existing industries, better public transport, improved health, education and social service provisions and, most importantly, for the LDDC to relinquish its power to democratically elected local councils.
In spite of this activity and the dedication of many tenants’ rights organisations and local pressure groups, the LDDC continued to court developers and businesses at the expense of the locals. The Corporation remained almost completely impervious to pressure from below for the duration of its existence until it was dissolved in 1998.
Docklands is often cited as an exemplar of successful large-scale urban regeneration projects. By September 1989, the LDDC had attracted £6.85 billion in private investment at a cost of just £706 million, which was raised from land sales and government grants. But, as is often the case, local communities did not factor into the “improvements” that their areas underwent; they were instead consigned to the scrapheap as developers courted middle-class, high earning newcomers.
In 1984 Nigel Broackes, LDDC Chairman, told the Housebuilder that “we have made Docklands part of the London property scene where previously it was a no-go area”, which is interesting, given that families had been living there for generations.
(1) Section 136 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980.
(4) The GLC Story, Resonance FM podcast Dec 2015