Barking and Dagenham, London

The coming workplace upheavals, brought by automation and accelerated by Covid, will challenge not just the “hands-on” professions but an increasingly under-employed and un-protected segment of knowledge workers too. Looking back on East London in the 90s, and the scaling back of production at Dagenham’s Ford factory, Tim Williams finds communities can in fact benefit and grow from such major upheavals

The recent opening of a Hollywood-owned film studio in Dagenham, East London, brought memories rushing back.

Before coming to Australia in 2010, I used to work for the renewal of that and other eastern parts of the capital on both sides of the river, when I ran the Thames Gateway London Partnership (TGLP), a grouping of 10 councils (both Labour and Conservative). 

The news of Hollywood coming to this former industrial heartland, in the East Thames Corridor – once home to the Ford Motor Company in Europe – also added further incentive to me to buy a new book by an old friend, Jon Cruddas, who is still MP for Dagenham and nearby Rainham. Dagenham is about the same distance from the centre of London as is Bankstown from Sydney’s CBD.

The book is called, The Dignity of Labour, by which he mostly means a small “l” but to a degree, a big “L” too.

I think the book and the story of renewal it tells has resonance for Australian capital and regional cities, and perhaps for mining communities facing structural change – but also for today’s increasingly precarious knowledge workers.

I add: Jon spent a year working on (unionised of course) building sites in Australia after leaving university and knows Australian labour (small and big “l” well, and it informs his writing).

The book is partly a hymn of praise to Jon’s  local community and its demonstrated capacity to regenerate and renew itself over some challenging decades. But it is also about the centrality of labour, of work, to human activity and self-confidence, and the need for the political process to focus on the dignity brought by good jobs now and into a very unsure future for workers, post Covid and as AI and technology accelerate.

So the book and the discussion are not really just about a part of London, or one community. The issues matter to us in Australia too, as we are about to experience, in my view, how unsustainable certain jobs are as Covid and Covid-related government subsidies go away, economic realities rise up and the shift towards AI, robots and algorithms accelerates, leaving not just the usual suspects – workers by hand – exposed but also a new “precariat” of redundant under-employed and un-protected – knowledge workers. It won’t just be car makers or miners this time.  

What happens when the Ford factory stops making cars?

I first met Jon Cruddas at the end of the 90s when he advised Prime Minister Blair on trade union relations: with his help we got to present the East London/Thames Gateway renewal story to No. 10 advisors. Soon we started winning support for big projects like saving the Channel Tunnel Rail Link on its East London alignment that ran through his electorate then through Stratford and onto Kings Cross. Then Crossrail got funded and the Olympics were secured for Stratford and the “Host Boroughs”.

Although this was the work of many hands, including the local councils and the often forgotten Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott – the famous puncher of a threatening protestor, Jon’s help in the early days before he went into Parliament was crucial.

Lessons were learned, particularly that local communities need to be involved in and benefit from regeneration and change.

One episode we worked on together in 1999 has echoes in Dagenham 20 years later. He and I got heavily involved, with the councils, the unions and No. 10, in the negotiations with Ford to save some manufacturing capacity on the company’s site there.

If you remember that Dagenham’s world-famous Becontree estate – by the 30s the biggest public housing estate on the planet – was virtually created to provide labour for Ford, you realise the crisis that we faced was not just economic but social. Something had to be done to secure a future.

In the end, car-making ended at Dagenham but it became Ford’s overall centre for diesel engine manufacturing, securing thousands of great jobs for basically the next 20 years. We also secured near the factory – and with the great support of Ford’s Dagenham chief executive , John Crew, from Melbourne – an innovative TAFE or Centre for Excellence in Manufacturing and Engineering (CEME), to give young people from the area world class training in modern manufacturing and engineering. This ultimately became a 11-18 Academy School with a focus on engineering. 

I am not sure anything like CEME or its Academy successor has yet been created in what was essentially an urban regeneration project in Australia. Though I know governments in South Australia and Victoria have been innovative in using some ex-car-making sites, I think more needs to be done in Australia to support communities and people in such places in the transition to new economies. 

By the way, that Academy model, albeit focussed on performing arts and sport I think,  was also a legacy of the Olympic Park renewal project in Stratford; a school Lendlease not only built but had a hand in selecting its educational management/operator and I believe are still involved in its governance. I’d love to see that happen here when we do such big regeneration projects.    

Ensuring communities benefit from change

Also progressed in this same essentially post-Ford period was a “new town” scale development at a key big site near the Ford estate. It’s called Barking Riverside and is now a major site of housing innovation and development via a partnership between the council, L+Q, the biggest social housing provider in the UK, and the agencies of the London Mayor including Transport for London – with the improved rail and ferry links to the area we campaigned for 20 years ago finally there to transform accessibility and opportunity. 

L+Q’s scale and capacity as a community housing provider is absent from the Australian scene, a crucial gap. L+Q and other UK CHPs such as Peabody or Places for People each own outright in excess of 40,000 homes, with Places for People owning or managing over 100,000 homes. 

This was all done by stock transfer of homes from a public sector that did not have the cash to invest in existing public housing let alone build new ones  – true of NSW today – to social enterprises with communitarian values but commercial capacity.

We need to nurture our CHPs in Australia by similar devices, in the interests of existing tenants as much as to create new resources for more social housing. But we also need to enable our councils in Australia to themselves do more in housing and urban renewal.

Mr Cruddas stresses that embracing local democracy – councils – and community empowerment were actually key to the successful regeneration of Barking and Dagenham

Barking and Dagenham Council has been really innovative in creating its own bespoke regeneration and housing vehicle chaired by the impressive and demonically energetic Council leader Darren Rodwell. Many of us met Rodwell in 2019 when a group of Western Sydney leaders from public, private and community sectors went to see east London projects, curated by me but under the direction of Chris Brown of the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue. Like UK CHPs, this vehicle accesses market borrowing though on the back of the Council’s excellent credit rating. Darren by the way played a crucial part in attracting the previously mentioned film studios to the neighbourhood of the Ford site. 

In his book, Jon Cruddas reflects on the creative role the public sector has played in the transformation of Barking and Dagenham, working with the private sector.

There were patchy and difficult periods in that transition, not least the election of 12 neo-Fascist British National Party councillors early in the stages of transformation, as more migrants came into this growing corridor. But lessons were learned, particularly that local communities need to be involved in and benefit from regeneration and change.

Unfortunately such lessons were forgotten by UK governments at national level, with Brexit coming partly from this amnesia – showing the importance of urban regeneration and development as something done with and not just to people.

By contrast, Mr Cruddas stresses that embracing local democracy – councils – and community empowerment were actually key to the successful regeneration of Barking and Dagenham. He refers to their success as having been “nurtured by an innovative local state” and one which, as he poetically but I think perceptively says, “retains local memory”.

He adds: through this innovative governance and “council-led regeneration…massive housing and infrastructure rebuild is underway, creating tens of thousands of decent jobs.”

Prompted by this leadership, and adding to this momentum, we are seeing universities relocate and high tech and digital investment alongside innovative technology companies evolving on the Ford estate at Dagenham. “It is,” says Mr Cruddas “a story of economic transition and investment: It is an ongoing renewal of labour”. 

We don’t always hear of successful community involvement in economic transition or of local government innovation in this process, or indeed of how new education and training institutions spawned by economic dislocation and urban regeneration efforts can support communities in change.

Barking and Dagenham’s story – not yet finished and by no means yet a complete success – is not just relevant it seems to me to the UK’s ongoing “levelling-up” agenda with its aim of enabling similar success in other former industrial areas in the UK. Nor is it just relevant to the transition of once manual workers. It’s relevant wherever economic and community disruption takes place now and in the future.

It’s a story that has meaning here too; and we’d be foolish to think otherwise at this moment of acute tech and Covid-related dislocation, and as the world moves, uncertainly but still irrevocably, towards the Zero Carbon age.

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  1. Nice piece Tim. Our study tour to East London in Sept 2019 was a transformative event in thinking about urban regeneration in Western Sydney, especially its middle ring, the Central River City, comprising post WWII suburban sprawl (from Hornsby & The Hills to Hurstville and the Shire) and the traditional base of Australian manufacturing around Parramatta Rd, Bankstown and Liverpool. While we have started a journey, I fear that we are unlikely to make as much social difference as local pioneers like Cruddas, Rodwell, Williams or Paul Brickell and Len Duvall, nor bring the drive of Aussie expats like Lendlease’s Dan Labbad, Westfield’s John Burton and Olympic boss, David Higgins. Govt is too often here excluding the private sector, the third sector and the community from the table of ideas in the name of ‘probity’ or exclusivity. Problem is that without this input we end up with another drab govt-planned city/precinct like Canberra or Sydney Olympic Park!