Voting for an island state (CORRECTED)
Sunday 01 May 1994
The Isle of Dogs, in London's East End, is where the tide of new money and new immigrants is leaving the impoverished survivors of an old breed of Eastenders high and dry. They see their traditional parties relegating them to the back of the queue for homes and services, and fears are rising that in this week's municipal election, their search for a political raft may give neo-Fascists their first taste of power in Britain
ONE OF the best places from which to note the preoccupations of Isle of Dogs residents is the Asda supermarket car park. Approximately 200 yards square, it offers stunning views: the glassy glories of Canary Wharf to the north and the sharp roofs, two-tone brick and pink metal trimmings of the equally modern London Yard private housing estate to the east. Contrasting uncomfortably with these architectural delights are - in the distance - the shabby tower blocks of the Samuda and Barkentine public housing estates and - in the foreground - equally humble, low-rise accommodations that seem to cringe before the splendour of capitalism's newest monuments and tremble beneath the elevated tracks of the Docklands Light Railway, conveying commuters from one centre of affluence to another.
Cars pull up, the quieter ones driven mostly by well-dressed white women with careful make-up; noisier vehicles often occupied by Asian parents and their children. A red double-decker Docklands Express bus has just delivered shoppers who cannot afford, or be bothered, to drive themselves. These are a mixed bunch: white Cockneys, first-generation Bengalis, a few women of Caribbean origin. Inside the vast supermarket, business is good, according to the Asda manager, Mamood Imamdin. 'We are growing all the time,' he says, smiling.
The shoppers, however, are unsmiling. They seem to have conspired not to acknowledge one another by glance or gesture. They neither mingle in the coffee shop nor pause to admire each other's children. Having made their purchases, they do not linger, even to use Asda's public phone (which, I discover, is broken anyway).
It is not long before you learn the bleak quality of their thoughts. They are aware - almost all of them - of their notoriety as Isle of Dogs residents. Many who support the neo- Fascist British National Party are angry at being criticised for it. Many who do not are angry at being lumped together with the BNP people. And then there are those - led by the Anti-Nazi League - who are angered by the remarkable penetration of the local body politic by the neo-Fascist worm.
On 5 May, when the municipal elections are held, we shall know the extent of this penetration, not only in the Isle of Dogs, a Labour stronghold as far back as anyone can remember, but in other wards of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, currently controlled by the Liberal Democrats. 'My gut feeling is that the BNP will get control of the island,' says Rita Bentley, chair of the Island Communities Association. 'Then we'll have four years of hell.'
A BNP victory in the island's Millwall ward, for example, would give it control of a pounds 39.5m budget to be spent on housing, social services, leisure and roads - not to mention 600 staff. Even newspapers not given to hyperbole describe as 'frantic' efforts by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to stop the BNP becoming the first far-right organisation to take direct control of a local authority budget. Ms Bentley lives on the Barkentine estate, where BNP supporters have been canvassing vigorously, where racism surfaces frequently and where police patrols - both mounted and motorised - have been increased.
It may stretch credulity that a part of the British capital has a 'peace movement'. The phrase conjures up images of distraught citizens behind barricades such as you might find in Northern Ireland. The movement is real enough, but - so far, at least - there are no gaping wounds to give it a sense of desperate immediacy. Stroll down almost any street in any Isle of Dogs housing estate, and you will see men and women with little twists of rainbow ribbon pinned to their chests manifesting a desire that their neighbourhoods should not descend into riot. 'At first we started out with white ribbons,' says Helen Holtam, wife of the vicar of Christ Church and a Peace Group stalwart. 'We switched to rainbow ribbons as a symbol of hope. Half a mile of it has been distributed already.'
Two points may be worth making here. First, there is little visible evidence that the BNP is bent on stirring violence. 'I have to say they are well-behaved in their canvassing,' says Rita Bentley. 'So far most of the aggro is coming from the Anti-Nazi League.' The BNP scents victory in the polls and is reluctant to jeopardise its new-found 'respectability'. The second point is also cautionary. It would be unwise to interpret support for the BNP on the Isle of Dogs merely as an expression of the thuggish, skinhead culture that afflicts much of urban Britain. Again the Asda car park offers instruction.
In an alleyway leading from it into Strattondale Street, a quiet thoroughfare with terraced houses, a public library and a Bangladeshi cultural centre, I notice one of those neighbourhood murals that have been in vogue in depressed areas of London for the past decade or so. This one is of an Isle of Dogs of yesteryear, with crude paintings of galleons, steamships, paddle-steamers and barges bustling in the waters of the Thames around it. There are cranes and cargoes and islanders waving: Victorians in top hats and bonnets, children smiling and well- behaved. Where the Canary Wharf development now stands, the mural has the following painted words: 'Cranes standing still. No work for them, no movement. A monument to times long past silhouetted against a London sky.' Beside a representation of Brunel's ill-fated Great Eastern paddle-steamer, we learn that it was 'launched on the spring tide in January 1858. The river that day was filled with droves of steamers carrying crowds who come to see her'. The mural shows, on the south- west part of the island, a broad, green expanse, with trees and cattle and windmills. 'By the chapel were placid cows chewing the cud, staring at the many ships. Here stood many windmills which gave Millwall its name.'
One is quickly struck by the turmoil of emotions this primitive art conveys: defiance, pride, grief at greatness lost, disillusionment. Later, one finds a similar jumble of emotions in the conversation of native islanders. Three elderly men and a woman, all born on the Isle of Dogs, have stopped to gossip on Ferry Street just north of Island Gardens and the pedestrian tunnel linking the island with Greenwich Pier on the Thames' south bank. Ferry Street is very smart, with flats and maisonettes of ochre brick and walls about to don their spring coat of ivy.
All three citizens were once unswerving Labour voters, 'moderate in all things', with no time for Jack Dash, the left- wing dockers' leader who ruled in the Sixties. 'We called him Slap-Dash,' says Thomas Cheshire dismissively. Mr Cheshire, who is 68 and a retired warehouseman, admires the design of the houses around him, but is less than happy with the Isle of Dogs. 'There is no sense of community,' he says. 'It used to be a sociable place.' His friend, Ernest Upton, 69, a former sheet- metal worker, anticipates my question about the BNP. 'The racism is caused by the loony left,' he says. Joan Evans, 48, was at first cautious about her answers, but finally said, with some indignation, that Somali refugees and Bengalis had taken much of the best new housing on the island. (Now a peninsula, the Isle of Dogs actually was an island; one end of a narrow channel separating it from the north bank of the Thames was long ago blocked up.) 'My daughter is homeless, has three children and is still waiting to be housed,' she says. The trio no longer supports Labour.
Rita Bentley, a thoughtful woman with independent political views, echoes their attitude to the Labour Party. 'The quality of Labour's councillors is very poor. The row over housing allocations is their fault. It's the immigrant vote Labour's after. The immigrants are in a very difficult position. They don't want to live on the island anyway. But Labour's offering them everything in return for their votes. I don't think Labour has done anything to try to resolve the situation since what happened last September.' This takes us to some significant events in island politics.
THE ISLE of Dogs is mesmerised by two blinking lights. One is the beacon that flashes a warning to aircraft from the top of Canada House, the tallest skyscraper in Europe and centrepiece of Canary Wharf. It can be seen from almost all points on the island. The second, similarly pronounced but less ubiquitous, is Derek Beackon, the BNP councillor who, in a grim challenge to political orthodoxy, won a seat in Millwall ward in a council by-election in September.
To native islanders, Canary Wharf is an alien world. For all their contact with it (difficult, given the intensive security that followed last year's IRA attempt to blow it up), these might well be the palaces of extraterrestrial invaders, towering above salt- of-the-earthlings. Many of the 'invaders' live from Monday to Friday in fancy housing on the island, departing for country homes at the weekend. They sink no roots, and are either despised or barely tolerated. Councillor Beackon, however, is more of a problem.
He stumps around the island housing estates, flanked by 'heavies' and followed by a police car in case of trouble. He is, according to members of the Anti-Nazi League, a dangerous 'Nazi' who should be told to 'fuck off' (advice proferred in ANL leaflets posted through Mr Cheshire's letterbox). But I have spoken to people who, though traditionally Labour supporters, give me reason to believe they will vote BNP this time; who talk about 'the coloured' but are far from being aggressive racists ('We chat to the coloured, though not to the Bengalis because they keep to themselves'), and who are convinced the 'Fascist nonsense' has been 'whipped up by the media'.
Yet despite the BNP's low-key appearances (suits replacing leather jackets in many cases), the dangers of eruption are there. The arrival of Canary Wharf developers, refugees from war-torn Somalia, and Bengalis whose squalid living conditions elsewhere in Tower Hamlets demanded that they be rehoused, coincided with the eclipse of Labour by Liberal Democrats in the borough. Their arrival also coincided with a collapse of the social network on which more deprived islanders had come to rely (the St John's Community Centre on the Samuda estate, for example, would have closed down for lack of funds, had not a recently redundant islander, George Pye, agreed to take over its management without pay). Many, feeling let down by Labour, could not bring themselves to vote Liberal Democrat - and certainly not Conservative: the party which, through central government, engineered the social collapse. The islanders felt - feel - disenfranchised. They also feel dispossessed.
'Incomers', rich white or poor black, have caused some indigenous islanders to feel that their jobs and status are threatened. (Isle of Dogs unemployment is 20 per cent, and, on estates such as Barkentine, it is 30 per cent). That threat, and the perception that the best public housing is being awarded to outsiders and ethnic minorities - for example, in new estates, such as Masthouse Terrace, Bengalis were given the larger houses simply because their families were large - have produced an acute sense of dispossession among young and old, employed and jobless. Indeed, it is something of an island theme: dozens of Port London's expensive flats have been repossessed because their owners, hit by recession, could not maintain mortgage payments. One after another, shops and restaurants that opened hopefully to greet Canary Wharf's promised influx have shut down.
'In 1992 there were five dental practices on the island,' says Paul Isaacs, a dental surgeon at London Yard. 'Now there are three.' He lives on the estate, designed by a Dutch company and featuring such street names as Rotterdam Avenue, Amsterdam Road, Van Gogh Court and Vermeer Close. He mentions a two-bedroom flat on the estate, bought two years ago for pounds 120,000 and now on the market for pounds 80,000 following repossession. Next door to his practice, staff in a hairdressing salon say there is 'little to do around here'. Thames tidal surges have dumped several tons of gravel and river debris on the broad steep steps leading up from the water to a grassy lawn in front
of the Dutch-style housing. The steps are virtually obliterated. The lawn is fouled by dog mess. One of the estate's
security men says: 'These flats are owner-managed. No pets are allowed. But there is a river walkway which gives people on that other estate (he gestures towards a broken wall beyond which grimy council housing festers) a right of way. They walk their dogs through here and encourage them to shit on the grass - out of spite, I think.'
LESS THAN three weeks before the elections, conversations with Isle of Dogs residents over three days suggest that BNP support is very largely an emotional reaction to social conditions in which the role of ideas is minimal. So low are the profiles of Mr Beackon and his followers (estimated as fewer than 100 on the island) that it is not easy to locate them on what is, after all, a self-contained area of the borough. Two weekends before the elections, he fails to turn up for a walkabout, despite a firm arrangement with our photographer - and a BBC television crew. But from what is known of them, they are far from being the lunatic-geniuses one associates with Fascist movements; rather they are reactionary opportunists who find themselves calling the shots in a dysfunctional society.
Mr Beackon himself is not hard to comprehend. Many see him as a loudmouth who achieves results by hurling crude abuse and threats, stimulating irrational fears, and promising chimerical solutions that appeal to repressed psychological urges. (East Londoners, as we know, have followed Fascists in the past; Oswald Mosley, for example). But though personally uninteresting, he may be historically important. Like most extremist 'leaders', he proclaims unbending adherence to an idea or doctrine, but in practice is deliberately ambiguous about what he intends to destroy and how far he intends to go.
Unable to locate him on my three recent visits to the island, I walk down Mellish Street (named after the late Labour MP Bob Mellish), and find one of his 'activists' and two sympathetic spectators of BNP operations. Unlike most other islanders, who are in the main hospitable and talkative when approached by a stranger, none of this trio has much to say. The 'activist', short, mousy and tattooed on the knuckles, merely confirms that he is a party man and will be canvassing at weekends. It occurs to me he has been instructed to leave communication with the press to BNP headquarters, which are at Welling across the Thames, a few miles to the south-east. His two companions say the
BNP is 'misunderstood' by people such as myself. I am sure
this is true.
In my brief, casual chat with them, I have a fleeting sense that I am listening to lads from Labour. They talk possessively of the working class and lament the withdrawal of power from 'the people'. It is remarkable - or seems so to me - that they find it hard to disown completely some ancestral ideological concepts of the old Labour Party. They are for the Welfare State, the working class, the underdog. But they preach repatriating 'Pakis' and 'niggers' - or, failing that, 'topping 'em'. Both the old concepts and the new creed spring from the grinding historic inferiority imposed on the East End generally and on the Isle of Dogs in particular ('It used to be that when you couldn't keep up your rent, Tower Hamlets sent you here instead,' recalls one islander).
A great number of islanders feel that their country and its liberal and social institutions have failed to assure their future. Beyond the Isle of Dogs, millions share that feeling. But on the island itself, it is magnified and exacerbated by isolation (the Docklands Light Railway shuts down at 9.30pm, though there are plans to extend opening hours to beyond midnight next year) and parochial vision. It is easy to overstate the
dangers, but frustration and fear of dispossession have provided a strong negative bias and predilection for extremism. Those who cheer on Derek Beackon and his lumpen warriors do so out of a sense of doom.
ONE OF the other surprises one experiences, standing in the centre of the Asda car park, is that of spaciousness. Away from the Canary Wharf buildings and the few ugly, older residential blocks, there are great flat spaces all around. Over distant tree- tops one can see the chimneys of a south London brewery whose malty fumes assail the delicate nostrils in Port London estate in the morning. On the western side of the island, there is a nice view across the huge, dog-legged Millwall Dock (now a water-sports centre) to the 33 green acres of Mudchute Farm, the biggest city farm in Europe, owned by the Urban Aid Fund and attracting 15,000 schoolchildren a year to study its livestock. Liam Clarke, a 12-year-old from Ferry Street who is taking rowing lessons, says the sports centre is 'really good'.
A team from the gleaming Texaco offices launches one of the centre's dragon boats with banter and cheers. In two days' time, I am told, a giant crane will arrive in the dock, for the use of bungee-jumpers.
There are further open places where old buildings have been demolished and not yet replaced. You can see a park and well- tended cricket grounds from the Docklands Light Railway travelling from Canary Wharf to Island Gardens. The unfilled flats and empty streets in the newer estates contribute to the sense of space. When the sun shines one afternoon, I convince myself that I could be content living here.
Nevertheless, the heated argument about housing entitlement and 'incomers' has produced in some islanders a kind of paranoia about elbow-room. Some indigenous people talk about being 'squeezed out'. Joan Evans says she would leave the Isle of Dogs tomorrow if she were younger and had somewhere else to go. Michael Harrigan, 56, a former lighterman whose three-bedroom maisonette on the Samuda estate has dropped in price from pounds 65,000 to pounds 40,000 in the past five years, says: 'It would be nice to move out into the sticks.' The BNP's campaign for repatriation of black citizens (Where to? Many are British-born) induces a claustrophobia out of all proportion to island geography. It is vaguely suggestive of Lebensraum, the idea of living space, with its crude Darwinian corollary of 'people without space' (Volk-ohne-Raum) - one of Hitler's most powerful appeals. But the comparison may be taking things too far. I cannot believe that any modern east London Fascist has delved that deeply into pan-German philosophy.
Nevertheless, you can see the sequence of events that have induced the paranoia: the closure of the docks between 1967 and 1981, followed by massive job losses, destruction of the local economy, the falling into dereliction of 5,500 acres of land, 'regeneration' by the London Docklands Development Corporation costing pounds 6bn. More than 80 per cent of the 15,220 new homes built in the LDDC area since 1991 were for owner- occupation and less than 20 per cent for rent. Most were beyond the financial reach of local people, 75 per cent of whom in the late 1980s had annual incomes below pounds 7,000 and were unable to afford even the small number of low-cost houses which the LDDC set aside for them.
Today there are 1,000 or more people on the Isle of Dogs waiting-list for rehousing, and a greater number who are inadequately housed. At the same time, hundreds of homes stand empty, unsold or overpriced for local pockets. The Islander, a newspaper partly sponsored by the Association of Island Communities, has found that for every empty council property there are seven applicants.
'Unfortunately, some people unjustifiably blame the housing shortage on the Bangladeshi community,' the paper says. 'This has led to increased tension and conflict in some areas but has done nothing in achieving improved social housing for all.'
The conflict has hurt Mohammad Elias, a Bengali machinist. The tyres of his car have been slashed, his children have been beaten up and are unable to play football for fear of white gangs. 'Many times they throw stones and bricks at my children,' he says. His friend Jillne Kareem, vice-chairman of the local Labour Party, says the racists are 'only a fraction' of the community. 'When I speak to whites who sympathise with the BNP, I find them confused. They say: 'I know you're a friend of ours. After all, we have a football team with some blacks on it.' '
Derek Beackon is tactically silent on the subject. In fact, Mr Beackon says very little at all these days. As a Tower Hamlets councillor he has gained a kind of martyrdom from Labour boycotts of meetings he attends; while on the stump, other than stock utterances - 'We all agree there are too many Asians. They shouldn't be here. It's time to start repatriation' - he has restricted himself virtually to monosyllables, thereby, it is said, underlining his 'respectable' credentials in the eyes of many Isle of Dogs voters.
Leaving aside the hysterical responses of the Anti-Nazi League, whose posters are more in evidence than the BNP's, the neo-Fascists may be a temporary catalyst for the feelings of grief and abandonment reflected in the mural at the Asda car park. But it may be more than that. It is a kind of flag-waving which increases in desperation the more grandeur fades from the nation. It is a nationalism that offers encouragement both to the 'privileged' working class and to the 'dispossessed'. It has enabled the BNP to debase the law while obeying it; to demand freedom of expression so as to damage constitutional government and civic equality, by calling intransigence and violence 'honesty' and 'patriotism', and compromise 'treason'.
In other words, the BNP has learnt to combine legal behaviour with revolutionary spirit. 'These men aren't heavies,' Derek Beackon says piously of the men flanking him on his canvassing runs. 'They're only here to protect me from attack (by the Anti-Nazi League).'
When the Rev Nick Holtam arrived as vicar of Christ Church six years ago, he saw his task as 'building bridges'. He is an earnest, politically aware cleric, father of four children and occupant of a house with red-paper hearts stuck to the window facing the street. He and his wife, Helen, are very worried about what is now happening to the community they serve, particularly about the anger being directed at the Bangladeshis.
'People talked about the vote for the BNP as being a protest vote. Housing was the main issue. Two new Housing Association developments have opened and local people felt they hadn't a fair chance to be rehoused in them. Tower Hamlets has a large Bangladeshi population, but on the Isle of Dogs it's only 14 per cent. To see 28 per cent of the new properties go to Bangladeshis felt like an invasion.'
Distorted and unfair as the local people's interpretation of events is, Rev Holtam acknowledges that the BNP 'thrives on false mythologies. Many white people simply assume that the Bangladeshis get preferential treatment in every area of life.' After last September's election of Derek Beackon, he says, 'the community went into extreme shock . . . On the following Sunday we got the congregation to write how they felt on a sheet of paper. 'Angry', 'tearful', 'ashamed', 'frightened', 'pissed off' were among their feelings.' One elderly man, a member of the British Legion, left the church in tears, saying: 'I spent four years of my life fighting Nazis and now we've voted them in.' '
Mr Kareem says the Bangladeshi community, gentle by nature, 'will not be moved' by bully-boys. But as election day approaches, it is becoming fairly clear that the bully-boys are not solely - perhaps not even chiefly - responsible for the pressures on his community.
George James is one of the three elderly men I meet on Ferry Street. He is amusing, open, and (at 70) a man without racist motives or other resentments. 'I have lived here all my life,' he says. 'We never had much, but we had our own social life. If anyone made a bread pudding, the word soon went around and everybody got a bit of it. We are a rare breed on this island. We don't need any new people coming in and telling us what to do.'
On the run-up to the election, David Chesterton, a local government official who lives on a street of private houses beside the Samuda estate (but works in Newham), has already noted that 'the whole currency of language' has changed since September. 'Before then, even racists were careful about what they said, so that they couldn't be accused of racism. Now it is totally uninhibited. Racist language and comment have grown.'
Mr Chesterton moved to the Isle of Dogs in the mid-1980s. His wife is a schoolteacher, and he is the caring father of two sons, one of them a teenager. He loves his home on Capstan Square, currently adorned by a large cherry tree in full bloom. He gets on well with his neighbours, among them teachers, nurses and social workers. Middle-class and 40, he has - like them - invested a lot of faith in the Isle of Dogs. But glancing from his kitchen window of an evening, he often sees young BNP members gathering on a patch of pavement, giving Fascist salutes, making triumphalist noises and, of course, using racist language. 'That will continue even if the BNP fails on 5 May,' he says worriedly.
On that date, people in Britain will be monitoring events on the Isle of Dogs, waiting to discover if this small portion of London is to be remembered as an unusual bend in the river, or as a sinister twist in the course of history.-
AN ISLAND HISTORY
Laurence Marks surveys the unhappy fate of a national enterprise born in 1800
'AN UNDERTAKING which, under the favour of God, shall contribute Stability, Increase and Ornament to British Commerce'. The Isle of Dogs was launched in 1800 on a wave of confident abstract nouns, untroubled by modern doubt. It was an enterprise of national importance, the creation of an entrepot for the raw materials and exports of a booming revolution in industrial technology.
The laying of the foundation stone of the West India Docks, built on virgin pasture, was attended by the prime minister, William Pitt, and four of his cabinet. The optimism of the inscription engraved on the stone was justified. The West India merchants grew rich, and the dockers, shipwrights and factory workers who migrated to new homes and jobs on the island soon formed a strong community. They suffered the common afflictions of the Victorian labouring classes: industrial injuries and diseases, cyclical unemployment and crowded, bug-ridden dwellings. But long before municipal democracy arrived towards the end of the century, trade unions and a network of self-help institutions based on family, street, church and workplace allowed them a measure of control over their lives. These institutions gave them self-respect. The buoyancy of East Enders was born in this period.
Capitalism was tempered by social responsibility. Shipyard owners, merchants and manufacturers lived next to their employees. William Cubitt, the island's first large-scale property developer, who laid out the Cubitt Town district, allowed factory owners rent-free space for three years on condition that they built low-cost housing for the workforce. In the 1870s the owners began to move out to the suburbs, and the Isle of Dogs became a one-class neighbourhood. As Eve Hostettler of the Island History Trust points out, this - heightened by isolation from the rest of the East End - cemented the islanders' sense of identity. Commentators on their present discontents are apt to refer to this lost world of working-class life as an 'idyll', implying that its stability has been romanticised. But it was real enough.
It ended with a bang at 5pm on the sunny afternoon of Saturday, 7 September 1940, when the Luftwaffe unexpectedly switched its targets from the airfields of Southern England to the London Docks. The Royal Air Force was caught off guard and more than 300 bombers and 600 fighters broke through. Flames engulfed the West India and Millwall Docks on the island. The attacks went on throughout the night and all next day. The blood-red sky could be seen from the outer suburbs. Islanders couldn't escape: the civil defence authorities had opened the swing- and lifting-bridges in case they were bombed to obstruct the dock entrances.
After 76 days, a third of the homes, factories and warehouses had been destroyed, 124 civilians killed, and families broken up and scattered. Stability, increase and ornament had been reduced to rubble. By the end of the war only 8,000 islanders remained.
Some people hold that the Isle of Dogs never recovered. The old relationships had been shattered. Families drifted back and it was repopulated in the Seventies when the Greater London Council brought in council tenants from all over London. Much of the 'indigenous' population is no more than a generation deep. Nick Holtam, the island's vicar, reckons that up to a third of families have been around for three generations. Bob Brett, a council officer, puts it no higher than 10 per cent. But the newcomers brought a similar working-class tradition with them and seem to have assimilated the island's folk memory and identity.
Disaster struck again in the Seventies. Another revolution in industrial technology was destroying the docks. By the end of the decade the island was surrounded by dereliction. Dockers and those whose livelihood depended on the docks were written off. 'When Canary Wharf was conceived, it was apparent that the existing labour force down here would not have the skills or the basic education ever to work there,' says Michael Pickard, chairman of the LDDC, which has spent pounds 40m on schools and training centres in the past five years. 'We have concentrated on seeing to it that their children will have the computer numeracy to get jobs.' Indeed. The effect of this on the islanders' self-respect, let alone their hopes of a half-way decent standard of living, hardly needs elaboration.
In 1974 Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for Environment, set up the Docklands Joint Committee, a coalition of borough councils charged with regenerating the area. But it had no power to buy land or build housing, roads and public transport. Local Labour politicians argue that, had it been given executive authority and the same huge budget and Whitehall support as the LDDC, this democratic experiment might have succeeded. Unluckily it was born in a decade when political confidence in large Exchequer-funded schemes of public works was low.
'In the summer of 1979, Margaret Thatcher's Environment Secretary, Michael Heseltine, flew over the docks in a helicopter and said nothing's happening here - something must be done,' says Bob Colenutt of the Docklands Consultative Committee, a Labour-oriented pressure group. 'Fifty thousand people were living, and 80,000 working, in the eight- and-a-half square miles of Docklands. If he'd flown over Buckinghamshire and said nothing's happening here, you can imagine the response.'
Heseltine's Local Government and Planning Act 1980 transferred control of the Docklanders' surroundings from the local authorities to a quango. (This by politicians who had been denouncing 'the corporate state'.) Two years later much of the Isle of Dogs was made a statutory enterprise zone, effectively placing developers beyond the reach of the local planning authority and relieving incoming firms of corporation and property taxes. It lasted until 1992.
The bureaucratic mechanism was not wholly new. The post-war new towns were built on greenfield sites by comparable agencies, and they too had provoked local hostility. But they were driven by Utopian idealism, however drab their town centres now look. The urban development corporations of the Eighties were driven by property values, not social ideals.
IN LAST Sunday's Review ('Voting for an island state'), it was reported that Anti-Nazi League leaflets carrying the words 'fuck off Beackon Nazis' were pushed through letter- boxes in the Isle of Dogs. We now accept that there was no evidence for this statement, which arose from a misunderstanding of local complaints about similar slogans appearing on road surfaces. We apologise for the error.
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