Barking & Dagenham – past, present & future

Old Civic Centre

We celebrated the 50th anniversary of all London boroughs in 2015.

I grew up here in Barking and Dagenham.

As a child, I lived in a low-rise near Caddis Court and went to Leys Infant, John Perry Juniors and Eastbrook Schools. Just before becoming a teenager we moved into a council house in Chadwell Heath in Dagenham, where I attended Warren School. I have known the Borough for almost as long as it has existed, and I have witnessed first-hand the change and challenges it has faced over the past forty-odd years. However, I also see our huge potential. London is pulsing again. Demand, for jobs, housing and culture, is moving outward and eastwards. Once more Barking and Dagenham can provide the answer, as we did a century ago with the creation of the Becontree Estate. We can be part of the solution, benefiting from growth while ensuring we remain accessible and welcoming to all. We can build the New East.

If we are going to understand where we are today, and make any form of progress, we have to understand how we got here. That is why history is so important. It unlocks the story of who we are and helps us understand our need and our potential.

The Garden City

Barking and Dagenham was designed as a ‘Garden City’, using large-scale manufacturing to pull East Enders out of the decaying inner city.

Between 1921 and 1933 26,000 ‘homes fit for heroes’ were built, in part for returning veterans of the First World War, creating the Becontree Estate. May & Baker’s established their chemical plant in Dagenham in 1922, and in 1931 Ford built their enormous factory across Dagenham’s riverfront. These huge firms built the Borough in its modern form.

Our population rose by 50 per cent during the first half of the century. Communities formed and grew around the jobs of local people.

Neighbours went to work together, took holidays together and supported each other.

This employment created strong communities, but it also created complacency and an unquestioning deference to those in authority who, so we were led to believe, knew better. We left school young, often without adequate education and skills, and took the same jobs as our parents, friends and neighbours.

We acted robotically, like a cog in one of the machines that made the cars that rolled off the assembly line in Fords. In the longer term our community became pigeon-holed. We began to be seen as ‘blue-collar’, and we were expected to undertake these particular jobs.

This stifled aspiration, never mind our imagination. We stopped believing anything in life was possible, and accepted what others deemed our lot. It was a comfortable life, but it was stagnant, and it failed to prepare us for what was about to happen next as the world around us changed. As sure as night follows day the future always arrives unexpectedly, but we were completely unprepared.  

We have a responsibility never to let that happen again.

After the Second World War the British people elected Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, the greatest Government of modern times. Attlee gave a war-torn country hope and, more importantly, aspiration for the first time in years, as he realised William Beveridge’s reformist vision of a welfare state.

As described previously, Barking and Dagenham, like the rest of the country, was rebuilt around the four pillars most important to a fair society: healthcare free at the point of use; safe, decent homes for all; welfare for those in need; and education regardless of background or wealth. We in the Labour Party now need to unite around a pragmatic but no less bold approach to strengthening these most important of values and services.

Today, as Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly said, we in the Labour Party should engage with working-class communities across the UK, and continue the conversation from the election about how we are going to rebuild these four most important pillars of our society.

Industrial Decline and Globalisation

By the late 1970s deindustrialisation had taken hold and the country’s economy was changing, moving away from large-scale industry and towards the financial and service sectors.

The large employers upon which our community depended downsized as the world changed, and our jobs moved, with so many others, offshore to developing countries, creating a black hole of skills and employment.

The number of people employed by Ford in Dagenham fell from 28,000 in 1975 to 7,300 in 2000, and in 2002 the assembly line was closed. The life we knew disappeared before our very eyes.

Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 weakened the vital link our trade unions had with civic society. There’s always a need to modernise and adapt to new circumstances but Thatcher’s decimation of rights at work accelerated our decline. When she dismissed the idea of community, declaring ‘there is no such thing as society’, it wasn’t just selfishness that won.

Right to Buy worked for many families, but it crippled our social housing stock, and the slow stripping of the welfare state began.

This is not abstract theory, it is deeply personal.

I remember the ice on the inside of the windows, I remember my Dad struggling to find work, and I remember providing food parcels for my grandparents, cast aside by Thatcher’s Britain. And I am still proud to say as a kid I marched against her snatching our milk! By the end of the century a deregulated City of London was booming, but de-industrialisation had left many of us behind.

We shared then, as we do now, much more in common with the working-class towns of Wales and the North than we do with many parts of London and the South East. We suffered the same decline, while other areas boomed. We should remember this, and know that it is our values which bind us, not simply our geography.

Our education system had not prepared us for the jobs of the 21st century. Deprivation, poor health and community division became more common. We had lost our place in the world. Today we die earlier, have poorer health, and have lower levels of education and skills than across the rest of London. Too many of us are insufficiently skilled, too many are in low-paid work, and too many struggle to find decent homes. Like many aspirational working class communities across the country, Barking and Dagenham was left behind.

We are not alone in facing these challenges of de-industrialisation; of a rapidly transforming economy and society changing before our very eyes. Working class communities around the world are struggling to adapt to the new reality, from Blackburn, Hartlepool and Wolverhampton in this country, to Flint, Michigan City and Youngstown in the Rust Belt of the United States. What we all have in common is a feeling of losing our place in the world. We must support one another and build a 21st century economy which works for all, to ensure that frustration does not lead to disunity and a sense of lost inheritance.

Class has been engrained in British history for centuries, and there are endless ways to read class across our society. Over the second half of the twentieth century our culture diversified and class differences became less obvious, as communities adopted different pastimes, politics, beliefs and customs. However, I believe we can still understand our society by appreciating the difference between the haves and the have nots. Between the few, privileged as such to lead lives of security and comfort, and the many, who must work hard for safety and security.

This goes further than a simple divide between the haves and the have nots.

Last year Shelter found that approximately one in three UK families were one paycheque away from losing their homes, and the majority of our population is far from free of such worries. We are all vulnerable to life’s emergencies and difficulties at any given moment in time, and we deserve to know that we will be supported in our time of need.

So, when I talk about the aspirational working class, I am not talking about a narrow, outdated vision of workers from a bygone era. I am talking about the vast majority of us who live without true security; the many of us who must continue to work hard to ensure we have a roof over our head and food on the table, regardless of whether we work in a factory, an office, a service or anywhere else.  

Alongside these changes to the economy, globalisation has transformed our community.

Between 2001 and 2011 the population of Barking and Dagenham rose from 164,000 to 186,000, and is projected to reach 275,000 by 2037.

We face a rapid movement of people, with approximately one quarter of the population moving into and out of the Borough between 2012 and 2014. We become more beautifully diverse each year. The proportion of residents identifying as coming from minority ethnic backgrounds increased from 15-50 per cent from 2001-2011, while those identifying as white British reduced from 79-49 per cent in the same time.

I understand that change can be unsettling and scary. As the poorly educated predominantly white working class community were feeling the pain of London’s industrial retreat, the introduction of new groups in our community were viewed by many as competition, or a strain on resources.

Some began to blame the newcomers for the loss of our jobs, or our inability to find a decent home. This is understandable, but wrong.

I remember the National Front marching over the Heathway in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I understand the pain that division and prejudice caused the community. Often the reason people are here is because we were over there – from where they originate. The legacy of Empire has unintended consequences. I have long-since believed that it is our diversity which puts the ‘great’ in Great Britain. We must not blame our friends and neighbours for the strain of austerity they did little to cause.

Being Left Behind

After a long eighteen years of Conservative rule, in 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour entered Government with a landslide victory.

As promising and in many ways progressive as Blair’s New Labour was, they failed to understand the true impact of the great forces of change we were facing.

Blair understood the benefits of globalisation, but did not acknowledge its downsides. While the economy grew during these years, bringing wealth and security to many – until the global crash in 2007 – it failed to fix the deep inequality caused by our industrial withdrawal and exclusive economy.

New Labour did little to alter Thatcher’s pursuit of monetarism – purporting that a brutal focus on deregulation and low inflation would spur investment and job creation and trickle down growth for the whole population – which had dominated our society since the 1980s.

Despite our fundamental re-engagement with the community at a local level, the National Labour Party became detached from the aspirational working class; particularly those who had been hurt most by the global financial crisis.

By Blair’s third term, Labour’s insistence that ‘we are all middle-class now’ failed to acknowledge the pain felt by those communities, such as my own; the struggle to find secure employment, and a decent home at a decent price, and a community you are proud to call home.

By the General Election of 2010 we were just as isolated as we had ever been. A sense of detachment between the Labour Party and the communities we seek to serve has plagued us ever since.

Jeremy Corbyn has made progress in bridging this gap, in particular by re-engaging with young people marginalised by tuition fees, the housing crisis and Brexit. However, we still have a long way to go before we are at one with working communities from whom we called for support in the post-war era.

However, if we can learn anything from the snap election campaign of 2017, it is that people are crying out for us to put our differences aside and get back to basics. To focus on the real issues which matter to real people, on inclusive growth, housing, education, healthcare and welfare. We must listen to what we have heard, and place fairness at the heart of our new approach to these issues.

Since 2010 successive Governments have embarked on a ruthless programme of fiscal austerity, stripping public spending across the board in a foolhardy bid to balance the budget at all costs.

In 2020 our Council will have half the money to spend as it did in 2010. Welfare has been slashed to a fraction of its former self, and just like the old Poor Law, now penalises those who need it most.

The NHS and social care services are facing a funding crisis so severe they are on the brink of collapse. Our schools’ budgets look set to shrink yet again. We face the worst housing crisis for generations – astonishing for the fifth richest country in the world. At the same time our population is becoming more complex, and demand for public services is increasing. If the UK is going to rebuild a fair society, we are going to have to reverse the damage caused by austerity, and begin strengthening these central elements of our country.

We know that the ‘truths’ which have underpinned economic policy for decades are not as sacrosanct as many have claimed. There is less and less evidence to suggest that government borrowing drives up interest rates and inflation. Cutting tax and ‘red tape’ does not fuel investment on the scale successive Governments have assumed, nor do the consequences benefit the aspirational working class, and it is no longer clear that government spending hinders productivity or growth. Indeed investing in people’s education, skills and wellbeing will always bring the greatest return.

We could debate economic theory forevermore, but one thing is absolutely clear. Our economy works well for those with wealth and power, but it more often than not fails aspirational working people across the country. It fails the working class. Period.

The asset and income rich were protected from the worst of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile the poor were left out in the cold, and felt the worst of the austerity which was supposed to fix our broken system. A decade later little has changed. Growth is enjoyed by the same elite, while most work pays less, and more and more families find themselves in or around the poverty line.

It is no wonder that, having stripped back what matters most for so long and punished those most in need, working-class communities across the country took their chance last year, and opted for change by voting to leave the European Union.

Just as in 2006 the ignored community of Barking and Dagenham took out their frustration by voting for those who seemed to listen – the BNP.

In 2016 disregarded working-class communities across the country voted for the cause which falsely claimed to hold the answer; Brexit. It is never wrong to vote for what you think is right, but it is our responsibility to fully explain why our offer is the best and fairest approach to our future.

Over the past few decades London has become a truly global city, and the economic engine of Europe, producing twice as much wealth per person compared to the rest of the UK. However, our Capital remains deeply unequal, with an ever-widening wealth gap and rife social division. London, and particularly ex-industrial areas to the east, continues to experience some of the worst deprivation and poverty in the country.

Twenty-seven per cent of Londoners live in poverty, and in 2015 Barking and Dagenham was found to be the 9th most deprived local authority in England, and the poorest London Borough.

This is now a city geared towards the wealthy, which short-sightedly disregards the aspirational working class, and the critical role they play in making London the greatest city in the world. This city was built because of its diversity – culturally and financially – not in spite of it. Yet London is now in danger of collapsing in on itself; it is a ‘supernova city’. In the last few years we have seen Londoners on modest incomes increasingly caught in a trap between stagnating wages and rising prices – of homes, travel and groceries – many Londoners are now working harder than ever just to maintain their current circumstances. The poorest fifth of households own just 0.1% of the capital’s wealth, while 58% of Londoners living in poverty are part of a working family [1]. Employment is intensely focused in our financial centre. Gentrification and the current housing crisis have made home ownership a fantasyfor those on average incomes. The same people are forced to commute unhealthily long distances on increasingly unreliable and expensive transport systems. As Charles Leadbeater wrote in 2014, ‘the narrative of progress that used to underpin the life of these aspirational, hard-working people has broken down. They believe in self-reliance and hard work but have precious little to show for it at the end of each month’[2]. Many are starting to seek employment in other areas of the country, where they can live cheaper, more comfortable lives. This is still the greatest city in the world, but our priority must be to ensure it remains fair and accessible to all. By building balanced, inclusive infrastructure we can transform our growth into a force for unity rather than division, fairness rather than discrimination.

A New Approach

We have watched as other areas of London have taken the wrong path, growing to the detriment of their own communities.

Gentrification has brought prosperity to other boroughs through social cleansing by wealth; pricing out the community and importing new, wealthier residents. This tide has been lapping at the shoreline of East London for decades, and we see it fast approaching. but we do have a choice. We do not have to stand by and watch our residents priced out of their own community. We can and will act to ensure Barking and Dagenham remains a community for the aspirational working class, by taking targeted, pragmatic action to ensure our growth is truly inclusive.

We have the potential to take action because Barking and Dagenham is London’s biggest growth opportunity, and because we see growth as a two-way street.

Over the past half-century London has grown hugely, but not to the benefit of every borough. We have been left behind, as shown by our continued deprivation. More recently the 2012 Olympics gave our neighbouring boroughs an opportunity to flourish. Now it is our turn.

London is moving east for work, housing and culture, and over the next 20 years we will become London’s focus for growth.

Infrastructural developments will make us even more connected to the rest of the region.

We will deliver on our game-changing potential for over 50,000 new homes and over 20,000 new skilled jobs. We will do all this while remembering that we are one Borough, one community.

Our growth potential empowers us to shape our economy, to mould it into one which works for everyone by placing focus on new forms of working, and new forms of community. Inclusivity is woven into everything we do. Targeted planning will create mixed, balanced communities capable of huge growth, but will also provide homes for hard-working people from across the economic spectrum. We will court new, skilled employers to utilise the untapped potential of our population, and ensure a secure livelihood for our residents. This is how we will ensure fairness remains at the heart of our approach. Our regeneration will not only be enjoyed by every group of our community, but will be used as a tool to build a new, modern and inclusive Barking and Dagenham. We will take our fair share of London’s success. We are London’s growth opportunity, and together we will build the New East.

Further questions

Why is it important that we understand our history? How can our history inform our future?

How can we ensure the residents of Barking and Dagenham are not ‘left behind’ again?

How does the original vision of Dagenham as a ‘Garden City’ inform our aspirations today?

[1] Trust for London, London’s Poverty Profile 2017.

[2]Leadbeater, Charles. Hollow Promise: How London Fails People on Modest Incomes and What Should be done About It, Centre for London, 2014.

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