In 1981 the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established under Thatcher’s government to regenerate the Docklands area of East London. The LDDC in effect abolished all democratic planning powers across the docklands area resulting in neither the Greater London Council (GLC) nor local authorities having any planning locus.
At this time Hilary Wainwright was working within the Popular Planning Unit at the GLC, under Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty. The mandate on which Labour Livingstone’s GLC was elected intended that the docks would become a transport hub with the associated processing industries, whilst opposing the proposed City airport. In her role within the Popular Planning Unit, Hilary was a key supporter of local organisations within the docklands who were developing an alternative to the proposed airport, called The People’s Plan.
The result of the People’s Plan movement was a 40-page document, which provided a detailed alternative plan for future of the docklands. The plan covered housing requirements, the introduction of a transport interchange, utilising the docks for cargo handling and ship repair, and employment opportunities for women. The movement triggered a public inquiry into the proposed city airport, to which the People’s Plan presented alternatives. The overall aim of the People’s Plan was to stop the airport and subsequently ensure that it, or at least development ideas from it, became part of Newham Council’s Local Plan for the area.
What is The People’s Plan and how was the GLC’s involvement with its development?
HW: The GLC’s involvement with The People’s Plan began as a result of the restrictions imposed by the LDDC, which meant we didn’t have the power to implement our mandate for the London Docklands. We needed alternative sources, and the Popular Planning Unit had developed an understanding that looked to the collective power and capacity of Londoners as being crucial to developing any effective industrial strategy, across the whole of London.
Our ethos was to start where people were already active, as those who were protesting, resisting and acting usually had an idea about what they wanted. On this basis we were already working with people on the docklands including the Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG), who had done a lot of research and were firmly rooted. Through them we discovered a strong movement developing against the airport.
The group’s first proposal was to have a People’s Plan Centre (PPC) where people could come in and discuss their ideas about the future of the docklands. Two local grannies acted like shop stewards for the estates, led this initiative and convened a meeting to discuss the negative effects of the LDDC plans, regarding local housing, jobs and pollution. The GLC supported the group by funding both the development of the People’s Plan Centre and the employment of a team that would be accountable to a committee of local people. The process began to gather people’s ideas about what could be developed around the docks instead of the proposed airport. In addition to the PPC, visits were made to a number of groups including trade unions, tenants associations, mother-and-toddler groups and small businesses.
Why didn’t the People’s Plan get adopted?
HW: The implementation of the Plan proved difficult owing to the restrictions imposed by the LDDC. The inspector of the public inquiry ruled in favour of the airport, partly owing to big companies such as Mowlem and Ryanair strongly promoting the proposal. Nonetheless, the requirements the airport had to meet were influenced by the People’s Plan - they weren’t just given a blank cheque. It was a defeat but it built up people’s confidence to get resources from the GLC to implement their ideas. However, once the airport was given the go ahead, that determined the development of the area. There was no way the docks could be used anymore and most of the small local businesses were cleared.
Unfortunately due to political context of Thatcher abolishing all planning powers within the LDDC area, the GLC had little to bring to the alliance apart from financial support for the People’s Plan. By contrast is the case of Coin Street (http://coinstreet.org/) where not only could we support their plans, but the GLC could use their powers to compulsory purchase the land and stop the developer, whilst also providing funding for the alternative plan to be implemented. That is a stark illustration of what is possible when an elected body has real powers and works with a community organisation.
Do you think The People’s Plan would be better received today, or would it be harder to champion this approach to planning?
HW: I think planning policies are not strong enough; the developer appears to have total power. However, developers are now increasingly sensitive to questions of image and more nervous about community reaction and how it plays in the press. Perhaps a ‘People’s Plan approach – a community getting organised and putting forward their own ideas whilst being supported by a local authority – would hold greater bargaining power today. Unfortunately I think it is about using powers of propaganda and image busting rather than local authorities being able to use any strategic powers. Perhaps if there were many such initiatives it could lead to more power for local authorities or the GLA.
Initially the People’s Plan struggled to gather ideas from local people. Do you think this would be easier today as people tend to expect to be consulted and contribute their ideas?
HW: For most of their lives people have been dominated, they have not been able to control their futures or their environment, their community, their workplace. They are not in a situation where they feel they have power over what happens. They make an intuitive calculation ‘people are asking for our ideas but what is the point if they are not going to be implemented?’. Now there is more of sense that direct action can work, there is greater belief for standing up for what you believe and standing up against injustice – for example the E15 Mothers group. When people are facing brutal attacks people will stand up. That is often the basis that will lead to alternatives, but only under those circumstances. It’s whether that can ever be supported in a way that leads to greater power, which can stop the developers and trigger some new public led dynamic. Unfortunately there is so little public money to put into alternatives.
Given the scale that the LDDC covered do you think it was a necessary tool, which was poorly orchestrated or was it simply the wrong approach to regenerating this part of London at this time?
HW: The area could have been regenerated if local authorities had had the power and the capital to build houses. I imagine the housing was run down and there was no attempt to regenerate local industry. There could have been an investment bank to support local businesses.
I don’t think the regeneration of the area needed such a market driven institution. The LDDC didn’t respond to any democratic processes. It did have to accept the inquiry into the airport but apart from that it eliminated all local planning powers. It was almost like a free enterprise zone, which offered businesses a zone that was free of government legislation, and any democratic or environmental controls. Any local development bank would need to be within a democratic framework. The public investment resources were good, however I think the process was mainly about attracting private money by having no regulations.
What are the positive / negative legacies of the LDDC that we see today?
HW: The LDDC has been one of the culprits of the appalling housing situations in London, as it facilitated mass creation of high rise, high value housing around the docklands, near the City. It created this idea of ‘housing for the City’, which set the price levels for the whole of London. It was responsible for all the luxury housing around Canary Wharf and Limehouse, which pushed out local people and as result had repercussions for the whole city.
What lessons can be learnt for development corporations, which are operating as mechanisms for regenerating London or other parts of the UK today?
HW: Any development initiative should be under democratic leadership. Something like a decentralised national investment bank could work where you have the national level, but also a regional and local level of control. At the GLC we had a Greater London Enterprise Board, but that was set up by the GLC and therefore it was accountable to an elected body, and its board was made up of councillors, GLC officers and trade union representatives. So whether it is called a development corporation or an investment bank - you do need some investment money, and you need it to be decentralised to respond to people’s knowledge and capacity - respond to initiatives like the People’s Plan.