Initial redevelopment issues in the Docklands began at the western end of the designated land. The Royal Docks at most eastern extremities were left largely untouched throughout most of the eighties. However one major development for this area was put into motion. This was to be a new airport for London, whose runway would use the stretch of land between these docks, and surrounding areas for airport buildings and parking.
As with all these developments, local people had not been consulted. The area was renowned for its lack of amenities, jobs and transport, while most residents were squeezed into shabby tower blocks in urgent need of rebuilding. An airport would meet none of these needs, save a few jobs for ground staff and cleaners, and certainly not the kind of transportation so urgently required.
Silvertown residents, like others in Docklands, were highly organised – a necessity for survival in such challenging conditions. A key activist in this area was Connie Hunt, renowned for pouring hot soup over Winston Churchill, following unwelcome sexual advances when she was sent to wait on him as a young girl. On hearing of the Development Corporation’s plans for the airport, the activists of Silvertown created their own organisation, the People’s Plan Centre, which found premises in a local shop, staffed by volunteers.
They approached the Greater London Councils’ new Popular Planning Unit for support. This unit had employed some key political strategists on its staff, including Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright (co-authors of the early social feminist book ‘Beyond the Fragments’). Hilary took on the Royal Docks case, joining the Joint Docklands Action group and Docklands Community Poster Project as collaborative partners. The DCPP designed posters, provided a shop sign and promotional board for the centre.
Members of the People’s Plan Centre carried out their own research and consultation, gained expert input and finally drew up a comprehensive document. This detailed how the same area of land could meet local needs including those of housing, childcare, the elderly, shopping facilities, transport, leisure and recreation, education and health. The Plan addressed the means through which this approach would create jobs and boost the economy while providing the local resources so urgently needed.
DCPP designer Sandra Buchanan designed the lengthy proposals into a visual and accessible illustrated , and LB Newham had it posted through every letterbox in the area. There was no comparison between the social benefits of the airport proposal and those of the People’s Plan. Silvertown residents were successful in achieving a public enquiry, which upheld their plan instead of that for the airport.
However the London Docklands Development Corporation London were answerable only to central government, a power that had been created by a special act of parliament by the Thatcher government. They did not have to take on the recommendations of the enquiry, and the airport went ahead.