The area now known as the London Docklands extended eight miles downriver from Tower Bridge, its most western point, to the Royal Docks in the east, and was described by developers as the ‘largest piece of real estate in Europe’.
It incorporated land used by the docks, warehouses and related industries as well as the housing and public amenities of the communities already living there. In this respect it differed in nature to other dockside areas in Britain at the time, whose development often only covered defunct or derelict riverside sites. When the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) moved into its Isle of Dogs offices, there were still local working docks, many small industries and a population of 56,000 people, mainly living in high-rise council tower blocks with poor amenities.
The people of Docklands have always been subject to the changing needs of trade routes, and from the 1850s onwards, major upheavals resulting from each successive rebuilding and extension of the docks. By the mid 1960s, when they had at last won some rights in security of employment and decasualisation of labour, most of the docks were closed. Once again they were at the mercy of the market. But this time their labour was not needed in the new ‘roll on/roll off’ facilities, and the physical presence of their communities became both an inconvenience and an embarrassment. Keen to fulfil the new Thatcherite vision, the LDDC projected Docklands as a ‘virgin site’. Reg Ward, first Chief Executive of the LDDC, speaking at a local meeting in 1982 described the Docklands as “a blank canvas upon which we can paint the future”.
Proximity to water was a key element in inflating land values and maximising profit. As luxury housing became a prominent feature of the development, a new politics of ‘the view’ entered the frame. Those who had spent vast amounts of money for their ‘view of the river’ did not want their property marred by the sight of crumbling tenement blocks and unsightly council estates. This was beautifully summed up in the excellent ‘A View of the River’ theatre production written by East End playwright Alan Gilbey and professionally performed by the Half Moon Theatre with a cast of local people in the warehouses of Canary Wharf prior to demolition.
Ironically it was to be the vast Canary Wharf office development that led to the eventual downfall of the LDDC. The ultimate in privatisation, the tallest tower in Europe was financed from across the Atlantic. Planned into a scenario with no current need for offices, insufficient transport infrastructure, opposed by major voices in the City of London, who had no desire to see London’s financial centre move eastward, its developers failed to pre-let even one office space prior to the signing of the master build agreement. Once built, it took ten years for Canary Wharf to get off the ground, despite its skyward tendencies.