Loraine Leeson on the London Docklands

25th June 2018 saw publication of Loraine’s article Our land: creative approaches to the redevelopment of London’s Docklands in a special editon of the International Journal of Heritage Studies edited by Katazyna Kosmala: Intangible heritage and post-industrial waterfront zones: Ways of seeing.


Large-scale re-development of post-industrial sites can easily railroad over the needs or wishes of its existing inhabitants, or at best involve them in peripheral consultation. However, when a community is highly organised and also collaborates with others to gather expertise and develop effective means of communication, it has the ability to re-envision a future that can meet the needs of all concerned. In the 1980s The Docklands Community Poster Project engaged with a cluster of waterfront communities, which embraced the arts in influencing the regeneration of the London Docklands. Close collaboration between local people, activists and artists led to a range of interventions implemented over a ten year period that included a series of large-scale photo-murals, travelling exhibitions, initiatives and events such as the People’s Armadas to Parliament and the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks. The article makes an argument for how and why art can be an effective tool in social transformation and highlights its role in documenting and making visible the intangible cultural heritage of the communities it serves.

Docklands Community Poster Project 1981-1991

Ten years of cultural campaigning with the communities of East London around issues arising from the development of the London Docklands. Production of photo-murals, exhibitions, photographic documentation, graphics and events.


Collaboration with Peter Dunn and a team involving graphic designers Sandra Buchanan and Dini Lallah, administrator Belinda Kidd and contributions by Tony Minion, Sonia Boyce, Donald Rodney, and Keith Piper.

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The artists’ initial consultation with local groups had encountered a repeated request for a photographic record of the many campaigns taking place across the Docklands area. This became a central activity of the Poster Project, and an archive of their b/w negatives is still held by the artists. The colour transparencies are held by the Museum of London Docklands.

East West Road

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The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks

People's PlanInitial 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.

P Plan press conf

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.

No Jets demo

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.

No Airport banner

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.

R Docks Ph mural

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.

P.Plan content 2

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.

Digital Highways

In 1991 local experience of the Docklands redevelopment was taken into a global arena  through a multimedia installation commissioned by the Agnes Etherington Gallery, Kingston, Ontario, as part of their exhibition and conference Fragmented Power: Art voices for 2000.

Digital Highways

Loraine and Peter collaborated with Toronto based artists Carole Conde and Karl Beverage to produce Digital Highways, Local Narratives, an installation that looked at the local effects of the global transfer of capital through financial centres such as Canary Wharf, and the resulting de-industrialisation that had severe repercussions for the Canadian economy.