With all the hype these days about apartment sales on the banks of the Thames, you could be forgiven for thinking that the river is lined with luxury homes along its entire length. While residential property dominates in waterfront areas closest to central London, take a short DLR ride east and you’ll encounter a different world.
Out by the ExCeL exhibition centre and London City Airport, an area today branded Royal Docks on account of its maritime past, there are some apartment developments (the Barrier Point complex overlooking the wonderfully green Thames Barrier Park being a good example) but is in reality largely undeveloped.
Vast swathes of land have been left derelict as a result of industry closing down over the years. At Pontoon Dock, there is for example, a considerable amount of space standing vacant next to a towering mill structure. As I wrote last year, there was a short-lived attempt to create an open air entertainment complex, the London Pleasure Gardens, but the venture failed and the taxpayer lost some £3 million as a result.
Until the dawn of the 19th century there was nothing much in these parts; the East End was concentrated on the other side of the River Lea. Things changed in 1855 when Royal Victoria Rock was opened, with neighbouring Canning Town built as a place for the workers to live. Development in the area continued with the opening of Royal Albert Dock in 1880 and George V Dock in 1921.
Royal Victoria Dock was pioneering in that it was the first that could take the new iron ships. Its main cargo was initially grain and by the 1800s it was the busiest dock in the capital. The newest of London’s docks, King George V Dock could handle the biggest liners of the day at its fourteen births, including the Mauretania, the ‘Good Old Lady of the Atlantic’.
With the Port of London Authority on the brink of insolvency in the late 1970s, the Royal docks were shut and thousands were put out of work. Local communities saw a number plans presented that would generate the area including shopping malls, office complexes and indoor arenas. Unfortunately development was delayed because the initial funding was re-directed to the North East. Given that it now has an airport and an exhibition centre the area’s potential has been realised to some extent.
And while much industry has gone, some does survive. Walking from Canning Town along as near to the Thames as I could today I saw a number of workshops and storage depots. At Silvertown, an industrial estate founded on the success of the docks in the 1850s, there is Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery which opened in 1878. It is said to be the last working factory on the Thames.
But, due to unfair rules from Brussels which open up the market to foreign competitors while at the same time restricting British production, the Tate and Lyle operation says it faces an uncertain future on the banks of the Thames. The upshot is that some 850 jobs are under threat.
Some like to turn their noses up at the presence of heavy industry in Britain. “We don’t make things these days, we are a knowledge economy,” some say. Yes, as a nation we may be moving towards a high tech future, but we are not at the stage where we can afford to lose factories like Tate and Lyle. Poverty is already high and many are unemployed in the east London boroughs like Newham and neighbouring Tower Hamlets. Losing so many jobs would only make things worse.
People who think we can allow industry to fail and that the vacant land be turned into luxury apartments are deluded. There’s a demand for waterfront homes at measured levels, but their existence won’t create jobs for ex-factory workers. Our government must fight for the right for industrial firms to run prosperous operations in Britain.
There’s a place for both luxury apartments and industry on the banks of the Thames.