Why would you want to live there?

Social housing is about more than just buildings; it’s about delivering a sense of community. Barking and Dagenham council leader Darren Rodwell outlines his ambitious vision for the borough.

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Barking and Dagenham council leader Darren Rodwell blurs the lines between politician and proper bloke quite expertly. The lifelong West Ham fan, who is a personal friend of club captain Mark Noble, is proudly working-class but “that doesn’t mean I can’t be ambitious.” On the day we meet, in Rodwell’s own oval office, he’s just put down the phone to “Nobes” and exudes a salesman-like enthusiasm. “We’ve got lots to talk about,” he assures me.

Indeed we have. Packaged as London’s “growth opportunity”, Barking and Dagenham offers some of the capital’s most affordable brownfield development sites as well as office, retail, industrial and commercial space. Excitedly, Rodwell outlines the vision for the future: “35,000 homes and 10,000 new jobs over the next 20 years. We want to be seen as the most aspirational borough in London. There’s your headline.”

Place-making is the planning, design and management of public spaces to capitalise on an area’s assets; and Barking and Dagenham, Rodwell points out, has plenty of those. Located at the heart of the Thames Gateway with excellent road and public transport links to both central London and the Essex countryside, it has been signposted as a commuters’ paradise. “We’ve got four train lines in Barking alone; it’s the eighth busiest station in London,” Rodwell beams. “That shows you that the commuter belt is already alive and kicking. If you look at our location – 15 minutes from Stratford, 15 minutes from Fenchurch Street, Westminster and St Pancras in under an hour – then you can see there’s access to thousands of jobs for our residents.” With Crossrail services due at Chadwell Heath station in 2019, Barking and Dagenham will also have a sub-one hour connection to Heathrow and London Southend airports.

Place-making, though, isn’t a transport-exclusive issue. “Commutability is not our only selling point. Yes, we can commute, but we’ve got our own jobs too. We’ve had a mass development for SME start-ups and the art and culture scene. We’re one of the few places where you can still get £12 per square foot (annually) for artists. That’s massive and we want to make sure that keeps happening. We’re looking at live-work spaces for artists.”

Certainly, east London’s propensity to nurture creative industries is something that Rodwell really wants to get across – “We’re not doing things by halves” – and the Ice House Quarter is testimony to that sell. The Bow Arts Trust is a registered charity that aims to support community renewal in east London and won a tender to create 500sqm of studio space on the ground floor of the main Ice House Court, which is owned by the council, providing much-needed affordable workspace for around 25 individual practices. Meanwhile, Barking and Dagenham College’s main campus houses state of the art photography studios and digital workspaces.

It’s worth noting that Dudley Moore, Sandie Shaw, Dame Vera Lynne and Billy Bragg all grew up in and around the borough; and Rodwell recognises the benefits of nurturing the arts. “As an ambitious council we know how valuable the creative industries are socially, culturally and economically. It is why are bidding to make Barking the capital’s first Creative Industries zone.”

Sport, as well as art, is playing a big role in Barking and Dagenham’s rise. Barking-born Bobby Moore, whom Rodwell calls “the true West Ham gentleman”, is the only England captain to ever lift the World Cup trophy. That legacy has not been forgotten – “How can it be?” – and the borough has followed Newham’s example in sporting investment. The new £23million Becontree Heath Leisure centre has delivered a facility with a 25-metre, 10-lane swimming pool; while over 100 local sports clubs, including Barking Rugby Club and Dagenham and Redbridge Football Club, are actively involved in the local community, providing a range of activities, particularly for young people.

As we move onto house prices, Rodwell fires quickly: “Tell me how many places there are in London where you could get a three-bedroom house with a 100ft garden and two car spaces on the front for £275,000.” This could do with some explanation. While Barking and Dagenham remains one of London’s cheapest boroughs, data collated by Rightmove would suggest that Rodwell’s estimation is a little optimistic. The average house price in the borough, the data found, was actually closer to £290,000.

The day before the interview an article in the London Evening Standard had claimed that homes anywhere in the capital under £300,000 were becoming an endangered species. So, is Rodwell saying that Barking and Dagenham can provide some static sanctuary?

He’s not so naïve. While he does view the comparative low pricing of property in Barking and Dagenham as a plus-point in the short-term, Rodwell recognises that an asset-exclusive, ownership market has some long-term limitations. “We can’t stop natural inflation, but what we do have to remember is that London was built on renters and the flexibility of renters. It’s not my ambition to have everyone in home ownership, but it is my ambition to have everyone in a home; which is why you’ve got to look at five different price points of what people can afford. Equally, we’re the only council that runs a right to invest programme – that’s like a council-tenant version of shared ownership.”

Is Rodwell planning to bridge the gap between the public and private sector? “There are 35,000 new homes coming over 20 years, but this won’t be social housing in the traditional sense.” Instead, Barking and Dagenham will offer a diverse mix of tenures: more and better affordable sub-market stock, a well regulated private rented sector and a very substantially increased stock of owner-occupied housing.

It is his commitment to community, Rodwell feels, that forms his and in turn the area’s guard against gentrification. “Our mantra is that no one gets left behind. We, as a borough, are looking into making infrastructure homes. When I was a kid, social housing meant getting on with your neighbours. Today it’s a derogatory term.

“If you look at the history of London, about 100 years ago, the city pulsed and Greater London was built. The Becontree estate as I know it saw 27,000 homes built over 12 years, and the entire infrastructure was done. It was the first of its kind in social housing. It brought all sorts of people – the Irish, eastern Europeans – and they settled on the estate. They were hard workers who wanted to aspire.

“So, what do we need to do in order to replicate that community? We need to talk about infrastructure homes at different levels. You’ve heard about the blue-collar and white-collar workers, well these are all people that make this city breathe. They make London what it is. I’m talking about having housing in infrastructure terms. Whether you are someone on London living wage, whether you are someone who is aspirational enough to be in the position to pay full market rent, the role of a local authority is to facilitate that and make sure that everyone feels part of that community. That’s how you go about stopping gentrification.”

The Barking and Dagenham place-making project has specialised in variety, with the Barking Riverside residential developments coming in all sorts of different shapes, sizes and, crucially, prices. The only overarching agenda in Barking town centre and the Ice House Quarter too, is that sense of belonging in the borough.

The aim, Rodwell stresses, is to provide housing opportunities for the growing number of households that are in employment but due to the dysfunctional housing market, cannot access home ownership. This “constituency” of mainly young people are finding their housing options restricted by the London-wide expanding private rented sector, in which housing conditions and tenancy security can be poor.

Thanks to the capacity for new builds in Barking and Dagenham, Rodwell says that his council has the potential to facilitate the range and quality of homes for this economically active population alongside meeting other pressing housing needs. “Delivering new housing can help retain residents looking for more aspirational housing as their incomes rise as well as attracting new residents to the borough to support a widening of the range of shops and services. It’s all linked together.”

The East End, Rodwell concedes, used to suffer from an “image problem” but he has worked tirelessly to try to change that. “If you look at the past people would have thought that we were white racists who worked for Ford. But I happen to be white and I’m not a racist nor have I ever worked for Ford. That’s the image, though. That’s the image that was given out by people that weren’t from the borough.

“What you’ve got to appreciate is the aspiration that we’ve got in this borough. Look at where we’re going. We used to make Fords, now we’re making films. The largest film studios in 25 years are coming to this borough. What we’re doing in the arts, we’re recognised by the Mayor as having one of the biggest and most ambitious arts projects in the city. The fact that the New Statesman wants to talk to us is a sign of progress.”

Ultimately, Rodwell puts it, you can’t have one without the other; and it is this interdependency that has themed place-making in Barking and Dagenham. “You can’t have new houses without new jobs and you can’t have new jobs or industries without houses for the workers to live in. It’s not just about making a place; it’s about creating a community.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman