"21st century socialism": how the arts are saving Barking and Dagenham

It was voted the worst place to live in the country and is famous for once hosting twelve BNP councillors. Now, creativity is offering a way forward for the borough.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As headlines go, “Is Barking and Dagenham really the worst place to live in Britain?” isn’t an encouraging one.  Even worse: it was joined by “Barking and Dagenham named worst place in Britain to retire” and “Worst places to live in the UK: Barking and Dagenham come first in top 10 list”. This was the news that the borough, in a survey of resident happiness, had come bottom in the UK.

Over recent years, Barking and Dagenham has seen unprecedented change. Previously the site of two major manufacturers – Ford and Sanfoni – the borough has seen unemployment rise in the years since they closed. In the ten years between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, there was a population increase of 13.4 per cent. It now has one of the highest occupancy rates in Greater London. Simultaneously, the borough has become more ethnically diverse, with a 30 per cent decrease in its White British population and the largest increase in Black African residents in London, at over 20,000. Unemployment there is around 42 per cent; between 2001 and 2011, the number of residents who have never worked increased by 218 per cent, and the borough has been known in political circles for a long time as being the council which, before their defeat in 2010, had twelve British National Party councillors. 

It’s a sunny Friday morning in Dagenham when I go to meet Council Leader Darren Rodwell and Paul Hogan, Divisional Director for Culture and Sport. There are a lot of mums out shopping with their children in the walk from the station, as well as older residents out and about, and I’m struck by how much it reminds me of similar towns up north. On the route to the town hall, I spot posters advertising free events for the council’s Older People’s Week.

When I arrive, Rodwell’s cheerful, despite a cold and coming back from Labour Party Conference where he was called a Tory: “I just said we didn’t have the resources to build more council houses, and some young man said ‘we’ll be rid of Tories like you soon’. I’m working class!” I reassure him this is by no means an uncommon occurrence, citing a tweet I’d seen the day before where someone wondered whether or not Jeremy Corbyn might also, in some ways, be Tory.

Rodwell laughs, but it’s clear the label’s a ludicrous one. Five minutes into our conversation about arts in the borough he’s already cited Vera Lynn, Billy Bragg and Dudley Moore as examples of local talent going on to make the big time, in between talking rents, the housing crisis, the pros and cons of the famous Ford factory and the problem of gentrification versus “aspiration of the working class” (“we don’t have a million pound house for sale here yet. I’m very pleased”.) Born and raised in the borough, he talks of how alarmed he was to see the BNP take hold here while acknowledging why the residents were unhappy, and possibly more inclined to vote for a party which offered an easy means of feeling valuable and listened to in the short-term. He’s more angry at those who cast the area in a negative light, telling me he hears a lot about poverty in the area but little about the fact that, in spite of income levels, it’s the fifth safest borough in London.

Still, his Labour council are in power to change things. “We need a fairer society”, he says, and arts are a part of that. Rodwell talks of a recent trip to the Royal Opera House, and tells me how local residents are getting involved with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Many of them don’t go to cultural events in the centre of the city, even though they technically live in London. “We have famous acts going on locally”, Rodwell says. “Why can’t they be inspired?”

“Not having culture in the heart of the community ultimately led to the BNP.”

For resident Susanna Wallis, the lack of culture in the borough was frustrating. Born on the Gascoine Estate, she went to art events in London as a child – “I was quite lucky; one of my earliest memories is being in an art gallery” – but her school discouraged her from taking it further, even though she showed talent. After she left school at sixteen, she “dabbled” in crafts but ended up little involved in arts locally, working in “normal jobs”. A single mum, she found it hard to travel into London often to see the sort of work she’s interested in.

“Looking out of my window, watching the tumbleweeds go by has been so boring”, she tells me. The arts in Barking and Dagenham were “old school”, and although she eventually took a degree and was headhunted to do design, she ended up back doing regular work.

***

Wallis isn't the only resident who felt the things on offer locally were lacking. Helen Ball is part of the team behind Creative Barking and Dagenham, a project set up by the council in conjuntion with the Arts Council's "Creative people and places" program. Ball began working in the area in October 2013, and says she initially found a “lot of cynicism” and mistrust over how decisions in the arts were being made.

“People were disempowered”, she tells me, even though many residents had lots of interesting, cultural people “playing a part in their lives”.She says the CBD team found people who didn’t say they were connected to the arts, but clearly had connections and interest.

“In other areas I’ve worked, sometimes you can work through existing groups”. In Barking and Dagenham, they were largely starting from scratch, but created “cultural connectors”, a group of ordinary citizens who were interested in the arts. The idea was to “make culture more democratic” and build cohesion in the community.

At first there was some suspicion, but making the organisation inclusive – “what I hate is when people who come along as an individual don’t feel they have a right to be there” – and attendance flexible quickly helped. “We didn’t want a model where if you weren’t free for three hours every second Tuesday you couldn’t be there”, she explains.

The result is a team of people sharing skills to make culture happen in the borough. The group is “purposefully diverse”: “we’ve got people who are working full time, have four kids, are caring for their parents”. Over 100 people have joined the network, all from different cultures and backgrounds, and Helen says that where CBD was originally spread thin now the project is out there, talking for itself.

A Creative Barking and Dagenham trip. Photo: CBD

“People say ‘I meet cultural connectors all the time’”, she says. “All these people have now made decisions in the borough – we’ve now got a lot of people locally who have had an impact. They take it seriously. Underpinning it is a real possibility to make change.”

***

Rodwell is similarly hopeful. After showing me a video of the different arts events the council has organised this year, he tells me the story of the Dagenham Roundhouse, a pub and music venue opened in 1969 as the “Village Blues Club” and once hosts to Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Earlier this year, the future of the pub was in dispute and there were reports that the venue might have to close. Now it’s hoped the building can re-open as a music venue, to give a platform to young people hoping to establish themselves in music. “I want people to feel empowered”, Rodwell says.

It’s just one way in which rebuilding the borough is also about acknowledging its past. Rodwell cites Mary Wollstonecraft and the Ford equal pay strikers as local feminist trailblazers, and the council ran a Women’s Empowerment Month in March to mark the achievements of women in the area. This year was also the first when Flipside, a local LGBT youth organisation, marched in the Barking & Dagenham Youth Parade, and the borough's 50th anniversary celebrations included an African Caribbean Food Festival and Eastern European Harvest festival to recognise growing immigrant communities.

For Rodwell, it’s all about a modern, twenty-first century take on socialism. Next year, the council is due to lose half the budget for their events, but they’re confident with the help of programs like Creative Barking and Dagenham they can keep arts “at the heart of the community” – if only for the benefit of others. “Everything new comes from the working class”, he says. The cultural connectors, he says, are now the ones shaping the culture of the borough.

Ball tells me the same. “Putting together combinations of people gets the best decisions”, she explains. “I think that there’s just something about putting more power into people’s hands: that’s what creativity should be. Creativity is about risk. Getting diverse people together is where creativity happens.”

Hogan, who has worked in the council six years, tells me this is the first time such a number of residents have been involved. During the 50th anniversary celebrations, over 100,000 people came along to an event – half the borough – even though less funding was available than previously.

***

For Wallis, it may even be a reason to stay in the borough. It wasn’t until she bcame across CBD  and became a cultural connector that she got back the excitement and buzz she'd found in the arts while young. 

“They said to me, ‘you’ve just found your niche’. Now the work’s coming in all over the place. I’ve got a new career, at 46 – this is what I was meant to be doing, for years and years.” She now runs several different projects locally, including working as an arts manager at new business Company Drinks.

Reflecting on the sense of lost opportunity, Wallis emphasises how important it is to get locals and especially young people involved. “Why has this borough been left so long in doldrums? Because let's be honest, it has. We’ve got to shock people slightly.” When I ask her about the BNP and whether the arts provide a better, less insular means of empowering people, she tells me there’s a way to go but her experience is encouraging.

“I’ve so enjoyed being in a mix of people, learning about Ramadan and all of that. I don’t have a religion, but people of different religions are accepting, and we all support each other. It’s about breaking down barriers.

We just need to get beyond that and make ‘community’ a general word. We’ve all got social media now, we can all get involved.”

Wallis had been thinking that she might leave Barking and Dagenham when her daughter turns eighteen. “Now I’m really seriously thinking I might stay. The borough needs to keep its talent, not lose it.”

Rodwell agrees. There’s a change here, he says, since the new community arts projects came in. Despite the difficulties still facing residents he’s optimistic it could be sustained, and life improved in the borough. “Never put creativity down.”

 

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.