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The People’s Royal Docks 1984-2014

A dialogue between Sue Brownill and Tamsin Omond, edited by Giorgio Talocci

Introductory note.

In mid-November, two months after the end of the London summerLab, Alberto Duman and I visited Tamsin Omond at her place, in what she said to be “the north / very fast being gentrified end of Newham”. We thought it could have been a good idea to organise a skype-meeting with Sue, on-line from Oxford, and let the two of them have a dialogue on the last thirty years of transformation and community mobilisation around the Royal Docks.

Sue Brownill is Reader in Urban Policy and Governance (Department of Planning, Oxford Brookes University) and was once involved in the development of The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks, back in 1984. Tamsin Omond is an activist and founder of The Momentum Project, aiming to create and support sustainable community projects and to work with Newham’s local residents to imagine and create the best future for their borough. They both have fought against a common threat, the London City Airport – back in 1984 when its proposal had been approved and nowadays, when a 200million pounds expansion proposal have just got the green light from Newham council. In both Sue’s and Tamsin’s work, we will see, the Airport threat has eventually become the driver of a wider community mobilisation, catalysing powerful ideas for the future of the Royal Docks and of Newham as a whole.

We asked them simply to cover a few themes (their own positionality; the main means of engagement with people during their work; the different relationship they have had with Newham; the alliances with other actors and the ways of networking with them) and then simply listen to their fascinating and inspiring dialogue.


TAMSIN: Sue, I would like to hear more about The People’s Plan, it has been such an important part of the social and political memory of the area. Our work is somehow the continuation of what you did, but we actually began without knowing your work.

SUE: Maybe I can start telling you about my role in that period: I was a research officer at the Docklands Forum, a Docklands-wide public consultation body. We were generally responding to what was going on in the Docklands, trying to get people’s voices. When the airport idea came along the Greater London Council, in opposition with the London Docklands Development Corporation, set up the Popular Planning Unit: the idea was not to oppose the plan but rather to come up with an alternative to it. At the time, the Docklands were a sort of ideological battleground, with lines very toughly drawn between the different parties, particularly between the LDDC and the GLC. The Dockland’s community was divided as well, although generally aligned against the airport proposal. The idea for The People’s Plan though was very much in line with the GLC’s agenda, that needed an example of popular planning in action. There was a lot of discussion for instance around the plan for Mondragon, a community in Spain that was responding to the industrial decline organising workers’ cooperatives. The Plan came in that vein, in order to ‘put something positive in that space’.

TAMSIN: The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks has actually become a sort of community bible on how to engage with the community to create an alternative vision. My entrance into being politically active in the Docks started working with the New Economic Foundation, precisely to develop a sort of alternative vision of what can exist on the airport land: what could benefit the local community and whole London better than the airport? I had found myself being very scared about climate change and had got in an activist group called ‘Plane Stupid’. We were talking as a sort of national group, looking at all airports. Then we got more localised: I was coordinating the London Plane Stupid group – there was obviously a lot going on and we decided to get really involved against the expansion of City Airport. My role at the beginning was really one of an environmental activist. We broke into the airport and chained ourselves to private jets. That was kind of fine, but then I felt the need to know what the community thought. I needed to create more content to justify our political and environmental activism, so I went out into the streets that surround the airport, especially the North Woolwich area and knocked on doors with a petition against the airport expansion.

It was really in that moment in which I grew as a human and as an activist. Part of the response that I got was much deeper and much more diverse than what I could expect from my early assumptions about the airport. I was politically motivated and had assumptions on what could have been good for the area and what wasn’t – that was my first step: I kept the airport aside for 5 years and kept knocking on doors with questions about what kind of area these people wanted to see, about how we might organise locally to create a community garden or a community choir for instance. And how could the Council create these without the resilience of a very poor and marginalised community? And what kind of mechanisms can we find within the council ones, can there be a ‘community plan’? Can we actually use tools within the council mechanisms to help make things happen… or should we simply keep creating things autonomously as a community of local people?

That was kind of the beginning of the Momentum project. As an external environmental activist of Plane Stupid I really wanted to embed myself in the community with all the skills I had, to help the neighbourhood people to find a voice and being able to believe that things that they wanted to happen can happen for real… We drew out roots to make them happen. Last year I lived in Kilburn, now I finally moved to Newham – I was spending all of my time here anyway! – and I can see there are many things going on: The Momentum Project has now got bigger and we can try to create connections amongst those things.

It was very interesting what Sue was saying about Newham and the Docklands being back in 1984 an ideological battleground. Now the battleground is more about where we actually put the power, how much are we selling off to which investors, to which developers, and how the developments are gonna look like. Within those spaces, before the developments, the developers are moving quite often pseudo-community projects, with the communities that are then welcomed to ‘own’ the space: this is actually a nightmare… and the Meanwhile Gardens were part of it. The Olympics was what created this scenario.

ALBERTO: I think that, as vast majority of the land is owned by the GLA, Newham Council becomes rather a gateway toward an existing community, not to make the GLA’s vision look like an imposition from the outside. This situation means liberating from planning constraints all the areas… I realised actually that this idea of the ‘arc of opportunity’ [the area that goes from Stratford to the Royal Docks passing through Canning Town, where Newham has welcomed most of the investments pre- and post-Olympics] was a concept that Newham already had in its plan already in year 2000, there was a document circulating about this. It has been in the pipeline for a long time, and then taken out when the Olympics seem to be leveraging the opportunity for it to happen.

TAMSIN: About these new developments, lots of communities and activists have been invited to the Royal Docks: rather than encouraging community participation though, it seemed that Newham was inviting people to imagine beautiful looking things that then would look like coming out from the community. Right next to the DLR [in Pontoon Dock], for instance, there’s one thing called the Pleasure Gardens…

SUE: Is that a community initiative?

TAMSIN: No! They got people actually working in Hackney (very good in doing Glastonbury-like stages for instance) to design it and build it, and that was very frustrating for us… We did not feel the need to create new infrastructures, we just wanted the spark to allow spaces that are already existing to become community spaces – little squares, community centres, community cafes, even simply places where the community meets and goes. But what Newham wanted for these big spaces was to be covered by pretty things: while people were going from London City Airport till up to Stratford, they would pass the Pleasure Gardens… but that project actually ended up in a disaster for many reasons.

In that period I was getting email as somebody known to be doing ‘community things’ in the area, asking “how can we get in touch with the local community?”: actually though their capacity of engagement was minimal, they didn’t even have the time to come with me and meet people living in the area. They kind of gave the Pleasure Gardens enough money to hang itself with, and there was really no community engagement at all, just gigs for bringing people from outside into the area. This is super-frustrating. They said they wanted the community to be involved, but what they do is taking away all the roots for them to do that, and ignoring completely community organisations that are already working toward people’s involvement. The approach is so top-down that is a massive barrier for us: we’ve done a lot of community engagement to understand what people would want to see… and we have done it in a very creative way, we’ve had excellent response, we came up with a lot of projects and models, and we’ve got no response at all.

SUE: I was really struck by what you were saying about engaging with the community. I think those things stayed quite the same. What happened to me was feeling quite uncomfortable at that time, I felt I was promoting this idea of The People’s Plan, but what we were putting within that was to a great extent GLC’s policy, and not what people said. There is always a lot to say about the role of activists, of researchers... and it is always about how you navigate politics. Something was there, definitely: the idea of getting back the Docks to a use that was at the time underplayed – there were proposals for community childcare, community gardens, community launderettes, women networks were starting in the area... That was the important somehow, but people were as well excluded from other possibilities.

ALBERTO: I suppose the political climate was a very different one: at least there were different agendas in place, and the position of Newham was different from the one of the city government. Now, rather, we face monolithic vision of Newham and the Greater London Authority, acting almost as one single thing. I believe also today though you can find some political alliances in your action…

TAMSIN: Finding a closed door at the beginning was the most normal thing… Then we got in touch with single mothers that saw in us also a possibility to drop their kids for a while: that’s why the choir was one of the first activities we got involved in, the obvious space where all of the children singing and all of the mothers could have been in one space with us, talking about ways of organising, and talking about the area, about opportunities for childcare.

We actually never went for the Council route though. The Council is so distrusted in that area, especially because nothing has been delivered… Someone who knew someone who worked at the Council said that North Woolwich and Silvertown (and especially that little island behind the airport) are known as the ‘dumping ground’ within the Council. We got in touch with the Council only when we really needed it. For instance there were so many empty shops and at the same time we were very desperate to have a community space: we started doing sort of business plans, we kind of do have a good relationship with some people from the Council but eventually they’d never gone for what they said to be possible.

SUE: I was going to ask you what the networks are in terms of existing organisations and what is happening now…

TAMSIN: For instance, one person that was really brilliant and important for our work has been a priest: after 5 years of us working in the area he eventually saw that our commitment was a genuine one – with the street market, the choir, the dancing workshops – and that we kept being in the area without any particular political ambition. He promised to get for us 500 objection letters against the City Airport expansion, and so far he has collected about half of our total! He was a key contact especially to get in touch with the African community, he knows them all and the women know and acknowledge his role, and would take charge of different projects through him.

Then there’s Community Links, and nothing happens unless there is their organiser helping. We went together to several community centres in the area trying to find out the base from which we could work from. She just said “come here, you’ve got energy, and we want that energy to inject something new into the area”… She said yes also to a group of us sleeping over in her community centre and doing a kind of three day intensive community outreach project, asking “What’s your dream for the area”.

We did models of what we wanted for the area. Also, there was a covered terrace used for hiding drugs and cabbies from the airport to pee on it… it had become a car park, so it was a horrible place: over four days we cleared it out and made a community cafe out of it and replant it. It was a small sign about what we want to do, that is about making things that already exist being used!

The really important alliance that we made is with The Siemens’ Crystal: it is a kind of spaceships in the area, but they have been wonderful for us. Momentum (and this is what I like the most) has acted as bridge between The Crystal and the people of the area – as he had done previously with the New Economic Foundation (the NEF had originally come up with a questionnaire that was very difficult to understand by the community, considering also various levels of English: we set up instead some community interviews, in a way that was intelligible for the community and useful for the NEF).

The collaboration with The Crystal has been very useful for us: that kind of development is exactly what Newham Council usually boasts about, and our alliance with them in this sense acquires a particular political significance. They gave us our space for free, and they also had an email exchange with the Council pointing out the amazing conversation and collaboration they had with us. It will be harder for Newham to disregard us now that we had a conversation with the ‘bigger peers’.

SUE: It strikes me how much the community has changed now: thirty years ago was mainly white working class, some people had lived there a long time, previously working in the Docks. That was very different, in terms of whom we were able to work with.

The unemployment was massively high, so the protest was mainly about jobs. That was one constituency… Then there was also the opposition to the airport plan itself, and this included the Docklands Forum. There were organisations focusing on planning, as well as other things like the allotments group.

It is also important to consider the quite long lapse of time of Momentum being engaged steadily in the area… A critique that you can make instead to the GLC was that they were in and out, although they had been working in Newham for quite a long time before being abolished. There was a lot of work put into The People’s Plan, which stayed at the centre of the debate and our actions for a while. That is when we opened a training centre on Peer Parade in North Woolwich, where the nursery is today. That was part of the activities of The People’s Plan.

GIORGIO: That was also about housing… and I am wondering whether also today in Tamsin’s work it is possible to get to the housing aspect of the struggle. Also in the report by NEF there’s a reference to the future possibility of turning the land of the airport in a Community Land Trust for instance.

TAMSIN: The E15 Mothers made the housing issue very visible in Newham, they also held a public meeting in the Royal Docks area. There is a growing undestanding of how the whole are is being slowly taken over, and the fear of that. In between the Crossrail and the Airport there are 1000 or 2000 people living… those people are going just to be moved if the airport will be expanded. The people have been promised that the housing stock would be improved and that hasn’t happened. The fact is that housing after all is a good way to make money, and one of the important suggestions by NEF was about making a lot of housing, through various housing developers… Would they come on board in a document that will make it a sort of workable reality for the community as well?

Housing is such a core issue for London that you cannot be involved in any kind of community involvement without getting into it. That is a real barrier and the council won’t come to give an answer, there is so much uncertainty around it.

ALBERTO: One thing missing then is actual information?

TAMSIN: Yes and also the frustration while waiting for the decisions to be made.

SUE: It was the same for us: no meetings, no agenda. We got some information from the local MP, and we had some moles that would just leave their papers around, but transparency was really an important theme…. Today I feel it is also hard to know where decisions are made: we have a great fragmentation, much harder, who makes decisions now, is it the GLA or Newham? It is no longer an issue just about transparency: how can I even try to influence staff if I don’t know whether they are accountable or not?