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The condition of London Docklands in 1981

Although this report was commissioned by the Office, the findings and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Regeneration Research Summary No. 12,1997

This baseline study is the foundation for a wider evaluation of LDDC, which is currently being carried out by Cambridge Policy Consultants for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It is the reference point against which actual changes in Docklands between 1981 and 1998 can be measured and has been developed retrospectively, as no formal baseline was carried out at designation. The full baseline report comments on the picture both for Docklands as a whole and its main sub-areas. This summary deals only with the former.

The Regeneration Challenge in Docklands

  • The area experienced catastrophic job losses over a short period of time, as the Docks closed. Between 1978 and 1983, over 12,000 jobs were lost. The skills of the local population, directed at blue collar work, were inappropriate for many of the growth areas of the London economy.
  • A high proportion of land was held by public bodies who had neither the will nor the capital to make it available for redevelopment. Relatively little land was in private holdings. Thus the supply of land was constrained by a pattern of ownership which was not market sensitive.
  • The extent of dereliction in parts of Docklands was so severe that the costs of development would be very high and uncertain, lowering the attractiveness of the area to investors. External intervention was needed to meet extra-ordinary land reclamation costs and to improve developer confidence more generally.
  • Many development sites were poorly served by the local infrastructure - the provision of which would be essential for these sites to be developed. Poor strategic links between Docklands and the rest of London, the country and internationally, would have created additional costs for employers thus depressing the potential returns on investment.
  • The market alone was unlikely to provide the environmental improvements (including landscaping, refurbishment of the dock estate or restoration of prominent landmarks) or the provision of infrastructure and amenities that were essential if Docklands was to cast off its run-down image and become an attractive place in which to live and conduct business.
  • There were certain gaps in available information that were hindering the operation of markets - for example, the almost complete absence of private house-building in the area for years meant that housing developers had no idea on the potential return for new-build, thus magnifying the risk to developers and deterring investment.
  • This combination of factors made it difficult for the market, without external intervention, to reverse the steep cycle of decline experienced by Docklands before the establishment of LDDC.

The LDDC was established by the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980 with the goal of securing žthe lasting physical, economic and social regenerationÓ of the Docklands Urban Development Area (UDA). It was given four specific objectives: bringing land and buildings back into effective use; encouraging the development of industry and commerce; ensuring adequate housing and social amenities; and creating an attractive environment. Whilst improving transport links is not a specific objective given LDDC by the Act, it has been regarded as crucial by LDDC to the attainment of all of its statutory objectives. Altogether the UDA in 1981 incorporated 1,568 hectares of land and 162 hectares of landlocked water around London's upriver docks. The area covered part of three of the most deprived London Boroughs: Tower Hamlets, Newham and Southwark. From Tower Bridge in central London it ran six miles to Beckton in the east. Most of the UDA lay north of the Thames (Wapping, Limehouse, the Isle of Dogs, the Royal Docks and Beckton) whilst the UDA incorporated Surrey Docks and Bermondsey to the south. A separate Enterprise Zone was established on the Isle of Dogs.

The history of decline

By the mid-1930s London's upriver docks were at their peak, with some 100,000 people were dependent on the Port of London for employment of whom more than 30,000 were employed by the Port itself.

In the post war period the docks and industry in the surrounding area fared less successfully. Between 1961 and 1971 Greater London had lost some half a million jobs in manufacturing, distributive trades, communications and public utilities; sectors which Docklands was heavily reliant upon. Furthermore, the advent of containerisation fundamentally improved the relative profitability of other ports which were better equipped to accommodate the new method of working.

In the late 1960s the Port of London Authority decided that the smaller, up-river, docks were no longer viable and in 1967 closed the East India Docks. Over the 1970s the closures continued until 1981 when the Royal Docks - the last of the large enclosed docks - ceased to handle cargo.

Development of industry

The extent of dereliction was the product of a well established and continuing economic decline. 10,000 jobs were lost in the LDDC area between 1978 and 1981 alone (more than a quarter of all jobs in the UDA). In 1981 there remained 1,014 firms operating within LDDC boundaries accounting for 27,213 jobs. Employment was concentrated in the food, drink and tobacco sector; transport and communications, finance and administration, and distribution. These sectors together accounted for more than 70% of employment in the UDA. The UDA had in 1981 a disproportionately small number of jobs in financial and professional services (only 15.6% in the UDA compared to over 40% of employment in the GLC area as a whole).

Therefore employment in Docklands was locked into declining rather than the expanding sectors of the economy. Between 1981 and 1983 a further 2,181 jobs were lost, many of them in the Royal Docks with the final closure of these Docks in November 1981.

The extent of derelict land and buildings in 1981

Upon establishment LDDC faced large scale problems of dereliction. In 1981 around 60% of the land and enclosed water within the UDA was derelict, vacant or seriously under-used. There was also a substantial number of derelict, vacant and under-used industrial property across LDDC.

Land and property prices suggested little demand to develop the area for residential or commercial use, reflecting the high development cost of the area and many of the severe problem afflicting the area documented elsewhere in this report. With the exception of Wapping and Limehouse (closest to central London) average property prices for most non-waterside areas were lower the £1/4m per hectare.

Docklands also commanded the lowest commercial rents in the Greater London (under £5 per square foot for offices compared with £11-12 per square foot for offices in the City and West End), although there were very few offices in Docklands. Likewise, industrial rents at between £2.25 and £2.50 per square foot in Docklands were substantially lower that rents in prime areas of west London (£3.50).

Table 1††††Stock of derelict, vacant, under-used and unused land or water in the area


land (ha)

water (ha)

land and water (ha)

% of LDDC area

Vacant or derelict industrial buildings






Transport in Docklands

Improving 'access' to and within Docklands has been a major preoccupation of LDDC during its life-time and has accounted for the majority of its expenditure. In summary, the existing road network did not properly 'knit' Docklands together, nor did it integrate Docklands fully with the rest of London or the national road network. Access to development sites was poor in some areas. The network was already prone to congestion and ill-equipped to cope with any substantial expansion in traffic volumes. A dearth of bridges mean that road links were affected by the meandering course of the Thames and its tributary the river Lea.

The rail network in 1981 neither provided for convenient movement around Docklands nor for rapid movement between Docklands and the rest of the capital. Rail links were absent from the Isle of Dogs. The two main railway lines did not provide a direct service into the centre of London. Passengers were required to change onto the tube to get access to the City and beyond. For most of Docklands there was no rail link to a major rail terminus serving other parts of the country.

The bus system formed the mainstay of Docklands public transport system, particularly for the Isle of Dogs. Despite the relative frequency of services, buses suffered in terms of reliability and overall journey times as a result of the limitations of the road network. The pedestrian network in Docklands was also poorly developed and there was only one cycle-way of note.

The environment

Photographic evidence (included in the full baseline report) is perhaps the most compelling record of the environment blight that afflicted Docklands in 1981. Apart from widespread dereliction there were other problems too, for example, a crumbling river frontage and the need to restore over half of the 110 historic buildings in the area.

Docklands as a place to live and work

Economic decline was matched by a population exodus. In 1981 there were 39,429 people residing in the LDDC area as a whole compared to an estimated 48,352 in 1971. This represents an overall decline in the population of 18.5% in the area over 10 years.

The population of Docklands in 1981 was far from prosperous experiencing higher rates of unemployment than inner London. Rates of unemployment in the UDA (10.9%) were higher than for inner London as a whole (9.6%). Docklands residents were also more concentrated in lower paid manual occupations (50.1%) than for Inner London generally (33%).

Docklands also scored poorly in terms of other indicators of prosperity. There was very little owner occupation, with 83% of households living in council rented accommodation. Around 20% of the total stock was classified as being in a poor or uninhabitable condition. Overall car-ownership levels were slightly below those for Inner London as a whole. There is limited information about the health of Docklands' residents in 1981, although a contemporary report to Government (1980) stated that the Docklands area had a 9.2% higher than national average for death rates, 20% higher sickness benefits claims and 30% higher rates of admission to hospital.

Parts of the LDDC in 1981 suffered a probable shortage of facilities when compared to the level of the resident population and their needs. Some amenities, especially schools and health centres, were housed in old or unsuitable premises. There was probably insufficient secondary schooling and sports or leisure facilities within the LDDC.

Contemporary views of Docklands in 1981

Contemporary surveys of residents, business and potential developers provide some evidence of how poorly the area was perceived (itself a major obstacle to development). Docklands residents were more dissatisfied with their area than residents of urban action areas elsewhere. Potential investors in Docklands were likely to be deterred by Docklands' depressed image, its poor environment, problems of land assembly and poor transport links. The pre-LDDC administrative arrangements (eg on planning matters) were also identified as a factor impeding development. Significantly there was virtually no private house building in Docklands in the five years before the establishment of LDDC.

Further Information

  • This study was carried out by Price Waterhouse.
  • A full report is published as: The Condition of London Docklands in 1981, DETR 1997, ISBN 1-85112 052 1, price £12-00.