London stands as one of the world’s foremost global cities and throughout its history; inequality has been a key feature. The early writings of Booth (1892) highlighted the mass of poverty, inequality and segregation prevalent in Victorian London as it became the largest city the world had ever seen. During this period, writings confirm concerns over the growth of the urban industrial working class in Britain (Engles, 1849; Materman, 1904). Hamnett therefore argues that these ‘concerns over polarization…are not new…[and] have been around, in one form or another, for at least 150 years, rising and falling with prominence depending on the changing circumstances’ (2001: 163). The formation of today’s London started in the late 1960s. Its economy underwent a shift from being characterised by the production of goods through manufacturing to now being distinguished by the provision of services (Bell, 1973; Teedon, 2001; Savitich, 1988). Tower Hamlets has been at the centre of this shift and it encapsulates the transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial city. Polarized images of inequality have always been a feature in Tower Hamlets:
‘in Tower Hamlets…the council blocks stand facing the commercial skyscrapers of the City; the one representing one of the most depressed areas in Britain, the other sited in one of the richest square miles in Britain. It is a contrast that has been seen before in London’s past.’ (Greater London Council (GLC), 1985: 8)
Tower Hamlet’s industrial past reflects both the wealth of the empire streaming into East India, St Katherines’s, Millwall, Victoria, Surreys and King Albert Docks and the plight of the working class dockworkers who were subjected to high levels of poverty. Technological changes in the shipping industry (containerisation), the increase in the size of ships and a general decline in world shipping resulted in the closure of the docks from 1967. Industrial restructuring accompanied the closure of the docks, in which 82,750 jobs were lost in the Docklands across Lewisham, Newham, Greenwich, Southwark and Tower Hamlets from 1961-71 (GLC, 1983). As a result of this restructuring, the population became disintegrated and marginalised, as much of the land became derelict: between 1961 and 1971 Tower Hamlets lost 18% of its population (Church, 1988).
The redevelopment of the Docklands from 1981 under the Thatcher government and the guidance of London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) brought about the shift towards financial services provision. The redevelopment from 1981 to 1998 saw 25 million square feet of commercial and industrial floor space being built. 1,984 acres of derelict land was reclaimed, 24,046 new homes built and 144 km of new roads and railway constructed (LDDC Report, 1998) as well as creating thousands of jobs. This transformation has resulted in Docklands in Tower Hamlets being considered as an extension of the City of London (Hamnett, 2003; Daniel and Bobe, 1993; Butler, 2007).
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Booth, C. (1892) Life and Labour of the people in London. London: Macmillan.
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Church, A. (1988) Urban regeneration in Docklands: a five year policy review, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 6, 187-208.
Daniels, P.W. and Bobe, J.M. (1993) Extending the Boundary of the City of London? The development of Canary Wharf, Environment and Planning A, 25, 539-52.
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Materman, C.F. (1904) The English City. Publisher Unknown
Savitich, V. (1988) Politics and Planning in New York, Paris and London, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.
Teedon, P. (2001) Designing a place called Banskide: on defining unknown space in London, European Planning Studies, 9, 4, 459-82.