by ANDY MARINO
WITH private property in London’s fashionable East End – Hackney, Bow, Whitechapel, Shoreditch – now pretty much out of reach for sub-millionaires, it’s worthwhile looking at the places where Cockneys dreamed of escaping to in past times, when the ambition was not moving into, but instead fleeing the East End.
That means going even further east, along the river to the outskirts of town, “Where the air is clear,” to quote Mary Poppins.
The suburbs on the very edge of the city are often seen as being more Essex than London. Also, as largely working class and industrial areas, until recently they have been undesirable as property investments. But the outer boroughs have two very important attractions in the current market: they are still relatively close to central London and therefore extremely commutable; and most of all they are the last so-called “cheap” property locations in the capital.
History explains why, and it is bound up with the UK’s prevailing mild south-westerly wind.
On the one hand it is the reason we don’t often suffer freezing Scandinavian winters despite our northerly latitude. On the other hand, it is why wealthier people have traditionally lived on the western side of London, with the poorer people crowded into the east.
Sweeping in over the South Downs, whistling through the Chiltern hills and barrelling along the Thames Valley, the fresh sweet Atlantic air first reaches London in places like Barnes, Chiswick and Kingston, unused and pure.
That meant the west of London was always more pleasantly scented (which is why the May Fair was held there), and in older, dirtier times than these all the soot, sulphur and stink would be progressively collected up as the air was blown eastwards across the city, settling on the huddled wretches in the poverty-stricken reaches on the eastern side of London.
London’s grotty East End is now largely a lazy historical prejudice. You don’t see pigeons coughing in Hackney these days, but instead dining on leftover cordon bleu takeaways binned by sleek, young professionals.
But for the same windy reason, further east was also where all the power stations, sewage treatment farms, gasometers and other smelly industrial installations were sited, and often still are, although these days most of the smog and pollution have gone from there, too.
Which brings us to Barking and Dagenham, or “Daggers” as the locals call it, without much irony. These days the two ancient towns are united in a single London borough, and Barking hasn’t been “Essex” for more than 50 years, though Dagenham possibly still is.
“London’s most industrial suburb” according to Barratt Homes, in 2015 it was voted the worst place to live in the UK by its own inhabitants – although it should be said that another eight London boroughs made it into the national top 10. In fact, the area can be rightly proud of its heritage, with manufacturing still accounting for 16 per cent of jobs in the borough, compared to only four per cent on average across London.
Any decline is mostly a story of neglect and under-investment, together with unasked-for social problems – its cheapness means the district has seen a massive influx of immigrants and transient residents recently, and its white British population dropped by nearly half in a decade between 2001 and 2011 (from more than 80 per cent to under 50 per cent).
“The town has altered beyond recognition,” says Ian Vickers of the Barking & Dagenham Local History website. “The borough in the 1991 census was 96 per cent white British.” The strain shows in various ways, from untidy streets to crime, and racism can be sporadically on offer – from all quarters.
In 2017 Barking & Dagenham was also the UK’s most burgled borough, and opinion remains divided on its potential. Some say the area has improved (“It’s a good place to live in. It’s not like what it used to be 20 years ago”) and others say it has deteriorated (“Barking has been going downhill for about the last 35 years”). It votes Labour and it also voted, as one of only five of the 32 London boroughs, for Brexit.
The situation is not all bad, though. An article such as this would be pointless unless there was an cheaper than the average London home. It’s climbed since then, this year to £317,000 (compared to £650,415 in Hackney), about 25 per cent more than in 2014-15 – a rise only bettered only by its northern neighbour, the Borough of Redbridge.
Barking & Dagenham has potentially fabulous real estate waiting to be developed or upgraded. It’s also actually the second-best borough in London for first-choice preferences of secondary schools (and one of the best places in the country for education for disadvantaged children).
Barking lies to the east of East Ham and the A406 North Circular road, which runs north-south on its western edge, starting near the top-right corner of London City Airport. Further east, Dagenham abuts Barking on the far side of the A1153 and carries on eastward: factory land, dominated by the huge Becontree estate and to its south the Ford plant on the river, although the carmaker only produces engines there these days.
Barking and Dagenham are well served for transport – obviously there is an airport on your doorstep if you are suddenly gripped by the need to fly far away – but also the London Overground railway halts at Barking, and the District Line of the underground gives a run of no less than four stations, all equally spaced on an almost perfectly horizontal disposition, creating a fantastic commuter corridor all the way to Dagenham East, and then on to Upminster in the countryside, which is very close at hand.
Close too is the beach at Southend-on-Sea, which takes under 45 minutes on the C2C railway line from Barking station. If the area gentrifies, having a new Brighton on the doorstep would be enticing to investors.
Several big stories – propaganda or not, only time will tell – are currently being told about Barking. One is the regeneration of the town centre, including more homes, a new shopping mall, 150-bed hotel, cinema, gym, music venue, a primary school, and healthcare facilities.
This runs alongside the so-called “Barking Renaissance” – 2,500 new homes every year over the next two decades, including projects such as The Ice House Quarter, where crafts and culture enterprises (with subsidised, below-market leases of 50 per cent off) will supposedly kick-start a hipster environment and enhance the bankside of the River Roding, an ancient Thames tributary that runs to the east of the North Circular. The area could become the new Hoxton or a bohemian, arty district to compare with Berlin’s Neukölln or Hamburg’s Altona.
Other developments nearby, such as Countryside’s Fresh Wharf and L&Q’s Weavers Quarter – it’s all “wharves” and “quarters” from now on – promise a similarly seductive mix of trad-modern living with culture and retail on hand, all within skipping distance of central London.
Then there is Barking Riverside, a massive, almost town-sized development on land reclaimed from industry right on the Thames: “10,000 new homes, plus 65,000 sq metres of commercial space, leisure facilities and schools, alongside two kilometres of Thames river frontage,” say the developers (again L&Q).
On the western flank of this adventurous development there is already a decade older, somewhat stranded Riverside estate, below the Thames Road meridian and cordoned off from river views by a grim yoke of industrial yards, and notorious for having no shops (until a Morrison’s local finally anchored there), no café and no pub.
But the new, more luxurious development just next door on the eastern side should, if all goes well, transform the area utterly: don’t let the proximity of power station and sewage works put you off.
There is even an imminent new London Overground halt at Barking Riverside, which will add 4km to the London Overground Gospel Oak to Barking line – although the council recently demanded reassurances from Transport for London that the extension would go ahead in 2021 on schedule, in the face of rumours of a five-month delay.
The new halt will rescue this Thameside strip from the transport inequality it suffers compared to the privileged District Line dwellers about further to the north of the borough.
Hey presto, Barcelona-on-Thames.
Further east here are also planned improvements for pedestrian and cycling routes as well as a new public park along the River Beam, which brackets the riverside (or perhaps “London Gateway Riviera”) on the Dagenham end a couple of miles or so along the Thames. This is where, slightly further inland, next to Beam Valley Country Park, the old Ford stamping plant is about to be transformed into Beam Park (“East London’s Bright New Address”).
The idea is a thriving new district with 2,900 ho-mes and a primary school, a swimming pool and other amenities – with half of the homes hypothecated as affordable and allocated to shared ownership.
The important information is that there is soon to be a new station on the C2C line, Beam Park, which will put Fenchurch Station and the City within 20-minutes’ journey time. This all means the whole area will switch from being isolated and under-ser-ved by public transport to being an oxygen-enrich-ed commuter environment.
If it wants Barcelona on the river, Barking & Dagenham is looking to create a “Mini Manhattan” in Barking town centre, which sits in the borough’s north-west quadrant. That means many apartment towers, such as The Heights – almost 200 apartments near the overground station and overlooking the River Roding. Nu Living’s Cambridge Road project, slightly to the north and actually overlooking the station, will supply nearly another 300 apartments.
Meanwhile, developer Weston Homes has acquired six acres, on the southern edge of the town centre near the Roding, at Abbey Road. This site used to be a retail park but it caught Mall Disease, and now the builder plans a £300 million waterfront development of 1,000 homes (again, with some of them affordable and “a mixture of tenures”), and a transformation of the potentially beautiful riverside with pubs, restaurants and shops in a landscaped environment.
The ambitious Be First Regeneration company – wholly owned by the council and led by former civil service chief Lord Bob Kerslake, is in the forefront of planning for the 20,000 new homes in the borough as well as many other projects designed to cover a spectrum of usage and enterprise.
In addition to overhauling the town centre, Be First is constructing new public housing in the form of Cr-own House, and Gascoigne East and West estates – not to mention the new Made in Dagenham film and TV studios, which will be adjacent to a new 17-acre hi-tech business and science park, londoneast-uk, providing a campus-style start-up environment for businesses in innovation and R&D across bioscience, chemistry and microbiology, giving “young and growing businesses access to facilities that would be prohibitively expensive to build from scratch”.
Barking & Dagenham is therefore set to be a new land of cranes, and in fact already is. Unless it manages to resist gentrification in a way that few other districts have – and the borough has a lot of riverside real estate and good positioning just waiting to be capitalised on – it could soon be an extension of the prosperity that is ever-advancing from central London. As Barratt housebuilders recently put it, “London’s most industrial suburb is fast-becoming its biggest growth hotspot.”
Property prices further to the north, in Redbridge and other places nearer along the route of Crossrail, have been rising more quickly in expectation of the new line’s completion. Now, with the announcem-ent a few weeks ago of a ten-month delay for safety testing reasons, a lot of investment-return calculations will have been thrown out by nearly a year.
Barking and Dagenham is immune from that drag effect and could over the next twelve months benefit, becoming attractive by comparison, especially with prices rising in the borough but still being cheaper than its neighbours.
It is in the heart of the enticingly-titled Thames Gateway, it is (relatively) cheap, and unless London goes drastically wrong over the next 15 years, Barking & Dagenham might just be be the last bargain in town.