There seemed no better place to delve into the regeneration of East London, than a café on bustling East Ham High Street. And no better person to ask about changes affecting East London than Stephen Timms MP, who has been an integral part of politics in the area since he became a Labour councillor in the early 1980s.
Over an Americano Stephen recalled the crisis situation in which he entered politics: “the beginning of the 1980s was a period when the Docks had not long closed, thousands of people lost their jobs, and then the factories around the Docks all closed as well, so we had sky-high levels of unemployment.”
The unemployment rate in Newham reached 20%; it has now dropped to 9.6%.
The conversation moved on to improvements in the borough. Appointed chair of Newham council’s planning committee in 1987, Stephen was at the forefront of deciding the route of the DLR’s extension to Beckton:
“The Docklands Development Corporation who were in charge of things then, wanted to draw a straight line from Poplar to Beckton, a route that joined up lots of derelict sites. We said no. This railway would be paid for with public money and ought to serve existing communities, as well as new ones. So we argued for a loop in the DLR to serve Canning Town. I had to give evidence to the House of Commons committee deciding on the Beckton extension Bill, and to everyone’s surprise we won! That then opened up the possibility of Canning Town being a station on the Jubilee line.”
It was clear at this point, that time had not dampened Stephen’s pride in improving the transport links through the borough. He added: “Now at Canning Town there’s huge change underway, which really all goes back to that success.”
Shortly afterwards, British Rail announced it was looking for a second interchange for the forthcoming Channel rail link. When it was decided that St Pancras would be the end of the line, Stephen started a campaign to make Stratford into an interchange serving East London and the surrounding region. At the time, Stratford’s extensive railway goods yards were semi-derelict. Despite “not having much chance”, Timms hoped to “bring people’s attention to the fact that there’s an opportunity not being utilised.” He originally planned a six-month campaign; instead “it took 11 years, until eventually John Prescott as deputy prime minister decided there would be a station at Stratford on the way to St Pancras, which opened up the possibility of an Olympic bid based at Stratford.”
It is these two successes which have catalysed the transformation of Newham. Stephen believes “this means we can be more optimistic about the future of this neighbourhood, there will be jobs and there are jobs.”
As I sip my Earl Grey tea, Stephen describes the “real buzz around here” and the improving standards within schools. But the positive mood is broken briefly by the unavoidable B-word: “We’ve seen enormous progress, young people are doing well, people are coming from all sorts of backgrounds, and there are opportunities, let’s just hope Brexit doesn’t mess it up too much.”
Stephen openly campaigned against Brexit, and voted against the swift implementation of Article 50 along with fellow Newham MP Lyn Brown.
Ever the optimist, Stephen goes on to talk about the Asian business port in Newham as a “litmus test” for the borough: “That’s a Chinese led business park which they say will create 30,000 jobs. The idea is for Chinese banks and others to locate there and trade with the EU”. He added: “I am very pleased that they have gone ahead with building their first phase, despite us voting not to be in the EU.”
Regardless of the uncertainty around Brexit, Stephen remains hopeful that “business will still be able to come to London and trade barrier free with the rest of the EU.
“If it turns out we can’t trade barrier free we’ll have to drastically rethink our strategy,” he warns.
When asked whether any pre-Brexit plans have been dropped, he maintains that “we haven’t seen any plans abandoned. In fact I was at Westfield shopping centre the other day and they were telling me they’re going to expand. There aren’t any signs as of yet of things going into reverse but we’ll have to monitor it very closely.”
I hovver briefly over the issue of gentrification. Does regeneration benefit everyone? “I think the fact that there are more opportunities is a good thing for everyone in the end.” But Stephen also acknowledges that “there are problems, the housing prices being the worst of them, rent is going up and up, and it is difficult for many people to find a decent home.” Stephen admits to “pinning my hopes on Sadiq Khan, to come up with some new ideas to help us with that.”
As we finish our morning tea and coffee in time for Stephen to get to one of his weekly surgeries, he concludes with a bigger picture of his time as local councillor and MP: “it really has been improving. In the economic base, which I have been most concerned about, really good progress has been made.”
The East Ham MP leaves me with an impression of the quiet resilience that comes with living in East London: “There’s always been a recognition we have serious problems to contend with but also an optimism we could always change things for the better. There have always been opportunities we could take advantage of…. and we have.”