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For nearly seventeen years, between July 1981 and March 1998, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) worked to secure the regeneration of the London Docklands, an area of eight-and-a-half square miles stretching across parts of the East End Boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Newham.
The area was transformed and the work of the Corporation attracted worldwide attention not least in academic circles. In its lifetime the LDDC responded to this interest through the provision of resources of all kinds but following its winding up in 1998 it has become increasingly difficult to obtain LDDC publications and other historic material about its work.
The great stretch of former upper docks from St Katharine's by the Tower of London, past Surrey Commercial Docks, through the East and West India and the Royal Docks to Barking, was the world's largest port. These docks grew and developed over 200 years and more. Growth was particularly fast in the 19th century bringing a muddle of factories, poor housing, and new communities. It was an area which enjoyed a unique economic lifestyle based on the growth and prosperity of traditional port activities including ship repair, heavy engineering, food processing, warehousing and distribution. Industries grew up based on the import of raw materials - tobacco, timber and skins.
By the mid-1930s the docks were at their peak. More than 35 million tons of cargo were being handled each year, carried by 55,000 ship movements and served by more than 10,000 lighters. In all, some 100,000 men were dependent on the Port of London for employment, of whom more than 30,000 were employed by the port itself.
For a number of complex technological, trading and management reasons, the port's prosperity began to dramatically decline in the post war period. The great expansion period of enclosed dock development, which had culminated in the opening of the King George V Dock in the Royal Docks, by the King himself, on 8th July 1921, was over. For the first time, Government started to consider the implications and consequences of possible closures and alternative uses.
The docks were originally built and managed by a number of competing private companies. From 1909, they were managed by the Port of London Authority, or PLA, which amalgamated the companies in a bid to make the docks more efficient and improve labour relations. The PLA constructed the last of the docks, the King George V, in 1921, as well as greatly expanding the Tilbury docks. German bombing during the Second World War caused massive damage to the docks with 380,000 tons of timber destroyed in the Surrey Docks in a single night. Nonetheless, following post-war rebuilding they experienced a resurgence of prosperity in the 1950s. The end came suddenly, between approximately 1960 and 1970, when the shipping industry adopted the newly invented container system of cargo transportation. London's docks were unable to accommodate the much larger vessels needed by containerization and the shipping industry moved to deep-water ports such as Tilbury and Felixstowe. Between 1960 and 1980, all of London's docks were closed, leaving around eight square miles (21 km²) of derelict land in East London. Unemployment was high, and poverty and other social problems were rife.
Efforts to redevelop the docks began almost as soon as they were closed, although it took a decade for most plans to move beyond the drawing board and another decade for redevelopment to take full effect. The situation was greatly complicated by the large number of landowners involved: the PLA, the Greater London Council (GLC), the British Gas Corporation, five borough councils, British Rail and the Central Electricity Generating Board.
To address this problem, in 1981 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, formed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) to redevelop the area. This was a statutory body appointed and funded by central government (a quango), with wide powers to acquire and dispose of land in the Docklands. It also served as the development planning authority for the area.
Over the past 20 years, the population of the Docklands has more than doubled and the area has become both a major business centre and an increasingly acceptable area to live. Transport links have improved significantly, with the Isle of Dogs gaining a tube connection via the Jubilee Line Extension (opened 1999) and the DLR being extended to Beckton, Lewisham, London City Airport, North Woolwich and Stratford. Canary Wharf has become one of Europe's biggest clusters of skyscrapers and a direct challenge to the financial dominance of the City. Further east, the Royal Docks are finally being regenerated most prominently symbolised the ExCeL Exhibition Centre.
Although most of the old Dockland wharves and warehouses have been demolished, some have been restored and converted into flats. Most of the docks themselves have survived and are now used as marinas or watersports centres (the major exception being the Surrey Commercial Docks, now largely filled in). Although large ships can - and occasionally still do - visit the old docks, all of the commercial traffic has moved down-river to Tilbury.
The revival of the Docklands has had major effects in run-down surrounding areas. Greenwich and Deptford are undergoing large-scale redevelopment, chiefly as a result of the improved transport links making them more attractive to commuters.
The Docklands' redevelopment has, however, had some less beneficial aspects. The massive property boom and consequent rise in house prices has led to friction between the new arrivals and the old Docklands communities, who have complained of being squeezed out. It has also made for some of the most striking disparities to be seen anywhere in Britain: luxury executive flats constructed alongside run-down public housing estates.
The Docklands' status as a symbol of Thatcher's Britain has also made it a target for terrorists. After a failed attempt to bomb Canary Wharf, on February 09, 1996, a large IRA bomb exploded at South Quay. Two people died in the explosion, forty people were injured and an estimated £150m of damage was caused.
LDDC was controversial - it was accused of favouring elitist luxury developments rather than affordable housing, and it was unpopular with the local communities, who felt that their needs were not being addressed. Nonetheless, the LDDC was central to a remarkable transformation in the area, although how far it was in control of events is debatable. It was wound up in 1998 when control of the Docklands area was handed back to the respective local authorities.