Regeneration in Tower Hamlets

Oona recently spoke in Parliament about the importance of regeneration in areas such as Tower Hamlets…

“We have to ensure that regeneration benefits all stakeholders—residents, businesses, schools and school children, faith organisations and the voluntary sector—because we have to eradicate the poverty that stalks the capital and this country.”

In Tower Hamlets, inner-city regeneration is make or break. Unfortunately, during the '80s and '90s…there was too much emphasis on physical regeneration and not enough on communities, and even when physical regeneration did take place it often went over the heads of local people, who remained untouched by the money that was ploughed in. In fact, the '80s and '90s were the greatest period of degeneration that this country's housing estates have ever known.

No single programme has made a bigger difference to the life of people on one of the poorest estates in the country than the NDC programme. It was introduced on the Ocean estate in Tower Hamlets to improve the life of more than 6,000 residents there. We had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in Britain, and the Sure Start programme—which is integrated with a range of other programmes to challenge and reverse those appalling statistics—is making inroads. I have been honoured to work with many people who used to be in permanent confrontational mode with every form of authority, and I have found it incredibly inspiring to see their energy transformed into constructive engagement in the decision-making process.

Tackling the Problem of Housing
A year and a half ago, a four-bedroom terraced house in Wapping sold for £600,000. The same property was inhabited by a teacher in the 1970s—not even a Member of Parliament could afford it now, never mind a teacher. So we obviously have to consider key-worker housing in our regeneration strategies. Most of all, we have to increase the provision of affordable housing, so that those people on average and below average incomes can afford to live in areas such as Tower Hamlets.

How do we enable local people to benefit from regeneration projects?
One of the answers is through community-led regeneration organisations such as the Isle of Dogs community foundation and the Bromley-by-Bow centre, which is a nationally recognised social enterprise that serves as a role model for many newer voluntary and community organisations gaining a foothold on the regeneration ladder. I pay tribute to Tower Hamlets education and business partnership, which is nationally recognised as a model of good practice.

I also want to mention some of the innovation that has been taking place. There has been a great willingness to test out new approaches and take risks. For instance, networks of community-based access and vocational training providers offer courses that reflect the specialist finance, banking and knowledge economies of Canary Wharf and the City fringe. Specialist enterprise support agencies have emerged and they range from the cultural industries development agency to the ethnic minority enterprise project. Such agencies have helped more than 250 businesses to start up and grow. I also pay tribute to the work of the Prince's Trust in east London. It has helped many young people who have often been in long-term unemployment into jobs, which is a wonderful achievement.

Involving the local community
I hope that the continuing wave of regeneration will take into account the needs and wishes of local communities. Some huge projects are involved and they have an influence far beyond Tower Hamlets or east London. For example, the Bishopsgate goods yard, to where the East London line will be extended, will open up transport opportunities for an entire region. In Spitalfields, another very large regeneration project has yet to receive the support of all residents, although many local businesses write to me to say how much they welcome such new development. However, an equal number of correspondents who are local residents are terrorised by the idea of this development project. We need projects that bring together the community's aspirations and reflect some of the community's character.

Unemployment
In Tower Hamlets in 1997, the unemployment rate was 16.6 per cent. As a result of the projects, local efforts—especially by the local council and the community—and the Government's strategy, our unemployment rate has fallen in five years to 11.6 per cent. That is a fantastic achievement. However, we still have one of the highest unemployment rates in London and, indeed, in the country.