The rise of Canary Wharf and London’s East End: Lessons for a changing capital

Jack Brown

Jack Brown is the Communications Coordinator for the Strand Group. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, on the topic of ‘The London Docklands Development Corporation and Canary Wharf: 1981 – 1998’. He is also a visiting Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s.


Canary Wharf, once derided as ‘White Elephant Wharf’ by its critics in the early 1990s, now employs more bankers than the City of London. Canary Wharf Group, who run the estate, have ambitious plans to develop the adjacent Wood Wharf, featuring over 3,000 new homes, a primary school, NHS health facilities and a sports centre, alongside the more familiar office space. London’s second financial centre is certainly on the up, recently changing hands for £2.6 billion.

The transformation of the docklands of London’s East End, driven by the success of Canary Wharf, continues to be a controversial topic. My PhD research, to look at the work of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), established by Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine in 1981 to reverse the East End’s decline, provides a unique opportunity to tell its as-yet-untold story to an unprecedented extent.

The LDDC’s work in bringing about Canary Wharf, and in facilitating, driving and attempting to manage extreme change in one of London’s most deprived areas, met with both strong criticism and great success. Alongside the aim of producing an authoritative contemporary history of events in Docklands, my research also seeks to act as a ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ guide for future urban regeneration initiatives.

Over 100,000 people are now employed at Canary Wharf, in an area that had lost over 12,000 jobs between 1978 and 1983, with the accelerated and sudden collapse of the last of the area’s docks. Male unemployment in Docklands was estimated at over 20 per cent by 1981, and over 200,000 people had fled the Docklands boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Newham in the preceeding 20 years.

The LDDC was tasked with reversing this decline. Yet none of the staff of the Corporation envisaged anything on the scale of Canary Wharf: early developments were mainly low-grade light industrial and small-scale modern ‘business’ units and offices. The early DLR was widely mocked as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ railway; the idea of an airport in the Royal Docks seemed incredible. Private house builders were uninterested in an area in which they perceived no demand. As one senior LDDC officer told me: ‘If anyone ever tells you that the LDDC intended something like Canary Wharf, you can laugh at them.’ Yet the arrival of Canary Wharf proved a step-change in the regenerative agency’s ambitions, and the transformation since has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The O2 Arena on the Greenwich peninsula and the Olympic Park at Stratford have built on Canary Wharf’s success, shifting the capital’s centre of gravity eastwards. Development and construction is constant: nearly a quarter of the 236 high-rise towers proposed, approved, or being built in London are in Canary Wharf’s home, the borough of Tower Hamlets. The Docklands boroughs either side of the river Thames in the east of the capital have experienced the highest population growth of recent years in the city, a  trend that is expected to continue

Progress continues to bring challenges; average rents in Tower Hamlets exceeded those in suburban Richmond last year. Demand for luxury apartments in East London has skyrocketed, yet many new properties in London are being built as ‘safety deposit boxes in the sky’ rather than homes for Londoners. Employment in Docklands may have recovered remarkably, but today’s Tower Hamlets ranks as one of the most unequal boroughs in London on a variety of indicators, with one 2012 study highlighting child poverty rates in the borough as the worst in the country.

A series of interlocking influences made the transformation of the East End possible, and affected its trajectory. Structural factors and broader economic shifts certainly played their part, but the agency of key individuals was also crucial in directing change. Mistakes were made alongside the successes, and there were both winners and losers in the process. With the face of our capital city changing at such a pace, and controversy over many of today’s regenerative initiatives and new developments, understanding how and why Canary Wharf came about provides vital lessons on how to (and in some cases, how not to) manage future change.

The window of opportunity for my research is open, albeit briefly, as archives are available for the first time and key participants are willing to be interviewed. Some of the most significant ‘eureka’ moments in my research so far have come when cross-referencing oral sources with archival material, leading to a new interpretation or sudden understanding of what was previously a seemingly-innocuous passage of text in a board minute or Department of the Environment file. The origins of the Canary Wharf development, and the subsequent departure of both the initial developers and the LDDC’s pioneering first Chief Executive, Reg Ward, for example, have had entirely new light shed upon them. As to the results – you will have to wait for the completion of my PhD in the New Year. *

* For those that just can’t wait, a taster can be found here.


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