For generations, the US carmaker Ford gave Dagenham its livelihood. Since it opened its plant in 1931, it was the centre of its European operations and the main employer of the east London town, with many of its workers living in the neighbouring Becontree Estate, one of Europe’s biggest social housing estates.

But when Ford closed the plant for vehicle manufacturing in 2002, following decades of deindustrialisation, it cut off that lifeline, forcing many of its inhabitants to seek employment elsewhere. 

Advertisement

In the wake of this, Dagenham resembled a northern former mining town far more than any London borough, shifting to the far-right in the late 2000s when 12 members of the British National Party (BNP) were elected to local government. This, coupled with the fear that BNP leader Nick Griffin would win the Barking and Dagenham seat in Westminster, prompted Darren Rodwell to enter local politics. Mr Rodwell has been the leader of Barking and Dagenham council since 2014.

Born and raised in the borough, Mr Rodwell reflects on the wisdom his parents passed on to him. “If you knew your past, you knew what you stood for. If you knew what you stood for, you knew what to fight for to improve the future,” he states. “And that’s what I try to do.”

Over the past few years, under Mr Rodwell’s leadership, Barking and Dagenham has welcomed billions of pounds of private sector investment. From data centres to film studios, a new freeport to a possible high-speed rail link to Beijing via China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Dagenham is embracing 21st century change.

“What I’m trying to do is to say to companies from around the world that this is the place to invest, because we are the gateway to the world and from the world to the country,” he tells fDi, as we drive from Barking Town Hall past the developments on the riverside — or what he likes to call Barcelona-on-Thames — towards Dagenham.

With more brownfields per square metre and more under-16s than any other London borough, Barking and Dagenham is well positioned for innovative repurposing.

Although Ford is not willing to cut its 90-year-long ties just yet, having set out new plans for the plant, with so many of these ambitious projects only recently announced, residents have yet to figure out what the untapped potential will mean for the local community.

Hollywood of East London

Janet Coyle, managing director of business growth at London & Partners, the capital’s investment promotion agency, says that “Dagenham is a central part of [London’s] eastward growth, attracting international attention from developers and investors”.

One of the most notable investments has been US firm Hackman Capital Partners’ decision to invest up to £350m in two studio complexes, Eastbrook Studios in Dagenham and the Wharf site in Barking, with a combined total of 18 sound stages and the potential for 1800 jobs. 

For the past eight years, Dagenham has become a film location and production site, drawing in the likes of streaming giants Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple. This has enabled it to develop a case to seek a private sector partner to develop production and post-production facilities. 

The town’s a former Sanofi-Aventis manufacturing site, which treated former prime minister Winston Churchill for pneumonia during World War II, has since provided the backdrop for Marvel blockbusters such as Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and Black Widow (2021). 

Lisa Dee, head of film at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, says that over the past few years “we were quite radical in our thinking, but the council were brave in commissioning a feasibility study and investing the money [in land and buildings]”. She adds that the wide roads and parking opportunities were also attractive to film crews.

At first, the council repurposed some of its own assets and Ms Dee brokered relationships with property owners, such as a local magistrate’s court, to house the filming of a UK TV crime and court drama, before coming on to the Sanofi site. 

From working class to media class

Now, with a new endowment from Hackman Capital, ahead of the studio construction to facilitate the upskilling of local workers, Ms Dee hopes this will leave a long-lasting legacy.

“If they can embellish the borough with the skills, training and opportunity, then that feeds into the productions that are coming in, which will enhance the area and community. It’s going to be a whole new generation of film creatives,” she says.

Global foreign direct investment into motion pictures and recording studios has accelerated over the past four years, as streaming platforms have increased demand — something that has been reinforced by the pandemic.

In 2019, the UK became the leading destination globally for studio investment in terms of greenfield projects, overtaking the investment into the US for the first time in a decade, according to fDi Markets.

In December, Japanese telecoms giant NTT also opened a data centre on the Sanofi site, which is slated to bring in up to 100 jobs, as part of its plan to invest £500m into UK data centres.

Ford’s future

While pharmaceutical manufacturing has given way to film production and data centres, other manufacturing jobs, such as those at Ford’s plant, are currently being safeguarded.

In March, Ford announced that its Dagenham plant — now only used for engine manufacturing — will manufacture the diesel engines for the next-generation Ford Transit Custom range. In July, it entered into a memorandum of understanding with emergency vehicle manufacturer Venari to make a new lightweight front-line ambulance. 

Oliver Montique, industry analyst at Fitch Solutions, does not expect to see any electric vehicle (EV) production go to the Dagenham plant. “The repurposing is more for specialised vehicles,” he says. 

“As demand for diesel engines wanes, there could be some more e-mobility components or e-vehicles coming to Dagenham, but I think for the moment it will remain a low-volume, specialist vehicle producer.”

This year, Ford also made a joint bid with DP World and Forth Ports for the Thames Estuary freeport, one of the UK’s eight new freeports. It will link Ford’s Dagenham plant with the ports of Tilbury and London Gateway, further east along the Thames, in Essex.

With roughly 1700 acres of development land assigned to it, the Thames Freeport says it could create 25,000 jobs across its supply chains, generate £400m worth of port investment and introduce electric and autonomous vehicle technology into the economic zone.

Mr Rodwell told fDi that the council is “in early stages of discussions with Ford about a green autonomous vehicle lane on the A13 and a network for EV charging”. 

Ford said there were no EV plans at its Dagenham plant and declined to comment further.

Local businesses

“More jobs and growth in the digital, media and manufacturing sectors will support the economy and boost Dagenham’s reputation as an innovation destination in the UK and overseas,” a spokesperson for the UK government’s Department for International Development told fDi.

For the time being, however, the scale of such ambitious projects is not quite so palpable for local residents and business owners, as they emerge from the pandemic. 

Karen West-Whylie, chief executive of Barking Enterprise Centre, says local businesses recognise that there will be “huge opportunities” in the future — especially for the food businesses that will have increased customer footfall around the film studios.

Ms West-Whylie remarks that all these announcements are “great news” for the borough, but maintains that the current focus for many small businesses is “recovery or survival”.

Homes, homes, homes

Elsewhere, housing developments are also on the rise, such as Beam Park, worth £1bn, and Barking Riverside, a development of 10,800 homes and new schools that will also welcome a 4.5km overground extension from Barking station.

But as Anna Ward, senior research analyst at Knight Frank, points out in a report on the borough’s regeneration, housing supply has still not been keeping pace.

The number of homes built in the borough over the previous three years, compared with local housing requirements, falls short, according to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government assessment. Its 2020 assessment states that Barking and Dagenham scored 57%, delivering 1902 homes out of the required 3708. 

Ms Ward says that “historically, there hasn’t been as much regeneration in terms of housing in [Barking and Dagenham] as other parts of London”, but is hopeful that the arrival of the freeport and transport developments will help it yield positive results.

Local community

That said, Mr Rodwell is keen to avoid the “Stratford trap”, whereby gentrification is forced upon local residents. 

“We’re not allowing gentrification. What we talk about is the aspirational working class,” he says, stressing the importance of affordable housing and community. 

“My biggest challenge is getting the government to understand that if ever there was the right time to invest in the rebirth of this area, it’s now,” says Mr Rodwell, stressing the disconnect between bringing in more than £2bn worth of investments and an ongoing dispute with the government over the council’s proposal for public transport at the Dagenham East station. 

“I’m doing more than what I’ve been asked to do, but if they don’t put in the right infrastructure I have to stop,” he says, “because I can’t ask people to [move into these] homes if they don’t have the right train stations, parks or doctor’s surgeries.” 

But he remains hopeful. “It’s about vision,” he adds. “It’s all about people feeling that our vision links to their vision, and once they see that, it’s about relationship and trust.”

This article first appeared in the August/September print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.