Thatcher’s London: Two Ways The Iron Lady Changed The Capital

Thatcher woz ere. Image by Dream On With Me, taken from the Londonist Flickr Pool

A piece of news you may have missed (they’ve kept it pretty quiet): Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, has died following a stroke. She was 87.

We’re not going to attempt any in-depth assessment of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy: Londonist isn’t the place for it. Nor are we going to indulge in either the hagiography or the character assassination that the rest of the media is wallpapered with today. But we did think it worth a quick post on two big ways in which the Iron Lady changed London: one positive, one negative.

The good news first. In the decades after the war, London’s docks went into precipitous decline. The empire was dying, Britain had lost its place as an economic power, and containerisation meant that shipping had become more suited to out-of-town docks such as Tilbury. The result was the death of an industry that had been at the heart of the East End for centuries.

Thatcher made no attempt to resuscitate that industry (it wasn’t really her way). But her government did create the London Docklands Development Corporation, a quango which owned huge swathes of public land and had the planning power to redevelop them. In 1982 the government also turned Docklands into an ‘enterprise zone’, giving businesses that set up shop there a number of tax breaks.

The eventual result was one of the largest urban regeneration projects of all time, and a second central business district that could undercut rents in the City of London itself. It’d be naive to claim all this was a universal good – but it’d be equally silly to pretend that Docklands hasn’t been a major factor in London’s growth over the last 20 years.

If one of the Thatcher government’s policies enabled London’s resurgence, though, another seemed intent on stifling it. In 1986, after a long struggle, she finally succeeded in abolishing the Greater London Council. For the next 14 years, one of the world’s great cities ceased, in governmental terms, to exist.

This still seems rather silly, even now: you don’t see anyone pretending that Paris or New York would be better off without their own elected institutions. What’s more, it looks like an act of spite. Our folk memory of the GLC is still of Red Ken (remember him?) and the loony left. Actually, though, the council had historically been pretty evenly balanced between left and right, and was run by Conservatives for nearly half its existence. But it did tend to move against national elections: when the Tories were in power in Westminster, Labour would win elections to County Hall.

Mrs Thatcher was not entirely comfortable with the idea of such a counterweight to her own powers. For all the talk of administrative efficiencies, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she abolished the GLC because it was a source of annoying dissent.

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  • Al

    Deviation from the Thatcher theme, but it’s now widely accepted (almost 30 years since the event) that a very high percentage of the equity raised to build in the Docklands was a result of the money-laundering operation that followed the Brinks-Mat bullion robbery at Heathrow.

    • Ellie Guest

      a lot came from drug money laundered by ex public school dealers as well

    • cjcjc

      No. It isn’t.

    • JohnnyFox

      some good came of it, then.

  • zero gravity

    The docklands development marginalised and continues to marginalise many people who live in the area despite promises of investment by the LDDC, which never materialised.

  • Andrea Casalotti

    Disagree about the beneficial effect of Thatcher on Canary Wharf. On the contrary, in typical British fashion, she just sold the land without thinking about the infrastructure. She probably thought that people would just drive there (remember the “great car economy”?)

    The Jubilee line extension to Canary Wharf was authorised in 1990, the year she was booted out.

    • JohnnyFox

      I think initially the LDDC landmass was intended as a sort of enterprise zone/light industial complex when it was established in 1981 (I remember TV infomercials with Cliff Michelmore encouraging manufacturers and tech businesses to locate there) and that the initiative to site any kind of financial centre there didn’t come till Ware Travelstead acquired the development rights in Thatcher’s final parliamentary term. He failed and Canary Wharf as we now know it wasn’t a going concern till Olympia and York built One Canada Square which opened in 1991 after MT had left office. The motive for the Jubilee Line extension was ‘for the millennium’ rather than specifically for the CW workforce, as it was originally assumed the DLR would carry them.

      • Andrea Casalotti

        Thank you for the historical background. It proves that Thatcher was negative for the area; the role of government is to ensure that the infrastructure is there for business and people to thrive. She totally failed in providing that, probably thinking that the market would have sorted it out.

  • Sinister Dexter

    Good riddance and not before time. Why can’t her funeral be put out to the lowest bidder? There’s plenty of ex miners would do it for nowt.