Like many other parts of the country disparagingly referred to as 'left behind', Barking & Dagenham has faced major social and economic challenges since the deindustrialisation of the 1980s.
Until relatively recently, the old May & Baker site in Dagenham East was a quintessential symbol of this fading industrial heritage. The old industry had left, the land was derelict and seemingly the only future was to use the land for warehouses offering few jobs and even less aspiration.
However, fast forward a few years, and the council has proudly announced a £300m investment by a leading global company over the next three years to build and operate London's biggest film and tv production studios right here in Dagenham East. So how has it happened? First and foremost, there was political vision and leadership. Not content with a future of storage sheds for the borough and local residents, the council (in particular the leader, Cllr Darren Rodwell) stuck its neck out and stated an improbable commitment to bringing a new film studios to the site in Dagenham East.
At the start, many people did not take the idea seriously and few thought it could happen. But the council stuck to its vision and, slowly, began building a coalition of support, crucially winning significant backing from leading industry figures. The explosion of content creation driven by new entrants into the production market, from Netflix to Amazon and more, also enhanced the credibility of the proposition.
Second, the council didn’t just airily aspire to the idea of a film studios in the borough, it willed the means. It invested £40m to purchase 22 acres of land and then achieved planning permission for studios on it. This dramatically increased the attractiveness of the site to prospective partners who build and operate production studios (who often fear that support from local councils for film studio development will not be consistent and long term).
The council then actively marketed the opportunity and engaged with the industry to find the right partner who was prepared to buy into our vision and values - and was committed to being a proper stakeholder and anchor institution in the local community.
Third, all this was only possible because the council had radically restructured the way it approached the physical regeneration of the borough, by establishing Be First as a wholly owned company charged with accelerating the pace and scale of local development.
By building significant new development capacity, bringing in new commercial skills and adopting an entrepreneurial approach, the council was able to use Be First to aggressively pursue its unlikely vision to bring world class film and tv production to Dagenham. Be First helped the council buy the site, assemble the land, gain planning permission, build a business case and engage with the operator market in a way that most local authorities would simply not have been able to pull off.
Fourth, right from the start the council has put jobs, skills and aspiration at the centre of its rationale for wanting to see a film studios developed in the borough. Barking & Dagenham has one of the youngest populations of any local authority area in the country and now benefits from excellent schools, a top class FE college and a great modern university.
We also have a burgeoning arts and culture scene, with local SMEs ready to take advantage of the supply chain opportunities and spill over benefits that a major new economic player will bring. We have been working with industry experts and local organisations for over a year to ensure we are ready to maximise the local benefits of this new investment, learning from other areas and only selecting a partner who is committed to supporting the local community.
With today's announcement, we should see studio construction start in the first half of next year, with the facility fully operational in 2022. Moreover, the wider Dagenham East site is set to attract around £2 billion of investment, including a large data centre, a hotel and a major university research centre. Quite a change from the abandoned ex-industrial wasteland of a few years ago.
The vision of world class film and TV being filmed in Dagenham - and young people from the borough having the chance to build a fantastic career in the creative industries - will ultimately be delivered by private sector investment. But it would not have been remotely possible without bold political vision and an activist, innovative local council, ready to use its levers and leadership to shape the economic weather.
Graeme Cooke is director of inclusive growth at Barking and Dagenham LBC