On the Waterfront: Thames estuary plans show changing attitudes to creative industries

In the 1970s, London’s Docklands area stretched empty and derelict east of the city centre. The wharves that had provided employment for tens of thousands standing deserted for mile upon mile along the Thames. The shift to containers for shipping had made the docks too small and put them out of business.

To fill this vacuum came what was then the largest regeneration scheme in Europe. The redevelopment of the docks, heavily underpinned by government tax breaks, was mainly focused on financial services, pre-digital media i.e. printed newspapers, and housing.[1] In the aftermath of the 1986 financial liberalisation, ‘The Big Bang’, investment banks required more space for their trading floors and international investment in the city was, barring some financial crisis induced wobbles, able to help finance the development. Changes in printing technology also led to newspapers seeking new premises away from their traditional centre in Fleet Street and its print unions.

During the transition period, the state of the Docklands acted as a source of inspiration and location for creative activity. The 1979 film The Long Good Friday finds Bob Hoskins’ gangland boss entertaining in his boat on the Thames, hoping to entice his equally shady American guests with the investment opportunities offered by dock regeneration. Derek Jarman used the area as a backdrop for another bleak 'state of things' view, but a very different kind of film. Shooting his 1987 apocalyptic, anti-Thatcherite film, The Last of England in the large abandoned Millennium Mills in the Royal docks, and further east at the site of the closed Beckton Gasworks. Both of which were used by Stanley Kubrick as a stand in for Vietnam in his Full Metal Jacket of the same year. Jarman also lived and worked for several years in the Butler’s Wharf warehouse just beyond Tower Bridge. TV studios (Limehouse studios) opened in a Terry Farrell converted warehouse on the Isle of Dogs in 1983. [2]

The redevelopment of the docks, when it came, had some architectural successes, such as the glass footbridge at Poplar beloved of music video and art directors[3], John Outram’s recently listed post-modern pumping station and Norman Foster’s tube station at Canary Wharf. Docklands was perhaps though, in retrospect, a missed opportunity. Although there are things to admire with what was achieved, the development was not well integrated into existing local communities. Few would also dispute that parts of it are architecturally and culturally soulless. There are significant creative communities, such as the container built site at Trinity Buoy Wharf, cultural sites like the Museum of Docklands in its historic warehouse, and new developments such as the Printworks, but the area as a whole is not exactly known for creative activity. Limehouse TV studios lasted six years before being knocked down to make way for the current Canary Wharf development.

It is though not entirely fair to criticise a scheme that very much reflects the prevailing political and financial situation of its time. These days, with the development of long-standing, large derelict spaces at Kings Cross and Vauxhall in the city, so much empty space comparatively central, while challenging, would be an opportunity. At the time of redevelopment though, London had since the 1940s been depopulating, not expanding. There are other, subsequent, dock developments that have had a greater focus on culture and the creative industries, such as Liverpool’s Albert Docks, Manchester’s Salford Media City UK and The Dusseldorf Media Hafen.[4] Although these schemes perhaps illustrate what might have been achieved, the docks involved are on a smaller scale and Docklands would not have attracted the levels of investment to regenerate it on the basis of the creative industries or cultural institutions. The fact that an area is popular for making films because it resembles a war zone does not really regenerate it, it just shows the state it’s in. Over 30 years on, the redevelopment of Docklands is still not completed. It is only recently that Millennium Mills is set to find a reuse, with work underway for it to be refurbished into a hub for creative and tech businesses as part of an innovation quarter in London’s only enterprise zone.[5]  Indeed, the wider Thames estuary beyond Docklands is a long-standing target for regeneration.

In this context, the plans that the London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has released for the Thames estuary, to be developed between now and 2050 in conjunction with the South East Local Economic Partnership (LEP), mark an interesting departure.[6] The ambition to create the largest creative production area in the world, east beyond Docklands and London to the wider Thames estuary and the coast. A recognition that the capital accounts for 47 per cent of the GDP of the UK creative industries and requires space to grow into, particularly if the trend of the centre of the capital becoming ever more expensive continues.[7] The plans include, among other things, proposed film studios at Dagenham, new spaces for creating large scale artworks at Silvertown and a new hub for the experimental arts at Woolwich.

As Max Nathan has pointed out, the development of the Thames estuary in general faces the wider difficulty of whether it is a growth project, or a regeneration project, when traditionally the economic growth corridors attractive for development run north and west of the city. The area covered is also very large and has a wide range of economic conditions within it.[8] Whether the dispersed development at this scale allows the learning and spill overs, and access to talent that traditionally characterises many creative industry clusters, remains to be seen. It is true that very large creative clusters exist elsewhere such as in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, but these are arguably relatively unique and developed over a long period.[9] Improving the transport connections, which get worse the further along the estuary you get, between the Thames’ north and south bank would help assist the formation of clusters at a larger scale.

The plans though are not in isolation, being part of wider proposals to regenerate the gateway with investments in housing and transport infrastructure, and individual components could work in their own right without the plan’s full extent coming to fruition. The plans also address some of the pitfalls of trying to generate creative clusters from scratch, by focusing some of the development around existing cultural institutions in the area such as the Royal Opera House’s production facility at Thurrock and the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. It is also a plan that recognises the very real importance of the creative industries for the capital and the UK as one of the fast-growing sectors of the economy.[10] That this kind of proposal exists shows how attitudes to the creative industries have changed. The tide has turned.




[1Williamson, E. and Pevsner, N. (1998), ‘London Docklands an Architectural guide’.

[2] For a profile of Limehouse TV studios see this discussion on the Isle of Dogs blog.

[3] See for example Daniel Beddingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This, the cover of Future Sound of London’s Dead Cities and 2017's Actress’ X22RME which also showcases the area’s latest futuristic bridge, that for the Crossrail station.

[4] Prior to Docklands there had not been many dock regeneration schemes of equivalent size and those which had occurred were primarily in the US. Williamson, E. and Pevsner, N. (1998), p53.

[5] See the Silvertown project site and GLA and LEP announcements on new scheme.

[6] Greater London Authority(GLA) and South East LEP (2017), Thames Estuary Production Corridor, ‘An industrial vision to create a world class location for the creative industries’.

[7] Rocks, C. (2017), ‘Creative Industry Statistics’, GLA, p2. Lima, A. and Davies J. (2017), ‘The clubbing map’, Nesta.                                                                      

[8] Nathan, M. (2013). ‘This is not a Gateway’

[9] Brinkhof, S. (2006), ‘Spatial Concentration of Creative Industries in Los Angeles’, finds that although creative industries are localised within parts of LA (mostly the West), they stretch for more than 18km.

[10] DCMS (2017), ‘DCMS Sectors Economic Estimates, July 2017’, Chapter 3. Bazzalgette, P. (2017), ‘Independent review of the creative industries’.


John Davies

John Davies

John Davies

Principal Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

John was a data scientist focusing on the digital and creative economy. He was interested in the interface of economics, digital technology and data.

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