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Propertyshe podcast: Darren Rodwell Leader of Barking & Dagenham Council

Posted on 20 January 2022

There is no such place as London.  There are loads of villages that make up a place we call London and we, as London, need to come together with a policy document that says these are London’s world-class values.  Everyone’s welcome.  Everyone can make business in London, can do business in London because there’s nine and a half million people here and if you can’t do business with nine and a half million people then you are in the wrong business.

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman.  Welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum, where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment. 

Today, I am delighted to welcome Councillor Darren Rodwell.  Darren became Leader of Barking & Dagenham Council in 2014.  Since then, he has established the borough as one of the most important growth opportunities in London and both he, and the Council, have won numerous awards.  Darren has focused on moving beyond the borough’s industrial past, bringing the community forward as the borough embraces its identity as one of the most forward-thinking parts of London.  Under his leadership, the borough has undergone a programme of sustainable regeneration, welcoming world class universities, and ground-breaking startups.  As part of his vision of a ‘Digital Dagenham’ Darren recently welcomed the opening of a new data centre.  Most recently, London's biggest film studio has been launched in the borough.  Darren is currently the Deputy Chair of London Councils, having served on the Executive since 2016 – first as the Executive Member for City Development and now as the Executive Member for Housing and Planning.  In his current role, he has prioritised the delivery of truly affordable housing in London, fire safety, reducing homelessness and reducing the use of temporary accommodation.  Darren is also a member of the Homes for Londoners Board, Arts Council England, The Arts Council for London and the Create London Board and, since September 2019, Vice Chair on the LGA’s Environmental, Economy, Housing and Transport Board.  In 2021, Darren was awarded an honorary doctorate in education by Coventry University.  So, now we are going to hear from Councillor Darren Rodwell about what it takes to be a successful London council leader in the face of all the current challenges. 

Darren, hi, welcome to the virtual studio.

Darren Rodwell

Thank you very much, Susie. 

Susan Freeman

And let me start by congratulating you on your recent honorary doctorate from Coventry University.  That is, that’s great.  What was the award for?

Darren Rodwell

So, I’m now a direct… no, yeah, I’m an honorary doctorate for education so, I can finally say I’m edumacated  because, as someone who left school with no real qualifications, in fact I’ve got more children than I have qualifications, it was a real honour to be recognised for the work that I’ve done, with my colleagues, in making sure that we are able to get people from more difficult backgrounds, the opportunity to go into further education so, I’ve got more children, in this borough today, going to further education than ever before in the borough’s history, bearing in mind 50% of the children live in poverty, 93% of our schools are Good to Outstanding so, it’s a real honour to be given this accolade on behalf of everyone’s hard work.  And I do believe it’s a ditto to yourself as well because you’ve got a doctorate as well, is that right?

Susan Freeman

It is, and probably about the same time, from the University College of Estate Management but I can’t claim to have done half the things that you’ve done so, but we both got to dress up in those wonderful outfits so…

Darren Rodwell

We did.  You looked far better than I did, I looked a bit like Henry VIII.

Susan Freeman

No comment.  So, let’s, let’s just talk a little bit about your background and you’ve been Leader of Barking & Dagenham since 2014, you became a councillor in 2010.  What made you go into politics and you know what was your vision when you set out on the journey?

Darren Rodwell

So, it was really quite simple at the beginning, it was to stop the MP, it would stop the fascists from taking over my council.  So, lots of people don’t realise that in 2006 when the BNP stood, they had 13 people that stood, 12 of them got elected and effectively the thirteenth only lost by 50 votes.  What that actually meant, when we did the figures later, was if they’d have put up 51 candidates, at least 36 would have got through, so we would have been the first Far Right council ever in the country’s history.  And that was at, if you don’t remember it, the height of the New Labour Government so, you know, all the new good stuff had happened, the investment in schools, the investment in the NHS, you know you certainly didn’t have the waiting times you have today, so there was lots of big investment but what they had forgotten was, the pride of the working class and lots of people in the borough felt they weren’t being listened to, felt they didn’t have a say, felt they didn’t have a future so, that really did show you know what we’re seeing since, the BNP, BL, UKIP, it was people feeling disenfranchised to the future, a bit like Brexit some could say as well.  So, that’s what got me into politics.  I wasn’t particularly political before that, I was a community leader and I still see myself as a community leader.  Politician is a very bad word these days and you see that at national level, I think we have a, well, I think we have a very embarrassing situation that needs to change, we need to bring some values and standards back into what it means to be a public representative. 

Susan Freeman

I think you are right and I think we’ll get back to talking about values generally a bit later on in the conversation.  So, you’ve been Leader of the Council for a few years now and I just wondered what you saw the role, the role of the Council and obviously you’re leading?  What is, I mean, what is top of your inbox at the moment?  I mean there are so many challenges, you know where, where, where do you start?  What are the most important things?

Darren Rodwell

Well it starts with a very central point of where the people are at.  So, you say I’ve been Leader for a long time, I’m one of the longest London leaders now, I think I’m fourth or fifth, it’s nearly eight years but I’m still enthused as I was on day one to make sure that the job I do is to serve the people that I represent and the word ‘leader’ is a very strange word because it’s just a title, in truth, my job is to facilitate other people’s ambition and that comes at many different levels in many different ways and some people would say I’m a bit forthright, bit too direct, I don’t use clever words when simple ones will do but I get my point across and this is a project that’s a lifetime really.  A hundred years ago, the Becontree Estate was built, Henry Ford came down the railway line and saw the estuary and thought, do you know what, I’ll build the biggest factory there and all the other industry came along and for eighty-odd years Barking & Dagenham was a powerhouse of blue collar engineering investment, which was great and it was incredible because that moved into the estates, most of them come from the slums of the East End or other parts of the world, people forget we were built for immigration.  So, for a very long time, growing up here, that was brilliant and then the industrialisation happened and we were like a mining town of the North that happened to be located in the capital city and we’re the last blue collar working class community of London.  As you can hear, I don’t speak Queen’s English, I speak Dagenham.  I don’t use posh words when simple ones will do but my passion and drive for change of aspiration, second to none, and you know taking what I’ve had to do to get to the position that I’ve had to get to, the death threats, the house attacks, the abuse, you know when I’m dealing with the private sector in whatever deals we’re trying to do, never bothers me, doesn’t matter how big the organisation is because my job is to help facilitate my community’s future and I find the right partners to invest in their future, it’s a bit of a triangle, I call it Borough Ambition Triangle, where the job of the council is to facilitate the community’s aspiration and find the partners to invest in that aspiration.  So, it’s lead by the community, facilitated by the council and invested in by partners and we’ve got so many great examples of that now in the borough. 

Susan Freeman

So, I mean you mentioned death threats and I know it’s something you’ve mentioned in the party conference dinner debates that we’ve had but I think, I think people don’t realise that when you put your head above the parapet, you know those sort of things happen.  I mean, how do you deal with that?

Darren Rodwell

Well, it depends how serious I take the death threat.  I’ve had situations where I’ve had to chase people down the street when they attacked my home with my family in there.  I chased two gentleman, I use that term loosely, down the street with a baseball bat because I may do public service but that’s my… that’s my family you are attacking so I don’t care what position I hold in society, I’m protecting my family.  I mean, my latest one was about five weeks ago, that was passed to the police, I’ve had online, the online abuse is immense.  I think the funniest one I had was when the resident decided, through a Go Fund Me page type thing on Facebook, to have me taken out and I approached the police and they said oh there’s nothing we can, it’s not a direct threat.  I found out where the person lived because you know I have the ways and means so, I used them and so I phoned, or my office phoned the police up and said the Leader wants to let you know, don’t worry if you get a phone call from this address but it’s only him going up round there asking why they think they could do a Go Fund Me page to have him taken out and the Tri-borough Commander at the time new me well enough to know that I would go round there and knock on their door because if you’re, if you’re willing to say it on a keyboard, if you are willing to say it from afar, then say it to my face because that’s how you do it in the working class communities of Barking & Dagenham and round the country. 

Susan Freeman

So, I mean looking at some of the, some of the big challenges, one, I mean top of the list must be housing and the housing crisis that you know we’ve been talking about for a number of years now.  I understand in your area, you’ve had, you’ve had some success and you I think have managed to exceed your housing targets, I mean, how do you manage to do that in your area where you know other local authorities haven’t been able to do that?

Darren Rodwell

So, I think, I think it’s the Dagenham direct, Dagenham simple way I do things.  I approach everything as a project and I want to know what the outcome will be at the end of that project.  Let’s be honest, a home is the most crucial piece of infrastructure any person can have.  If they haven’t got a home or a building they can call home then actually they’ve got no foundations, they’ve got no roots so, you know what does every culture want and it doesn’t matter what part of society you are in, doesn’t matter what, where you come from around the world, you want a, you want a place you can call home, you want a community that you can feel safe in and you want your family to do better than you did.  Now, I don’t care what religion you are, I don’t care what pigment colour you are, that’s what we all want so, that was our starting point.  When we fought the BNP, we spoke to 65,000 people, we door knocked 160-odd thousand doors so, we had a really good understanding about the aspiration that people want.  So, I don’t like it when people say oh you’re gentrifying an area, no I’m not, I’m actually building for aspirational working class people because there’s very few people in this world that would be able to survive not being paid for three months and if you can then you are part of that very small few percent but the rest of us have to work for a living, at whatever level you know our income gives us.  So, I personally believe, in a very strange way, that nearly everyone is working class, even if they don’t want to admit it.  So, starting from that point, we then said right, what do we want to see?  Well, not every person who is working class is poor, so don’t start talking about traditional council housing of yesteryear and certainly don’t use the term ‘social housing’ to me because ‘social’ means a derogatory term to people of the late seventies, early eighties when I was growing up here, because you was ‘on the social’, you wasn’t good enough to buy your own home, it was a faction right term against people that didn’t believe in that view.  So, I find it really difficult to talk about social housing, especially when the so-called Left now use it in my own party.  I’m like well where does that come from because you’re using Thatcher’s term and I remember one thing, I went on those, those pickets and everything else, I went up and marched against Thatcher on my, in nicking my milk, you know it’s really ingrained in me so, again, we looked at it in a very practical way and we said how do we develop a programme that works for everyone?  And at the moment, council housing is only given to those who are the most vulnerable because the rest of it’s been sold.  the Right to Buy system wasn’t fit for purpose when it first came out fifty years ago.  Fifty years on, the social cost has been immense and we see that just in the fact that we’ve got an £8 billion give or take build programme across the country but we spent £23 billion paying that to housing benefit, which is normally the private sector that’s really mopped up what used to be the Right to Buy.  I mean, in my borough alone, most of the Right to Buy has now become Buy to Let and that’s a really, really bad space to be in, it shows the market’s broken.  So, as a council, we said look, we need to have an ability to allow people on the lowest incomes to live in our community, so we had four different rent levels and we also have shared ownership, so we called it the Right to Rent, the Right to Invest and you also have the Right to Move and that’s really important and I, I’m now starting to think about well how do we take that further and help business, as well as individuals, the citizen, in delivering their aspirations because when I talk to my five children, you know four of them are not interested in buying a property, one is, four aren’t and I said to them why is that and they said well we don’t want to be tied down.  The world is a great place, you know, some of them are talking about moving abroad, to go in big jobs wherever.  Well, when I was a lad, the best I could hope for was to get a council house and that never happened, as a single parent, but that was my aspiration, well, the aspiration has grown.  So, how could we allow future generations to benefit and how do we allow business to develop around it?  So, I’ve been talking, I’ve been talking to colleagues in the Labour Party that we should be offering, again, the right to rent, the right to invest and the right to move but do that with a bond, a housing bond, where effectively you know the money can be put in your mortgage, it could be money that you’ve saved or been given and what you do is, you link that pot of money to a property, so again the interest will go up because the building has gone up, you know so there’s a way but if you don’t have enough money in that bond, you can make the rest of it up by paying a rent so, actually it allows anyone to move anywhere, it takes the stigma away from people saying oh you are a renter, what we’ve tried to do is flip it on its head and say how do we empower people to make those decisions and we’ve actually seen people go up the ladder of the different rental costs or ownership as well so, it’s been a really interesting development on how to do housing in the 21st century, in a way that has a social value. 

Susan Freeman

That’s interesting and you have the housing company, you have Reside, which is owned by the council, you also have Be First.  Could you explain how, you know how the two differ and how they operate?

Darren Rodwell

Okay.  So, Reside is our housing management company.  So, basically, Be First build the buildings, so they are our development, investment and planning company, wholly owned.  Reside is our management company.  We have around about a thousand, I don’t know the latest figures, it’s over a thousand properties now in Reside.  By the end of ’22 into ’23, that will be around two thousand, two thousand one hundred, something like that and then by the end of ’23 into ’24, I think we’re going to be closer to three thousand.  Now that’s great, that’s a, that’s a mid-size RSL but it will be at different levels, helping different parts of our community to say a community because you shouldn’t have any just one part of a community located in one area.  So that’s, that’ the thinking behind it.  The other reason is as well, is LBBD is a PLC because all the shareholders happen to be the residents and I just happen to articulate their values and their aspirations and our companies in the last year, they were able to give us a dividend the equivalent of putting our Council Tax up 30%.  So, rather than having to cut services to the most vulnerable, which over 70% of what we have so for every £10 we have as a council, 7% go to the most vulnerable.  We are the most deprived borough in London but we are one of the most aspirational in the country and that’s because of the way we’ve set ourselves up.  So these companies effectively work for the shareholders that happen to be the residents of the borough. 

Susan Freeman

And aside from that, there are some other, I mean substantial developments going on in the borough, I mean I was looking at Barking Riverside which has the river frontage, I think there is planning approval for 10,800 homes, I mean that’s…

Darren Rodwell

That’s gone up, it’s around, it’s around well at the moment they’ve got planning for 14, sorry 12,800 and they’re looking to take that up to about 14,000.  We’re looking at another 12,000 if the Government can actually listen to the specialists, which are ourselves, to put the A13 underground or a cut and cover, so it’s not really underground, it’s basically boxing it in, that would give us another 12,000 homes plus 3.7 million square foot business space for the international freight terminus and the freeport, at the same time we are looking between what would be the Roding River, the Thames, the A13 and the Beam, around about 45,000 homes completely.  So that’s the size of York being built in South Barking/Dagenham. 

Susan Freeman

It’s, it’s amazing and I mean you mentioned the word ‘gentrification’ earlier, how do you prevent you know with all this sort of new building and we’ll talk about the new businesses that are coming to the area and it’s so close to the City, I mean how do you, how do you prevent gentrification?

Darren Rodwell

So, tell me someone who doesn’t have aspiration?  You tell me someone you know that don’t have aspiration?

Susan Freeman

I think it depends how you define aspiration?  Everybody, fortunately, has different aspirations. 

Darren Rodwell

They do but they’re, the aspiration is, they want a good life, they want to live in a nice place, they want to be surrounded by good things, nice things.  The fact of the matter is, gentrification is when you knock people out of a place because they’re not good enough.  You are gentrifying it.  You are saying you are not good enough to live here because you don’t, your wealth doesn’t allow you, you’re, you’re, you’re worse than that, it could be apartheid type things where it’s your skin colour doesn’t allow you, yeah, these things all link into what I class as gentrification because it’s wealth, ultimately.  It’s saying we’re better than you on difference and nominally, it’s wealth.  What I look at in Barking and Dagenham, which is different to anywhere else, is I look at aspiration and there’s a line I use, the working class makes the culture, the middle class sell it to the upper class and I see that with grime, I see that with cockney songs, you name it, I see that in art, David Bailey is a lad from the East End, you know, Dudley Moore, there’s so many people, Max Bygraves, Sandie Shaw, these people come from my borough.  Now these people weren’t working class people but they sold their goods to other people and made their money but it means we’ve got culture and if you’ve got culture, it means you have aspiration and the job of the council is then to facilitate that aspiration that allows everyone to share in it and you, again the best example I can use is where it’s gone wrong, it’s where you’ve got places where it was downtrodden, it might be, I don’t know I often say we are the Whitechapel of the 21st century but look at Whitechapel today, it’s worth millions.  Now what happened there, in the most recent past, was the factories left, the artists moved in, they made it trendy and the middle class went oh we want to be here and then they pushed out the working class again.  Yeah?  What we are doing here is saying well actually that doesn’t work for us because actually those artists, those, that culture is coming from the very people that live here now.  What we’ve got to do is give them the ability to articulate it and deliver on it and that’s aspirational working class rather than gentrification.  It doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have nice things, it doesn’t mean I don’t like opera, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the National Portrait Gallery, it just happens to mean that I do it in a different way and do you know what, I like Chas and Dave as well.  That’s what I mean by aspirational working class.

Susan Freeman

And since you know we started talking about culture, I think we have to talk about the film studios…

Darren Rodwell

Ha, ha, yeah.

Susan Freeman

…I mean that certainly captured my imagination when you ran that Dagwood campaign.  I can’t remember how it came… was it Hilton, was it Hilton Hotel Dubai were having a go at Dagenham and you did this campaign ‘We’d rather be in Dagwood’ and you’ve now got I think a sort of Hollywood film studio investing in the area?

Darren Rodwell

We have, we’ve actually got the largest film stage company in the world actually investing in, well two locations in the borough.  We’ve got Eastbrook Film Studios, which is fantastic, that’s the largest single film studios in twenty five years in London, which we’re really pleased about and they’re just about to open The Wharf in Barking, which again, between the two of them, its closest rival between the two would be Pinewood, so it’s not bad for our first escapade into, into film, it’s fair to say.  So, yeah, that’s, that’s, yeah that’s what’s happening with those but it’s about, again, aspiration.  We listened to our residents and they told us they wanted jobs that their kids could enjoy, they wanted jobs that would actually allow them to feed their families but I don’t think that’s a bad thing so, you know, when we talk to people and I can tell you now, you can come into Barking town centre and you’re in mini Manhattan, which is fantastic, you’re going to love it, it’s going to be tall, it’s going to be vibrant and I’m hoping to have the fact that you’re going to have the Barbican of the East for food and beverage because there’s going to be a world food school because of the three markets coming here as well.  You then go down East Street and that takes you to the Women’s Museum, the only women’s museum in the whole of England, which is incredible when you think we’re in the 21st century but we’ve had some really powerful women here, not disproving the fact, you know, we are really important to the history of the borough, we brought equality, we stopped slavery and we won the World Cup for the country but then you can come onto the Roding River, yeah, in fact we know it as Roding Riviera because it’s going to have all of this great stuff along the river where you can live and you can play, you can interact with artists, creatives, in fact that’s where the film studio for Barking is on the Wharf, it’s on the river, yeah.  You then carry on down and then you come to Barcelona on Thames, that’s where you’re going to have that creative maker corridor because you’re going to have the Thames Clipper stopping there as of the Spring, there’s going to be a new train service which is taking you into London as well, again, you are only going to be twenty, twenty five minutes away from Fenchurch Street to the Roding and the wider situation with Barcelona on Thames.  You then come into the healthy new town which we know as Riverside, next door to that will be the three markets of London where you’re going to have Billingsgate, Spitalfield and Smithfield.  You then carry on next door to that, you’re going to have the Thames Freeport which is linked in with Fords and the new green agenda.  You then carry on from that and you’ve got Digital Dagenham which is the largest data centre in Europe that’s been built already and then you’ve got Dagenham’s Hollywood, which finishes at Eastbrook.  That doesn’t include the great investment we’ve got from UCL, which is a world class science and engineering facility, the only one of its kind, where we are actually showing people the affects of going to Mars.  Now, that’s happening in Barking and Dagenham today.  So, who don’t want to be here, we are the centre of the universe. 

Susan Freeman

I think I know where my next holiday is going to be, Darren.  So, just changing direction slightly, one of the, one of the last in real life events I think I saw you at was the London Council’s Housing Conference in 2019 which you ran with the late Tone Pidgley and I just wanted to you know talk a little bit about Tony because I know, you know, you were close, you did quite a lot with him and that conference was so, was so different in many ways, largely because Tony had brought along one of the residents from you know one of his estates who was talking about you know things from the resident point of view, which we don’t always see at housing conferences.  So, I just wondered whether you can just sort of tell us a little bit about the work you did with Tony and you know how he was different as a, you know, as a developer.

Darren Rodwell

So, look, let’s be honest about it, Tony was working class, ex-lorry driver, bit like myself, no nonsense.  Again, Dagenham simple.  But he had the essence of people at the heart of everything he did.  He was a tough businessman but I remember Kidbrooke and that’s where the TRA chair was from, was Kidbrooke.  I remember when I used to be a delivery driver and I used to have to deliver to Kidbrooke, it was a pharmacy, but again I had a baseball bat in the car because I had to, used to deliver methadone and other drugs, these were all the legal drugs by the way folks if you’re listening because I’m a good boy like that, and it was an awful estate, people didn’t deserve to live in slums and people today don’t deserve to live in slums and I remember meeting Tony for the first time, we were at the Emirates and I had been asked to go on a panel because for some reason people think I’m a bit forthright and I have an opinion and Tony was there, there was four of us on this panel and Tony said something and unfortunately for me, I’m very dramatic in the fact that if I think you’re wrong, you’ll see I think you’re wrong, as you’ve noticed I’ve done it many times, and Tony had said something and went, “Really? Get off your high horse” yeah, you know, really gave him a bit of a digging out and he just looked over and then he gave it back to me and these other two people didn’t know what to say on the panel because they were being polite, they were being nice, they were doing what you always do when you go to boring conferences.  Let’s be frank though, most of them are so boring, ain’t they, you know you’ve got warm wine and sometimes warm food if you are lucky but it just isn’t interesting, it’s just talking the same old, same old.  Well, with Tony, afterwards he come up to me and he said, “Listen young man” he said, “You’re the first person to take me on in ages.”  He said, “You and I should do a head to head” and I went , “yeah, okay, who are you?”  Because I didn’t know that he was the biggest housebuilder in London at the time.  I didn’t know that you know he had influence in many, many areas and it’s really interesting because he came out, he came out and my car with us one day so he’s got chauffer driven, all the other stuff and he said show me round the borough, so literally me and him got in the car and we talked about the days of driving lorries, we talked about you know our backgrounds and where he came from and where I came from and it was really interesting because for his perspective and my perspective were very aligned because it was about people and he understood that it didn’t matter what the product was, it had to be good for people and you know, again like I say he was no, no…

Susan Freeman

Shrinking violet.

Darren Rodwell

…violet, shrinking violet, that’s it. 

Susan Freeman

Shrinking violet, he certainly wasn’t. 

Darren Rodwell

He was no shrinking, yeah that’s it, you know, but what I can say to you is, I miss him.  I miss him massively because our friendship and our respect for each other’s position was very clear and there was things that me and him were talking about that would have improved the lives of hundreds, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people in London.  We talked about, so one of the things me and him were talking about was if you are someone in a position that Tony was in, which at the moment he had his bus pass but why would he use his bus pass because he never used public transport but we spoke about how could we do a system where he could gift that to someone who was an apprentice, just starting out in business, in industry, and they… it was a very pragmatic way of doing things which would help British business, help London especially and I miss those conversations and that, that conference you’re talking about, it was arranged by myself and Tony and I really do miss him, I was shocked and saddened when I heard his passing and I’ll let you into a little secret as well, or two, two things.  First one was he actually came to my fiftieth birthday party and not many people did I invite outside of my family to that so it shows you how much respect I had for the man and the second one was, he wanted me to go for Mayor of London in the future and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was and I, and I joked with him and said, “I’m not sure your Tory friends would like that” but he felt that I had the right vision, which I thought was a really great compliment coming from somebody of his, his stature in business. 

Susan Freeman

Interesting and might you go for Mayor of London?

Darren Rodwell

No, Sadiq wouldn’t want me to.  I very much support our Mayor, he’s a good lad.  He’s, so, Tony said that privately, unfortunately David Bailey said it publicly once because he like come round here and he got me into a lot of trouble so, because the Mayor’s office said oh, what’s this about you going for Mayor of London?  I have no intention right now, I’ve got a lot going on in Barking and Dagenham, thank you very much. 

Susan Freeman

No, okay.  So, I think a lot of us share your sadness that Tony isn’t with us anymore because he was such a big, such a big influence but what legacy do you think that he wanted, you know he wanted to leave and if you carried on you know planning and plotting together, what do you think you would have done?

Darren Rodwell

I think his legacy is up to all of us to keep and I think actually, probably about four years ago, about four years ago at MIPIM, I think you saw us working together because the industry started talking about people again and that, I say it was about four years ago now, and that was very much Tony.  So, when we had our two head to heads, so we had I remember doing the two head to heads for the London Chamber of Commerce, you know it was invoking that conversation about actually we’ve got to build homes for people, not for profit.  Now it doesn’t mean you can’t make profit, everyone needs to make profit, we live in a capitalist system but we’ve got to remember that that system only works if people work, if people are able to aspire and if people are able to develop themselves but they need a foundation, they need local government to help facilitate their aspiration but they also need the private sector to understand and wider society, that everyone has a value and I think, if I’m being honest, I think it’s up to all of us to keep that aspiration alive that I know Tony very much believed in and I hope, at some point, that we’re able to do something that marks, you know, marks him as a person and his ideals in the way that the foundation I know that he’s got does and I know that his family as well, you know, they very much cherish you know what he was trying to do, the same all of us do. 

Susan Freeman

And if your, your role at London Councils, Darren, and London Councils represents all, all the London councils, is the thinking sort of aligned in any way on that so, you know the idea about you know talking about building homes for people, is that something that London Councils can sort of help push forward or do you all have to do it on a you know individual borough basis?

Darren Rodwell

No, we do it collectively, I mean again, if I look at what we’re doing for London Councils and my role as being Deputy Chair, I mean it’s cross-party but not only does it have to be cross-party, it also has to be cross-sector so, I’m meeting now with a number of people who Tony introduced me to, I know very well, there’s a ten, group of ten that I sort of meet quite regularly and you know they were saying to us, look as Local Authorities, this is the problems we’re having so I’m taking that back to all 32 boroughs because I have, I have meetings with all the housing leads, saying right, how can we address these issues and then at the same time I go back to the private sector and say well that’s okay but how are you going to address those issues because you know whilst we might say that 106 can be a problem and some would say oh it’s terrible, you know you’re trying to get blood out of a stone but actually, you know there’s also viabilities and sort of land banking and all the other issues so, it’s about saying let’s be honest and genuine about it because if we really do want business to flourish and we really do want communities to flourish then actually we’ve got to find a way through this collectively.  So London’s Councils and my role in it as well as my colleagues, I mean Georgia Gould, the Chair, is fantastic, Teresa, who leads the Conservative group and Ruth, the Lib Dem group, you know, I can’t tell you how much respect I have for all those three women in their leadership through the pandemic because, you know, first job of any Local Authority or any organisation is to make sure that their members are safe and you know what we’ve done in London, supporting the Mayor, working alongside the Mayor and Government, has been incredible, we have been the glue, that fourth emergency service that’s kept Londoners safe in these very difficult times.  So, I think we’ve got a massive role to play, I think good leadership is about facilitating the ambition of others no matter where they come from and hopefully if you get the right partners then it actually works and builds form. 

Susan Freeman

So, we, we talked earlier on about values and you know just looking at the challenges for London as a whole at the moment as we come out of the pandemic and post-Brexit, what are the important values that we should all be looking at and how should we be promoting them to make sure that London doesn’t get left behind compared to some of the other world cities that are competing with London the whole time?

Darren Rodwell

So again we’ve got to look at this and we’ve got to be honest, I don’t care which way you politically vote, it’s not for me, it’s between you and the ballot box but if there is a business out there that personally thinks that London is doing well out of the political agenda of the national Government right now, then I question their business acumen because there’s enough documents out there now that are showing that London is getting far less levelling up investment per head of population that anywhere else.  at the same time, I think people mistake London for being anywhere else, like anywhere else in the country.  We are a world city, we compete on a world stage with a handful of cities.  So that’s, that’s because of the corporation, it’s because of our history, it’s because of our culture, it’s because of our heritage and it’s because we are a world welcoming city, we are world connected, so that’s one thing and unfortunately some people find that being a rival, elitest.  Well no, no, no, what we’ve then got to do is then say to the UK, look we are the gateway to the world and our role is to help facilitate where Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, you know anywhere in Northern Ireland, Belfast, you know, anywhere, Cardiff, Swansea, we should help facilitate and show that the worth London gives to those locations, to those communities, because we do.  For the money spent in London, it always goes out to other parts of the country, so you know we should be that gateway to the UK and its communities because they’re brilliant and they’re vast.  So that’s, that’s, you know, that’s the second bit where we have to compete on if you like because, because the Government’s trying to do this North-South, the Government’s trying to say the city is rural and it’s wrong because actually all it does is undermine British business, which I am very in favour of, that is British business not undermining it, but at the same time then, we then need to have a discussion about London and London’s needs.  Of the ten most deprived areas of the country, eight of them reside in London.  I have the fifteenth most deprived council in the country, it’s the most deprived in London.  So, to think that every place, every street is paved with gold, you know Dick Wittington, da, da, da, da, dah, is wrong.  Unfortunately, what we’ve got is because we have Westminster, as in the Palace of Westminster, and the national politicians located here, it gives a very, very strange view of what London is, there is no such place as London.  There are loads of villages that make up a place we call London and, and I think again, we as London need to come together as a, with a policy document that says these are London’s world class values, everyone’s welcome, which is fantastic, I think the Mayor does a fantastic job in saying that everyone’s welcome, everyone can make business in London, can do business in London because you know there’s nine and a half million people here and if you can’t do business with nine and a half million people then you are in the wrong business.  So, but we’ve got be able to make every Londoner have a home in London and again, that’s where we’re struggling because, to be frank, the Government will not give us the devolution to allow us to do what we need to do but at the same time it won’t allow us to be entrepreneurial to even deliver what we need to deliver as well.  So, we’re a very centralised system in this country, worse than ever in the, well obviously it’s William the Conqueror, you know since he gave the Square Mile the right to be able to manage itself.  We need to get back to a way of saying actually, there’s local specialisms, for London to grow, for London to be that world city, to deliver the opportunities with the rest of the country, then we need the autonomy and we need the powers to be able to do that and we need politicians at a national level to leave us alone and let us, in our specialisms, work together to bring those values to the forth. 

Susan Freeman

So, if there was more devolution, I mean are there things that you would like to do that you can’t do because you haven’t got the autonomy you need?

Darren Rodwell

Well yeah, I mean I’ve been working with the private sector now to show that the A13 could have happened for six years, well that should have happened six years ago.  Whether people like it or not, in Barking and Dagenham, we have the only international freight terminus that goes through Eurostar and that has the potential, again, working with different countries, we, we’ve been talking to about a highspeed rail link and that should be it by the end of the decade, so you’d be able to go from Barking to Beijing in under 36 hours, you know, you could do the whole of Europe, the whole of the rest of Asia and Africa, well that’s really good for the UK economy but I’ve been trying for five, six years now to get the Government to talk to us about that opportunity.  Now, if I could do that with the private sector, you know, I don’t think, I’m waiting on the Government to give me the money but if there was private sector investment that said do you know what, we can see that this is good for the London economy, I’m just one of 32 boroughs, there’ll be others having the same conversations about what they could do in their locations as well.  So, as I said, it’s about us drawing up a plan for London that says if we do this for London, this is how it benefits every Londoner, no matter where it’s located.  It's a bit like regeneration.  When we do regeneration in Barking and Dagenham, whilst it may only be in one part of the borough, we’ve got to show that the road maintenance, the pavement maintenance, the infrastructure we’re putting in in the parks, all comes from the regeneration money we’re getting from the regeneration in that one place and that’s a bit like what we’ve got to try and do here but again, it’s going to take, it’s going to take some bravery on the part of Government because it feels to me that the centralisation and the austerity has made it so difficult for people to be entrepreneurial. 

Susan Freeman

True and people don’t like to take risks and to make, and to make mistakes and that’s you know actually taking risks is part of being entrepreneurial.  And so are you planning to go to MIPIM this year to promote everything that’s going…?

Darren Rodwell

Of course I am.  Why would I not go to MIPIM?  I love the warm red wine that I’ve never drunk.  I enjoy the rain, which it seems to happen every time I turn up there and I love the company of telling people where Barking and Dagenham is.  Look, I mean, MIPIM is again it’s one of those where MIPIM is a place to be to get investment for our capital city.  Now, on behalf of London Councils, I will go there, playing my role, to show that all 32 boroughs have opportunities of investment in the people of the place.  At the same time, I will support the Mayor in his endeavours to make sure that you know we’re seen as still as a world class city and that’s really important.

Susan Freeman

And do you think, I mean people are cottoning onto the fact that Barking and Dagenham is this place of regeneration opportunity and are you getting sort of interesting sort of businesses and people you know coming to you saying you know can we have a look and can we talk about what you’re doing?

Darren Rodwell

Er, the short answer is yes.  The long answer is it’s taken my five years to get to that place.  I think people that are understanding of our values, know it’s a place they want to invest.  So, what do I mean by that?  Again, Tony never actually invested but he wanted to, in the borough, in fact we were talking about what we were going to be doing, this was obviously last year before he passed and stuff, and it was, I’m very choosy, I don’t want grab and runs, I don’t want poor build, I don’t want poor doors, I want zone one in zone four, I want eco thinking of tomorrow, you know I want people that are the furthest away from society being included in the future of society.  So, I need, I’m often, you know people, I get people all the time going oh I’ve got millions, I’ve got billions in some case, I’m lucky if I’ve got a tenner, saying you know we want to invest but if they don’t talk about my community, if they don’t show me what my community is going to benefit from, then actually they’re not the right partner.  That’s not saying they’re not good at business, they’re just not good at my business, you know, and they can invest somewhere else and again, I give credit to the leaders of London here, we all, you know, we all look for that, you know we’re looking for people to invest in our respective communities, in our people, and I think you know the last, probably the last fifteen, fifteen years, we’ve seen London at leadership across the piece, develop in a way that’s very professional now, even if I don’t always articulate it but the deals get done in a way that are timely and appropriate for the vast majority if the values are right. 

Susan Freeman

So, what, I mean just looking, looking ahead, I mean in five years’ time, what will you hope to have achieved for the borough?  Obviously, an awful lot you know has been happening, a lot is in train but five years, five years’ time, what will be, what will be the sort of important achievements for you?

Darren Rodwell

Well, well I’d like to see that actually the film studios are thriving, I’d like to see more media, data, science, engineering because that’s what we’ve really concentrated on.  I’ve had, I’ve got a new idea that I’ve been proposing called e-town, which is really about learning, leisure and living and it’s a concept that I’ve come up with as well because we need to give everyone the best opportunities in life.  What would I say?  I would probably say the best thing I could hope for is that my community feel they’re empowered enough that they don’t need me to be articulating on their behalf like I’d had to in the last, the last eight years and I’ve seen that, I’ve seen a massive difference between my first four years of the administration, articulating that Barking and Dagenham was in London, to now, showing people that we’re delivering stuff but I’d like to see the next four years showing people the ambition is to get much further. 

Susan Freeman

Okay, that’s, that’s great.  Well, Darren, thank you very much and it’s been great talking to you today and I may or may not see you in the rain in the South of France in March.

Darren Rodwell

It’s been wonderful talking to you.  Happy 2022 and let’s carry on taking this great city forward, this great country forward, and let’s hope that everyone has a future that we can all be proud of.  Thank you for your time.

Susan Freeman

Thank you.  Thank you so much, Darren, for sharing your passion for leadership, values and social justice and how, as self-proclaimed community champion, you’ve successfully spearheaded the regeneration of your unique part of London.  So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast coming very soon. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and, most importantly, suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Darren became the Leader of Barking & Dagenham Council in 2014. Since then, he has established the borough as one of the most important growth opportunities in London and both he, and the Council, have won numerous awards.

Darren has focused on moving beyond the borough’s industrial past, bringing the community forward as the borough embraces its identity as one of the most forward-thinking parts of London. Under his leadership, the borough has undergone a programme of sustainable regeneration, welcoming world class universities, and groundbreaking startups.

As part of his vision of a ‘Digital Dagenham’ Darren recently welcomed the opening of a new data centre.

Most recently, London's biggest film studio has been launched in the borough.

Darren is currently the Deputy Chair of London Councils, having served on the Executive since 2016 – first as the Executive Member for City Development and now as the Executive Member for Housing and Planning. In his current role, he has prioritised the delivery of truly affordable housing in London, fire safety, reducing homelessness and reducing the use of temporary accommodation.

Darren is also a member of the Homes for Londoners Board, Arts Council England, The Arts Council for London and the Create London Board and, since September 2019, Vice Chair on the LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board.

In 2021, Darren was awarded an honorary doctorate in education by Coventry University.

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