Barking & Dagenham LBC leader Darren Rodwell (Lab) has been in the eye of the storm recently when it comes to London’s surge in knife crime. Earlier this month, 17-year-old Jodie Chesney was stabbed to death in a park in his borough, and his community in Romford formed a 2,000-strong march through the streets demanding an end to violence.
Cllr Rodwell, who is also London Council’s executive member for housing and planning, believes that one of the root causes of London’s knife crime crisis is that housing developments are not being designed to encourage and maintain a sense of community.
“My concern is that if we are not building places that have people in the heart of them, then the places become soulless, and our big problem is we’re seeing a lot of that type of build in London – where the haves and the have-nots are side-by-side, but their pathways never cross over,” he said.
Cllr Rodwell cites examples of unintegrated housing in Tower Hamlets and Stratford. “In Stratford, we paid £12bn to host the 2012 Olympics and it was supposed to be a legacy, but for whom? It’s like a spaceship. They should have been proud of what Stratford is, which is a very working class area.”
In a stark example of enforced social segregation, earlier this week it was revealed following a Guardian investigation that developer Henley Homes had blocked social housing residents from using shared play spaces at its Baylis Old School complex in Lambeth. The company has since said this segregation will end.
Mr Rodwell described the example as “Dickensian” and “disgraceful”.
“Whenever you segregate a community, you always start breeding resentment, which turns to bigotry and hate, No development should be acceptable if they are going to segregate kids play areas,” he added.
He is also scathing in his criticism of the use of what he describes as ‘poor doors’ in developments, where private tenants and homeowners have a seperate entrance to social tenants.
“I have had family members who have that situation in Brentwood in which they can’t go through the main door but have to walk past the bins and back entrance to get access to the building,” he said. “I was disgusted by it, it should be banned in planning terms for any development. How are you supposed to build aspirations for working class people?
“Where you’re seeing a lot of social anxiety and unrest is in places where there is such a diverse group of people not interacting. When some people are being told they’re entitled to everything, but actually they’re seeing around them that they’re getting nothing, what does that say to them?”
Cllr Rodwell said he believes the way to foster integrated communities and alleviate the problems that lead to gang culture is to stop building “gated estates, where everyone has a gym in their building”.
“What’s the point of that when there’s a gym in your local community?” he asked. “I don’t want ivory towers, where all people ever do to interact with the rest of the community is walk to the train station and back again. There are no physical gates around them but there are mental gates. We need proper infrastructure, so you’re not just looking at that block but at the whole realm.”
Cllr Rodwell says it’s “soft infrastructure” such as children’s play areas that creates cohesion, and he claims there has been a concerted effort to focus on those shared spaces in housing developments in Barking & Dagenham for the last two decades.
Mr Rodwell has overseen one of the biggest regeneration projects in the country, with plans to build more than 50,000 new homes and create 20,000 new jobs over the next 20 years. “I am looking to build thousands of houses, and other boroughs are looking to build the next golf course,” he said.
“I am proud that we have no homes in Barking & Dagenham for sale for over £1m,” he said. “I build for people on the lowest wages and on affluent wages, but they still live on the same block. What we’re saying is that the person who sweeps our streets is just as important as the accountant, the police officer or the brain surgeon. We respect your role. And that’s really important because everyone in our community in London should feel that they have a place in London.”
But Cllr Rodwell’s talk of inclusion is a far cry from the sense of alienation that some people in Barking & Dagenham felt back in 2006, when the British National Party (BNP) won 12 council seats.
Cllr Rodwell was at the forefront of the Labour Party campaign which led to the BNP losing all its seats in 2010.
“We are a very working class borough and people felt left behind,” he said. “I used to knock on people’s doors and say I can’t do anything about Gordon Brown, or West Ham [football club], but I can help you.
”Every child is born with aspiration but it’s the community that knocks it out of them if they are made to feel left behind. That’s what’s been missing in the London housing debate.”
Cllr Rodwell recently told the London Councils Housing Conference that Barking & Dagenham has the highest number of black councillors in the country, which Mr Rodwell says reflects the diversity of the borough, where 63.6% of the population are black and minority ethnic.
Metropolitan Police figures show the crime of carrying an offensive weapon has risen by 2.66% in the last 12 months to February 2019 in Barking & Dagenham, compared to 4.38% in London as a whole.
Cllr Rodwell tied the recent surge in knife crime to the “Americanisation” of culture, which he sees in the language being used by young people. “They don’t talk about the police, they talk about the feds, they don’t talk about neighbourhoods, they talk about the hood,” he said.
“Showing that with their homes, they are respected by the wider community, then we can start showing people that actually we have a value of aspiration and then they wouldn’t feel the need to allow this Americanisation of our culture to happen,” he said.
Cllr Rodwell also said he senses a stigma being attached to people living in the social housing, which he claims didn’t exist when he was growing up in east London, and is critical of the role of Right to Buy.
“We never replenished the housing stock we lost and we started pitting neighbour against neighbour and status against status – then we wonder why we have a knife crime problem,” he said. “This is about inequality. We have to go back to the basics.”