In the beginning was the word, and the word was money. Actually bankers believe in the creation myth of the 1986 “Big Bang” when stock trading was computerised – facilitating high speed speculation – and the UK government deregulated financial markets in London to tempt money from other financial centres. Back in 1982 the London Docklands Development Corporation had declared the Isle of Dogs an enterprise zone, with special tax breaks, so it made sense for the exploding banking industry, whose main competitive advantage was already low taxation, to expand into the tax efficient offices of Canary Wharf.
Skip forward a bit. Yesterday we saw Bob Diamond of Barclays (head office: One Churchill Place, Canary Wharf), explaining why his company had rigged the LIBOR intersest rate. The banking crisis overall has left everyone in the country about £1,300 a year worse off, in terms of GDP per capita, for the last three years. Pricing the crisis is almost impossible, Andrew Haldane of the Bank Of England believes about 10% of GDP gone forever is about the right mark. It’s not that the finance sector is unproductive – it’s worse. For some time periods its net effect is destructive.
What else could we do with the real estate? I think we should turn the the Docklands back into docks. It’s the most honest kind of shopping experience – go down and buy it off the boat. Don’t we live in a world where we value the shopping experience, and where products have to come with a story that makes them personally valuable to us? Check out the history tag – telling you where the provenance of your goods on a web page, adding value by adding context.
There’s no romance in a container ship unloading, but that won’t happen because the docklands can’t cope with container ships. Imagine instead the Cutty Sark offloading Italian cheeses, Ethiopian coffee or Indonesian spices. Toiling cockney lightermen humping barrels as Islington mums pick their way through crews of lascivious Filipino sailors smoking clay pipes. That’s better than the history tag, surely.
Prices would be higher, but perhaps not so much. Firstly, we should copy the Chinese idea of a Special Export Zone, and create a Special Import Zone where no tariffs are imposed. Third world countries would be allowed into the market thus reducing prices. Secondly, rather than sponsoring banks, we could offer subsidies to traders who use the use sail boats, thus reducing carbon emissions.
And why not make the process into a holiday while we’re at it. If a gourmand coffee shop isn’t enough for you, why not sail to Jamaica, select your beans, sail them back to London and roast them.
We can send jellied eels and ale back.
Here are some pictures of the docks, in 1810, 1847 and 2012. 1847 looks like the most fun to me. I love the way it’s so legible – a dock for loading, another for unloading, and wharfs named after a product or location. Canary Wharf, obviously, once serviced the canary islands (I think the Wharf was owned by a fruit company). The utility of the docks is so obvious, now not even the people who work at Canary Wharf can tell you what they do.
If you could see a little further east you could see the East India dock, neatly mapping global trade into a few acres of East London.