Barking estate ‘can never be bulldozed’ as it sits on top of old asbestos factory

An estate in East London can never be bulldozed and regenerated as it exists on top of an old asbestos factory, a resident living in the area has claimed.

Anthony Taylor, a lifelong resident of the Harts Lane Estate in Barking has alleged the council can only “make the block better” as it is built on top of the former Cape Asbestos Factory, which closed down in 1968.

Mr Taylor said: “This used to be the biggest asbestos factory in London, it was was shipped in from the River Thames and up the canal and they used to load it in.

“But then they knocked it down and turned it into the estate back in the 1970s, when I was younger my uncle used to live in this block so I used to come here as a little child and visit this area.”

He added: “They can’t dig it out, all they can ever do is make the block better.

“This is why this estate is all hilly and this is why it’s green, this can’t be messed with. But it’s all safe, because they’ve just put all of these new trees in and they’re growing fine.”

A Barking and Dagenham council spokesperson did not comment on Mr Taylor’s claims about the estate, but said: “The council continues to engage with residents on the estate and before Covid our regeneration company Be First held a series of meetings with residents to look at redevelopment options for the estate.”

The factory opened in Barking in 1913 and employed thousands of local residents who were reportedly paid significantly higher salaries compared to other jobs in the area.

It operated until the late 1960s amid growing concern that asbestos was an extremely dangerous material that would later claim the lives of hundreds of factory workers and residents who had been exposed to it.

People who had been badly exposed to the deadly material developed a harsh cough known as the “Barking cough” which sounded like a dog barking and  lead to many losing their lives to cancers like Mesothelioma, bought on by coming into contact with asbestos.

Cape Asbestos insisted it was harmless even after the factory closed down and a chief scientist for the company reportedly defended its use – until he too died of Mesothelioma when he was 65 in 1982.

In 2022, Barking and Dagenham council unveiled a plaque in memory of those who have died due to the asbestos tragedy but many are still unknowingly living with the long-term effects of it.

Just a few years later after the factory shut down, two 17-storey tower blocks called Colne House and Mersea House were built in its place and stand tall over Barking’s present day landscape.

One of these blocks is where Mr Taylor has lived for most of his life, and has seen a lot of change over the years.

He explains the estate had a notorious reputation over the years from fatal stabbings to shootings which changed how the area was perceived by  outsiders.

One resident said in 2019 that she had seen police turning up with guns and that she had developed a “survival instinct” having lived on the estate for 30 years.

Mr Taylor says the estate has improved over the years and residents have gone on to have successful careers in music and football.

He said: “It’s better now, there are some good stories that come out, there’s a footballer who went on to play for Bolton Wanderers, Darren Prately – he grew up and played in that old football court.

“There’s a guy [Stephen Addison] who runs a charity called BoxUp Crime and he’s from this block as well.”

He added: “These are all people that come from this estate and grew up knowing they’re coming from this estate and have gone away and have done things that are better.”

Maran is a worker in the estate’s local shop, Your Daily Needs and says he agrees with Mr Taylor’s views.

He said: “Before it was a bit of a dark place but now it’s okay. This shop has been here for more than 20 years with the same owner.

“This area used to have gangsters and now they have all gone. Police have reduced the crime rate in this area particularly.”

Maran went on to say: “This area is like a blind spot so this area is always being watched, after 9pm police will come and patrol the streets just to make sure everything is fine.

“But I’m also a stranger to this area, I don’t know much. I start early in the morning and I finish almost at bedtime so I can’t really see what is happening outside of these four walls.”

A Barking and Dagenham council spokesperson told the LDRS: “We have and continue to work with the police and our community safety teams to address any issues of anti-social behaviour and safety.”

They added: “In addition, recently residents on the estate were engaged on ‘Your Estate Your Call’ – a participation project that aimed to give tenants the choice for how housing revenue account funding should be spent on the estate.

“Feedback from the initiative has seen improvements to play areas, new play equipment and the refurbishment of the basketball court to provide better facilities to young people on the estate.

“The initiative not only gave tenants a voice and involved a walkabout and information sessions in a number of hubs on the estate.

“In addition, whatever issues have been raised have been addressed by ward councillors as well as council officers.”

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Ruby Gregory

Local Democracy Reporter