It's easy to fly right past Dagenham if you're not careful. The sad wasteland of the closed Ford assembly plant, which employed so many local people for decades, takes your eye to your right and there's no signpost to Dagenham centre to your left. At risk of sounding rude I can't ever decide if it's a London suburb or a town in its own right. This, ah, modest piece of reportage reveals further depths of my ignorance.
I asked directions and was sent towards "old Dagenham", on the fringe of which I found the office of Jon Cruddas MP where I was met by Liam Smith (pictured below, left). He's the Labour deputy leader of Barking and Dagenham Borough Council and knows his territory like the back of his hand. His grandparents were the first generation of his family to live in Dagenham and he's lived there just about all his life. He required no encouragement to take issue with Margaret Hodge's recent intervention in the supposedly "stifled" debate about immigration and housing. Soon he was taking me on a tour in his people carrier - a much cleaner one than mine despite his having even more children - to show me what he and Cruddas consider the real causes of the area's housing problems and accompanying tensions. "Buy-to-let is a cancer," he said with feeling. In Smith's view the trouble is that newcomers, far from queue-jumping the council list, end up in rough, private rented places which they stay in only for as long as they have to. Result? The gradual erosion of community fabric and the rise of suspicion of strangers. Other resentments may result from, say, an incoming African family buying a house that locals can't afford. How come they've got all that money? The reason is usually quite simple: they've sold their flat or smaller house in Hackney or Tower Hamlets where property prices are much higher. What's the answer? For Smith it's all about being allowed to build more council houses. He's hoping Gordon Brown's pal Yvette Cooper will help him out. In the meantime, here's his message to Margaret Hodge. Again, please forgive the cameraman.
I'll be completing my full Dagenham report for CiF tomorrow afternoon. I'm too knackered tonight. Instead, I'm going to turn in so I'm fit for an early start tomorrow when I'll be driving down to Maidstone to talk to a man about grammar schools, Cameron and Kent.