Is the gateway to the future coming off its hinges?
31 July 2008
The Thames Gateway is the only part of the South East able to sustain the growth in housing and jobs that is crucial to the region's inward investment. As Chris Ames explains, this huge project could suffer for lack of coherent strategy
The government has a lot of eggs in the basket that is the Thames Gateway. Europe's largest regeneration scheme is expected to deliver the bulk of the new housing in the South East and a huge boost to the regional economy – while becoming a low-carbon eco-region and "a beautiful place to live, work and visit".
In many ways, the 40-mile strip of land either side of the Thames estuary is the perfect candidate for large-scale regeneration. With its old industries destroyed, it has a disproportionate share of the South East's brownfield land. It should be possible to bring in housing and jobs while nurturing the green spaces and environmentally sensitive sites that make up much of the region.
But questions continue to be asked as to whether the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is up to the job of managing this "mission critical" project.
Last year the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned that the Gateway could become a "public spending calamity", accusing the DCLG of poor management and a lack of measurable objectives. The department promised to produce an annual report in June, but even this is delayed.
Now politicians are accusing the DCLG of failing to get a grip on the project, which will absorb £9bn of public funds in the next three years alone. This equals the (separate) budget for the Olympics, whose main site lies at one end of the Gateway. The government's plans are also heavily dependent on private investment. Under threat from the economic downturn, not to mention flooding, will the project deliver its objectives while sticking to its principles – or fold under the weight of its own ambition?
Towards the end of last year, things seemed to be going badly wrong for the Gateway. The DCLG was panned in a report by the PAC, whose chairman Edward Leigh described it as "manifestly not up to the job". Then, two weeks after the department published its delivery plan, the Gateway's chief executive resigned.
Many of the DCLG's responsibilities for the Gateway will be transferred to the new Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) next April, leaving the department to concentrate on cross-government coordination.
Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, sees the project as well intentioned but is critical of the DCLG's lack of leadership. He sees its failure to publish an annual report on schedule as indicative of its failure to get a grip on the project: "There is no real indication of it being driven forward since the PAC report. There is no coherent strategy, no branding excitement."
Like many people, Mackinlay blames poor coordination between the large number of agencies involved – including three government regions.
But others support the government's rejection of a top-down management approach. Chris Roberts, leader of Greenwich Council and chairman of the Thames Gateway London Partnership, disputes "the idea that the Thames Gateway is one project". He acknowledges that overlapping remits need to be addressed, but argues that variations in what has to be done on the ground in terms of schools and other facilities mean that "delivery needs to be rooted locally".
Ironically, among the PAC's criticisms was that local MPs did not feel engaged with the programme.
Mackinlay says little has changed: "They've just invited me to dinners. I don't want dinners; I just want them to listen to my ideas."
Liberal Democrat housing spokesman Lembit Opik says there is "a lot of silo thinking". He also points to Gravesham Borough Council as a local authority getting ahead of its residents: "They have a ‘Big Idea' as a council, but I'm not convinced they've actually taken it through the local population in detail." Opik cites what he has christened the "Gravesend Gherkin", a planned 100-metre tall residential tower block close to the town centre: "Do the public like it? Do they understand the effect it will have on the aspect of the area?"
Residents in Gravesend confirm Opik's suspicions. There is some opposition to the tower, but also a feeling that the council has not engaged in meaningful consultation. One resident says: "It's the same old story. You get the impression they've already made up their minds."
The DCLG's delivery plan promises 160,000 new homes by 2016. The National Audit Office said last year that the rate of housebuilding would need to double to meet this. With the current slump in housebuilding, this ambitious figure must be in serious doubt.
Developers claim to be optimistic about the project, particularly over the longer term. Bellway Homes reported in June that sales in the Gateway had been "resilient". Chris Roberts says that some developers are more strongly placed than others to weather the downturn.
The Housing Corporation, which is due to fund 60,000 new affordable homes in the Gateway, says it is confident that the government's national affordable housing targets for 2008/11 will be met.
But according to its 2006 interim plan for the Gateway, the DCLG should have produced "a Gateway-wide affordable housing plan" after the 2007 spending review. This would show "how the new homes to be provided will fit with our aspirations to create mixed communities".
No such document has been produced, but the issue of mixed communities remains a worry for Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who warned developers in a speech in April of the dangers of "social apartheid". The quality of new housing has also been criticised. In March, Lord Rogers accused the project of "peppering the banks of the beautiful River Thames with shoddy, toytown houses, and Dan Dare glass towers".
The Housing Corporation commissioned regeneration expert Dr Tim Williams to look at issues of quality and sustainable communities. In line with Williams' recommendations, it included in the prospectus for its current National Affordable Housing Programme (NAHP) specific expectations for Gateway developments. It requires developments of more than 200 units to comply with its enhanced design and quality standards and encourages smaller developments to do the same.
The corporation has also set up a "round table" process as recommended, "to ensure the engagement of all stakeholders with the Williams agenda".
It sees its approach as eventually applicable to the NAHP as a whole and has adopted another Williams recommendation for a panel to draw up a list of partners "approved to deliver high quality new affordable homes". It has also appointed the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to audit the quality of developments, with the possibility that approved partner status could be withdrawn.
The Bridge Dartford, is a headline-grabbing development by Wimpey Homes and designer Wayne Hemingway. Like much of the Kent Thameside area, it is served by the award-winning Fastrack bus service.
The government plans significant investment in health and education services in the Gateway, which will also benefit from major transport infrastructure schemes such as the high-speed rail link, Crossrail and the extension of the DLR to Woolwich Arsenal.
But there remains significant uncertainty around other essential transport improvements.
The Barking Riverside development could provide 11,000 new homes by 2025. But this depends on new public transport. The PAC cited the scheme as an example of the government's failure to join up infrastructure investment. Transport for London has confirmed that although the first phase of the East London Transit – another bus service – is due to begin next autumn, the planned extension of the DLR through the development to Dagenham dock remains unfunded.
The £1.5 bn London Gateway port development at the former Shell Haven site near Thurrock should be a major driver for the sub-regional economy and a big step towards the 225,000 new jobs the DCLG promises by 2016. Developers DP World also say the integration of port and logistics facilities on the same site will allow customers to shorten their supply chains and "reduce their environmental footprints".
DP World is funding local improvements to the road network and Mackinlay hopes that it will be a driver for further improvement in the wider area.
But the government has yet to propose a solution to congestion at Junction 30 of the M25, which it describes as "the biggest remaining constraint to development" in the Gateway.
The government's promise of an "eco region" encompasses exemplary environmental standards, new environmental technologies and an aspiration that the Gateway becomes a "truly low-carbon region". In practice, this means reducing greenhouse gases as far as possible against a 2006 baseline. New and existing homes will have carbon emissions cut.
The eco-region plans include a "green grid" of linked public open space and the Thames Gateway Parklands, with architect Sir Terry Farrell as design champion, and £35m funding to create parklands, town squares and riverside pathways. In June, the DCLG showed its environmental credentials by recycling this funding announcement.
Friends of the Earth's Jenny Bates supports the eco-region idea and using brownfield sites but questions the government's concentration of development in the South East rather than across the country as a whole. She questions whether the scale of the project is sustainable: "From the start, the government has not set out the limits of development in terms of things like water, sewage, energy. There is no strategic environmental assessment. They've been playing catch-up." She cites the proposed desalination plant in East London as a very energy-intensive solution to increased demand for water.
With 54 per cent of the Gateway's growth areas in the flood plain, the risk of tidal flooding is an obvious concern. One expert has told Public Servant that "views on flood risk in the Thames Gateway are quite different depending on who you talk to".
The Environment Agency, which is developing a Thames Estuary 2100 flood risk management plan, talks about "making space for water", allowing flood water to be stored in open spaces away from developed areas. Others, including the Association of British Insurers and the London Assembly have said the condition of 5 per cent of the Gateway's defences is poor while much of the rest is not known.
Whether you see the Thames Gateway as a curate's egg or as a series of eggs in a poorly constructed basket, "good in parts" may be all that can be said about it just now.