The long and winding road
The credit crunch has dealt the Thames Gateway some short-term blows. But, finds Simon Brandon, there is no giving up on the long-term vision.
What will the Thames Gateway look like in 20 years’ time if all the ambitions for the region are realised?
Huge brownfield scars will have become gleaming new towns. Grim urban centres in Essex and Kent will have been transformed. Britain’s largest container port will be throbbing in Thurrock, and the east end of London will be basking in a post-Olympic glow. North west Kent might even be graced by a 50-metre horse (see box overleaf).
It’s a best-case scenario, assuming of course you like horses. The government is certainly putting on a brave face. ‘There is an overwhelming case for reinvigorating communities in the Thames Gateway and we must remain as ambitious as possible, while recognising the challenges caused by the global credit crunch,’ says a Communities and Local Government department spokesperson. ‘We remain confident our goals are achievable.’
But such optimism sits a little uncomfortably at the moment. The government’s plans for the Gateway have certainly been dealt a blow by the economic downturn. The questions now are how hard they have been hit, and where.
‘The Thames Gateway is no different from anywhere else,’ says Valli van Zijl, regeneration director at Southern Housing Group, a developing landlord with around 100 projects in progress across the Gateway. ‘Things are slowing down.’
Within the Gateway’s boundaries lies a myriad of different communities and landscapes with different needs. The downturn is hitting everybody but some areas are better placed to deal with its consequences than others. The Gateway’s sub-regions and individual developments are no exception. But while there are many local differences within the Gateway, the current concerns of those involved throughout the region tend to converge on two main themes: the timely provision of infrastructure and that old chestnut, joined-up thinking.
Recently, according to some, those themes have been in short supply. Ros Dunn has been chief executive of the Thames Gateway East London Partnership since the middle of October. She is no newcomer to the area, having previously headed the CLG’s Thames Gateway strategy. Her sub-
region faces its own economic challenges, she says, from the impact of the credit crunch on the financial and business services located in east London.
But she claims it is London mayor Boris Johnson’s decision earlier this month to shelve several big ticket transport projects, including a bridge that would link Thamesmead in south London with Beckton north of the river, that has most recently damaged east London’s Gateway plans.
‘The recent announcements by the London mayor are unhelpful,’ Ms Dunn argues. ‘It is difficult to see how you can square scaling back transport infrastructure with the provision of more affordable housing. That needs to be joined up.’
The mayor also froze an inquiry on the proposed Docklands Light Railway extension into Dagenham Dock, which would serve London’s largest proposed Thames Gateway housing development, Barking Riverside. Its bosses are similarly frustrated.
‘Clearly we are disappointed that Transport for London has decided to seek postponement of the inquiry for the DLR Dagenham Dock extension,’ says a spokesperson for Barking Riverside. ‘Given the current economic climate this is a natural response, although it could be seen by some as having a negative impact upon a number of regeneration schemes in London and across the south east.’
Ken Jones, head of housing strategy at Barking & Dagenham Council, agrees. ‘The mayor is clearly serious about housing… he now needs to join up some of the thinking,’ he says. ‘If the infrastructure isn’t in place, you aren’t going to get the developments that are going to provide the housing numbers he’s talking about.’
Over the long term Mr Jones is more optimistic, thanks to one or two local idiosyncrasies. He predicts that historically low land values in Barking mean ‘the impact of the changes will be less pronounced here than elsewhere’, while the council’s pioneering local housing company model means greater flexibility in altering aspects of the development - tenure mix, for example - to reflect economic necessity.
There is optimism elsewhere in the Gateway, too. Rab Fallon, who chairs a group of housing officers for the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnerships, admits there is a ‘short-term delivery risk’ - but he’s more interested in looking further ahead.
‘There are also opportunities for developing grant-assisted, affordable schemes,’ he says. ‘In the medium and long term, the opportunities are quite good… housing and economic growth should be quite significant. We should be focusing on that.’
Ms van Zijl agrees. ‘It’s a real opportunity for housing associations, were they given the right funding, to look at some of the smaller schemes,’ she says. ‘But we need to change the model. With no cross-subsidy, we need to change the grant regime and we need it soon.’
Both she and Mr Fallon report positive noises from the Homes and Communities Agency over increasing flexibility around the way grant is awarded in response to changing conditions. The HCA’s chief executive-designate Sir Bob Kerslake has suggested that this option is being discussed (Inside Housing, 24 October), although there has been no official announcement.
These issues will no doubt be thoroughly picked-over at this week’s Thames Gateway forum, where the presence of one keynote speaker in particular serves as a reminder that the credit crunch is not the only cause for future uncertainty.
Stewart Jackson, Conservative shadow minister for communities and local government, has lambasted the government’s handling of the Thames Gateway and, should his party win the next general election, he promises to look at the way the region is run.
‘We would like to see a forensic audit of the whole project since 2003,’ he says. ‘There has been a lack of authority and credibility at the highest levels of government… there are too many funding streams. It’s confusing. At present over 100 organisations have input and more than 60 administer public funds. We can simplify the Thames Gateway.’
Whether this would benefit such a large and diverse region, and what it would mean for future developments, remains to be seen.
‘It is in no one’s interests in a recession for significant capital projects to stop, and that won’t happen,’ pledges Mr Jackson, although he is more equivocal about those yet to start.
In the Gateway, as across the country, the outlook at the moment is mixed, especially in the short term. But its growth is very much a long-term project, and eyes are looking beyond the current problems.
‘We should be planning for a post-recession future,’ says Mr Jackson. ‘We mustn’t give up.’
Twenty years is a long time, after all.
Wishful thinking: what the Gateway needs now
‘We need greater flexibility and a bit of commitment from private developers. Planning consents were developed on the basis of private sale - we need to look at reverting from market housing to affordable rent.’
Rab Fallon, chair, Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership strategic housing officers’ group
‘We have to refocus on the top priorities in the short term. The Olympics will be very important, the new container port…and hopefully we’ll emerge from the recession with greater clarity and focus than we have had from this government so far.’
Stewart Jackson MP, Conservative shadow minister for communities and local government
‘The infrastructure has to be done together rather than just putting houses down. It needs to be seen as a priority by all departments, not just the
Communities and Local Government [department]. Education, health and transport need to be on the table.’
Valli van Zijl, regeneration director, Southern Housing Group
Ebbsfleet Valley: on the map
For a town that doesn’t quite exist yet, Ebbsfleet Valley has done a great job of putting itself on the map.
The last time Inside Housing reported on the new town’s progress it was a muddy field (23 April 2004). Today it has an international rail station on the High Speed 1 line to the continent and its own football team, following the renaming of Gravesend and Northfleet Football Club as Ebbsfleet Football Club last year. Within the next couple of years this corner of the Thames Gateway in north west Kent will be impossible to ignore, following completion of one of the UK’s largest ever public art commissions.
The Ebbsfleet Landmark – also referred to, inevitably, as the angel of the south – will be up to 50 metres tall (its Gateshead counterpart is less than half that height). An original shortlist of five designs has been whittled down to three: an enormous white horse, a ziggurat with a laser beam shining upwards through its centre, and what the project’s organisers describe as ‘a stack of 26 differently shaped polyhedrons’.
A final design will be selected in January, says a spokesperson for the project, but ‘we now have a period of engineering and cost feasibility studies’.
They are not the only ones. Ebbsfleet Valley is a huge project, with 10,000 new homes planned over 420 hectares, but given the current economic crisis and accompanying lack of demand for housing, are developments as ambitious as Ebbsfleet still feasible?
The project’s lead developer, Land Securities, admits that things have slowed considerably of late. The firm’s man in charge of Ebbsfleet Valley, Steve McGuckin, says he anticipates the current downturn lasting into 2010.
‘We are continuing to do contracts we have placed, but in terms of new contracts, we anticipate no major commitments over the next 18 months,’ he says. The first new homes in Ebbsfleet Valley went on sale this year, and 34 out of 38 have been sold. Even so, Mr McGuckin is sanguine about the short term.
‘Sales have gone well, but there’s a downturn,’ he says. ‘We’re progressing at a slower rate than we planned. You have to work with the market.’
But it’s not all bad news for Ebbsfleet. In its 2008/11 delivery plan for the Gateway, the Communities and Local Government department boasted it had ‘unlocked the problems preventing housing development’ in the area. By this they meant transport infrastructure, Mr McGuckin explains.
The Fastrack bus service that was but a twinkle in Ebbsfleet’s eye when Inside Housing first reported it five years ago has been running between Gravesham and Dartford for the past two years. According to Dartford Council it has already carried between 3 and 4 million passengers. Next year, suburban high-speed services will begin running from Ebbsfleet station. The trains, currently being tested, will reach St Pancras in just 17 minutes.
‘If anywhere is well-positioned to avoid the worst of the downturn,’ says Dartford’s spokesperson, ‘it’s here.’