In July 2018 The Thames Estuary 2050 Commission published its 2050 Vision Report.
You can find the report here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/718805/2050_Vision.pdf but I will set out here a few of my thoughts on it and on thoughts sparked by it.
The Thames Gateway (previously called the East Thames Corridor) seems, with the establishment of The Thames Estuary 2050 Commission to be now called in official circles The Thames Estuary Corridor.
Since 2008 (that is, since the Great Bank Crash), The Thames Estuary area, outside of London itself, has grown more slowly than any of the other London Growth Corridors: for example, The Thames Valley; Cambridge-Stansted-London Corridor. The Kent and Essex parts of the Thames Estuary/Thames Gateway have not kept pace with growth in east London:
between 2009 + 2016 East London employment grew by 27%;
the Thames Estuary average was 19%,
and the London average was 21%.
It seems to me that The Thames Gateway growing more slowing than other parts of London is to be expected. If we are growing London by importing people from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world, it is likely that growth will be from the centre out. Why would strangers to London choose the wider Thames Estuary area when the jobs are, and the ‘vibe’ is, in central London and the growing east end? As these areas close to central London become more expensive incomers may move out into the Thames Estuary, but only if the cost and effort of travel into London is worth the cost and effort.
We need to get the Thames Estuary growing more organically but this will be slow growth.
We need to plan for and deliver the things which will make people want to come to Thames Estuary area: good, cheap homes of all sorts for the full demographic; good schools, education and training; good culture, arts and entertainment; good environment; good and available jobs (at all levels); good transport and communication (at all scales); good social and community infrastructure, etc. In short, high quality places which can serve people across their whole life-span.
I said back in August 2014 https://stevenboxall.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/east-london-river-crossings-are-they-the-correct-transport-approach/ that perhaps we should accept that the River Thames to the east of London is a barrier, and will always be a barrier even with new crossings, and so we should explore if the option of turning the areas north and south of the Thames to the east of London into 2 parallel(ish), separate, but equally high quality locations for homes and jobs etc, with top quality radial routes is a better way to spend Billions of £ rather than on new Thames crossings. Or at least agreeing that new crossings will not be enough, and will never be, to provide sufficient capacity.
So, I am pleased to see the Thames Estuary 2050 Commission accepting that the Thames Gateway is not a single economic or travel to work area. They have said that the Thames Estuary will not be successful if the area is considered as a single place or community – ‘because it does not function as a single place or community’ but is really a tapestry of interconnected but different economies, places and people; so what is required is a different structure of 5 connected productive places based on existing areas and their assets with a clear vision for each area.
The 2050 Vision Report contains a big and important finding: “without a coherent and integrated vision and associated priorities, this important part of the country will not deliver ‘business as usual’, let alone more ambitious ones”.
So, it appears that 30 years after the Thames Gateway was first identified as an area for development there is no coherent vision. But this doesn’t come as a shock to me – I have always said that we will not get sensible and high quality vision and delivery in The Thames Gateway without a well funded and resourced body to either be responsible for it all, or to coordinate, help and drive all of the various partners and stakeholders.
The Commission says that there needs to be a strong streamlined governance arrangement and recommends that the area needs to be represented by a South East Regional or sub-regional Government, but it is not clear if they are talking about this being elected or not. They go on to say that there needs to be a review of governance within 6 months and this should start at local level to see if agreement can be obtained – but if no programme is produced within 6 months a more top-down approach should be taken. They also say there needs to be a single Thames Gateway Strategic Group which requires capacity funding and to speak to government with a single voice.
I have always said that little will be done without central funding and resources to coordinate and drive visions, strategies and delivery; and to fund projects. But how do we do this whilst maintaining democratic input and control – the lack of which has often been a criticism of how mega projects and programmes are run, for example London Docklands?
Perhaps we could approach this by:
all Local Planning Authorities maintaining their Planning role;
setting up a Thames Gateway Body, with sufficient resources and staff, in order to coordinate and assist all LPAs;
this Thames Gateway Group to be responsible for planning (and Planning) and delivery of cross area strategic infrastructure such as strategic roads and rail (such as Cross Rail extensions and Thames Crossings);
this Thames Gateway Group working with all LPAs to ensure that policy and projects are coordinated and do not cut cross each-other, and to ensure that a beggar-they-neighbour approach is not taken.
The Commission calls for ‘people-led projects’ in part delivered through The Thames Estuary Fund. How the Thames Gateway development is funded and financed is vital: in my view the worse thing which can happen to The Thames Estuary is it being a location or target for massive inward overseas investment. We need the area to be for value creation; not for value extraction over the long-term nor for rentiers.
When considering transport and communications it is not good enough to only deal with transport into London from the periphery. All places, and local economies, need good intra-connectivity as well as connections to other places: in fact for many economies it is the infra-connectivity which is more important than mega projects (although connections with the wider world cannot be ignored).
It is good to read in the report the call for infrastructure investment to be integrated and multifunctional maximising the benefits to people, places and ecology. I have talked before about the vital importance of infrastructure being designed to deliver multiple benefits (see my blog https://stevenboxall.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/total-landscape-approach-and-green-infrastructure/ ), and this is now a standard approach to good urban design (although that isn’t to say that it isn’t often ignored).
The Report talks about the ‘City Ribbon’ area (the London Boroughs along the Thames) building on their core strengths including the growing cultural and creative industries sectors supported by the Mayor of London’s Production Corridor. However, although the cultural and creative industries are an important part of the UK’s economy, and there is already a concentration in the City Ribbon, we mustn’t take this too far. The cultural industries have a reputation for being low paid and precarious, with a few mega-earners. I would like to have seen some analysis on the wage or income distribution within these sectors. Are 1% on a lot of money and 99% on low, precarious, incomes?
The report calls for the City Ribbon to be a hub for production spaces created for start-ups and grow-on space for SMEs. I hope this means next generation manufacturing (including bio-medicine and life-sciences) and not only cultural production.
I am very worried that the report mentions ‘Estate Regeneration’ which now has a very bad reputation with those currently living in these places.
The Commission said very clearly that The Thames Estuary vision will not be delivered if a ‘Business as usual’ approach is taken. However, in a survey of all projects and programmes being planned and developed they found that everything is ‘Business as usual’. This is a very worrying finding and needs to be changed immediately (but I can’t see it being done).
In my view this will only be done if the Public Sector acts as the Masterplanner and as the master-developer. This isn’t so unusual – it happens in Holland. So, it is interesting to see the Commission calling for exactly this. This can address both quality and timing of delivery -but only if the Public Sector is given the resources and power to do this.
The report says that one of the big issues for the Inner Estuary area (the South Essex and North Kent boroughs) is poor education and skills attainment. However it fails to say why this is the case. Is it anything to do with all of Kent having a selective education system and parts of Essex also having one? Selective education is not working for the population as a whole nor the employers; this needs to be acknowledged and challenged and changed: we must not ignore something just because it is political – if it is causing probables we must say so. When I worked with educationalists in Kent they were quite clear that this was the case. This may be a political issue but we will get nowhere if we ignore political issues which have a detrimental effect.
It is interesting that the report says that at Ebbsfleet Garden City the delivery of 15,000 planned homes has slowed – is this really true? A Development Corporation has been set up, has been operational for some years now, and delivery has slowed! I find this hard to believe, but shocking if true.
The Commission also points out the lack of job creation in Ebbsfleet Garden City. A new Medical Campus at Ebbsfleet is mentioned, so hopefully this should help with job creation. I said years ago that we should extend the Cambridge-Stansted-London Corridor (in concept rather than administratively), and its high-tech medical research corridor, into North Kent via the boroughs of Bexley, Dartford, and Gravesend onto Medway. The Cambridge-Stansted-London Corridor has the research facilities but lacks the space to grow high-tech medical and life-sciences manufacturing. North Kent has the space to do this, and the transport links to the Francis Crick Institute at Kings Cross and to the Cambridge-Stansted-London Corridor are good.
The Vision talks about the sub-region needing to address its river frontage and its relationship with the River Thames; but in my view the Ebbsfleet masterplan fails to do this to anything like the extent it should do.
The Commission said that the Swanscombe Peninsular needs resolving urgently – if London Resort Holdings do not submit a Development Consent Order for its proposed Themed Resort by the end of 2018, the Government should consider all options for resolving the uncertainty this scheme is creating.
I said from the beginning that I do not support this scheme, and that a ‘Resort’ is a poor use for this site and this area (unless it is truly unique and groundbreaking such as The Garden of Ideas – see http://www.gardenofideas.org/ – declaration of interest: I’m working with them). This site and area should be used for modern high-tech manufacturing, including high-tech medical manufacturing and life-sciences, set in a landscaped setting which reflects its riverside and marshland environment.
The Report calls for Cross Rail 1 to be extended to Ebbsfleet by 2030 and for the Government to provide the funding (expected to be £20bn). But I can’t see why they have stopped at Ebbsfleet: why not extend it to at least Gravesend and possible to the Medway Towns? Or has there been a strategic decision taken to not do so as this would undermine Medway and Gravesend as employment growth points? If it is too easy to get into London from North Kent this would just encourage London to grow – perhaps by too much. I can see an argument for both points of view (extend/not to extend) but it would be good to see if the Government is actually thinking things through.
The Report talks of an emerging medical research corridor connecting to the Francis Crick Institute through to Chatham to Canterbury. Yes, we need fast, cheap, Public Transport to the Francis Crick Institute. HS1 sort of does part of this but it needs to be better and cheaper. I can see why perhaps we do not want cheap commuter fares into central London (this isn’t going to happen anyway) as this would lead to lots of people commuting from East Kent to central London on a daily basis. We can have good transport for those from North Kent who need to go to Francis Institute other than daily for business, but cheap transport from so far out doesn’t help the mass of people live a balanced life. We need to have plenty of good jobs locally so having to work in London is not, or doesn’t have to be, the norm.
It was interesting to see the Report suggesting a very long term project – a new Thames Crossing east of the (yet to be built) Lower Thames Crossing, combined with a new Thames Barrier or Barrage, linking Basildon and the Medway Towns. This would be part of the Environment Agency’s new and upgraded Thames flood protection plans.
The Commission says that The Thames Estuary Corridor is seen as vital to delivering London’s growth. This thinking and argument does worry me. We really need to set up and grow the area with its own nodes to counter-balance London. We must challenge an ever growing and dominant London. The UK as a whole lacks enough second tier cities of sufficient size and clout; and Kent itself lacks a big city. I would like to see a Space Syntax like study commissioned which identifies the most appropriate location for a Kentish city of true city size and reach.
The River Thames itself is mentioned in the Report but I find it strange that the River Medway, a major Thames tributary in the area under study, is totally ignored. This needs to be rectified.
The Commission says that to deliver the Thames Estuary vision, development and growth, the area needs revenue raising powers, and to have tax and other, incentives to growth.
I worry about this:
1/. There isn’t sufficient tax base in these areas; the money ought to come from, and must come from, central Government;
2/. It is well known, and proven, that tax incentives such as Enterprise Zones displace activity and do not create it – we know this. There may be a case to displace existing and dispersed firms and activity to make them more efficient and to gain productivity and to make infrastructure viable; but we must be upfront that this is why we are setting up an Enterprise Zone, to rationalise locations, not to create new jobs. Some places will lose firms in order to grow productivity.
To close: in my view, in many ways The Thames Gateway hasn’t delivered its potential because of politics and its reliance on neo-liberal economics and ways of working. To overcome this we must be upfront about it, but the Thames Estuary 2050 Vision Report is silent about politics and political economic choices.
Without challenging the current political and economic orthodoxy (and all that goes with it, like Planning and Housing Policy) The Thames Estuary Corridor will not deliver its potential in either quantity or quality. A massive opportunity to make a step change in the quality of place making and economic vibrancy will be wasted and therefore people’s lives diminished.
This is much more than a shame.