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Heseltine takes another tilt at the Thames Gateway

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The lack of progress with Ebbsfleet Garden City suggests the development of north Kent and south Essex will be no easy task, says Denise Chevin

I had reason to go to Stratford last week, and rather than go from my part of west Kent into London Bridge and out east on the Tube, I opted for a 25-minute drive to Ebbsfleet and hopped on the high-speed train. Within eight minutes I’d arrived.

Apart from the speed of the journey, what struck me, though, was the plain of emptiness surrounding Ebbsfleet station. There should have been heaving activity in evidence as thousands of new homes come out of the ground at the nation’s first garden city for 100 years. Instead, there was just miles of nothingness – not agricultural, not wooded, not urban – but swathes of land waiting for something to happen on it.

Ebbsfleet Garden City, I subsequently discovered, currently comprises the not-so-city-like total of 65 homes. Which does rather beg the question, if a development on a high speed rail link just 17 minutes from St Pancras, bang on the doorstep of Bluewater and in the midst of a housing boom can’t take off, then what are the prospects for those miles of former industrial sites along the north and south sides of the Thames Estuary. How on earth will they be revitalised?

When Michael Heseltine was environment secretary in the early 1980s, he spotted the area’s potential on a helicopter ride

It’s a question that’s being asked again at high levels as the Thames Gateway makes its way back centre stage after many years in the development doldrums. In the early 1980s, when Michael Heseltine was environment secretary, creating enterprise zones and development corporations everywhere, he spotted its potential on a helicopter ride across east London, south Essex and north Kent. Dubbed Europe’s biggest regeneration project, it was later seen by John Prescott as a place to build thousands of new homes and ease London’s housing crisis, but it never really got going.

Now, 30-plus years on, Heseltine is returning to try his hand once more with this Herculean regeneration challenge, which has seen off multiple sets of developers since he was first involved. And it’s rather like one of those epic war movies – The Magnificent Seven perhaps or The Dirty Dozen – with Heseltine lining up a stellar cast of supporters including Norman Foster, Berkeley Group chairman Tony Pidgley, developer Stuart Lipton, Canary Wharf chief executive George Iacobescu, and National Infrastructure Commission members John Armitt and dRMM’s Sadie Morgan to make up the 17-strong Thames Estuary Taskforce.

The compadres’ task is to look for ways to entice inward investment. In doing so they must decide, among other things, if the area has been let down by too little expertise and lack of joined-up working by the authorities. Though many of the quangos have been dismantled, a few remain in place. There’s the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation for one running the Garden City. And the Thames Gateway still has its own minister – who knew that?

But trying to treat the area as one homogeneous zone may well have been part of its undoing. The Thames cuts through two very different cultures. As Wayne Hemingway once noted, it doesn’t have its own cricket team. Ultimately a lack of funding – and the recession – took its toll.

Yet there has been some progress. From an infrastructure viewpoint, the area is in better shape than ever. As well as the high speed rail, there’s a huge new port at Thurrock and a new Lower Thames Crossing is on Highways England’s agenda – great for turning the area into a big distribution and logistics hub, but not a massive job creator or an inspiring place to live.

So what might be the plot for Thames Gateway part III? Will there be a plan that can overcome the vagaries of the market and circumvent the limitation of the local authorities? Can the taskforce really come up with the grand idea to challenge the west now the estuary airport is firmly off the agenda?

Perhaps we might see the reprise of Terry Farrell’s idea to create a new national park – be nice to see some proper place-making. Would a world-class research centre do the trick? The UK’s version of Orlando – a mecca for theme parks? Perhaps we should set up Parliament there when the House of Commons refurbishes. Who knows. Whatever vision is chosen, turning the spotlight on this area once again is a welcome move if it can force the pace for a growth and housing plan that does, for once, consider London and the South East together.

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