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“Go East” – lessons from the Thames Gateway Matthew Warburton - 21/02/2014

Old_South_London_300For decades, governments have attempted to redevelop London's Docklands and the Thames Estuary, but ambitious plans have consistently fallen short. So argues Go East: Unlocking the Potential of the Thames Estuary a new collection of essays published by the Centre for London, which makes the case for a more focused and staged approach.


London's population is set to grow by 2 million over the next twenty years. If so, homes and jobs will have to increase proportionately, and 200,000 of the extra homes and half a million jobs could be provided, it is estimated, in London's eastern riverside boroughs and the Thames Gateway. But while small parts of East London have been successfully transformed over the last decade, housing growth across the wider East Thames area has been disappointing. Why?


Comparing the area's success stories - the Isle of Dogs, North Greenwich and Stratford -  with elsewhere, including the "grand stuck sites" at Ebbsfleet and Barking Riverside - Go Eastdraws the lesson that "you need to concentrate intensively and sequentially on a series of tightly defined, high potential development zones". Development across the wider Thames Gateway has failed because funding and focus have been spread too thin.


Part of the problem has been the sheer complexity of co-ordinating the work of the 16 local authorities, 3 government regions and multiple government departments and quangoes involved in the Thames Gateway area, each with a distinct agenda and priorities. The "quest" to manage all this was never going to succeed, it is argued, but was remarkably successful in diverting attention from the real challenge of delivering in the most promising areas. Indeed, the quest has largely been abandoned since 2010, leading Michael Heseltine  to conclude that "existing arrangements for development of the Thames Gateway are wholly inadequate".


Successful areas also benefited from large amounts of public infrastructure investment, including extensions to the Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway and construction of the Olympic Park. Other parts of the area have not seen spending on anything approaching this scale.


In the absence of effective public intervention, private housebuilders have had little success in moving forward with the development of some of the largest sites. Ebbsfleet and Barking Riverside were each expected to deliver 10,000 homes over the last decade. So far completions have barely topped 1000 across both.


Go East recommends that the quest to co-ordinate the development of the East Thames areas as a whole should be abandoned in favour of a focus on selected smaller high-potential areas. It proposes that Ebbsfleet should be taken forward as a New Town with its own Development Corporation. Local authorities should take the lead on smaller sites, which are estimated to make up 60% of the area's potential for new homes, using CPOs to buy up stalled sites where necessary. But councils will also need access to infrastructure funding if this approach is to work, argues the report, and proposes a Mayor's Challenge Fund to which they can bid.


There are lessons here for the rest of England, too. One of the most important is that the expansion in housing supply we need to see will not be achieved without a significant increase in public investment on the infrastructure and services that are needed to make sure that we build not just new homes but thriving communities.

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