Monday, 2 July 2018

Is Thames Estuary set for exciting future?

Andrew Metcalf of PR and marketing agency Maxim considers the implications of the Thames Estuary Growth Commission’s 2050 report.


The Thames Estuary Growth Commission 2050’s report was long awaited, delayed by the high-profile departure of Michael Heseltine. Into his Size 11s stepped Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Express Group and City & Guilds, deputy chairman of the Berkeley Group and a member of the Board of Transport for London, and he’s just unveiled his vision for the area between now and 2050.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of 1,000,000 new homes, 1.3m new jobs and the recommendation to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet stole the headlines.

However, the vision also called upon “scope for the Thames Estuary to be even more ambitious in responding to London’s ever growing housing need”, implying he felt there was a lack of ambition among local authorities in the patch.

The suggestion in the vision for local authorities to go: ‘above the minimum threshold set out by government for local housing need’ will not be welcomed by council leaders or residents.

To help take the issue forward, the commission proposed the notion of Joint Spatial Plans, one for Essex and the other for Kent. Now I’m not a planning expert, but I have spent long enough in the economic development arena to suggest that sounds like a return to the old Structure Plans.

Combine Spatial Plans with 1,000,000 new homes, and it’s not hard to imagine that there’ll be many people in local authorities asking: what does that mean for us in terms of housing numbers and decision-making responsibility? 

Some Kent councils are already pushing back against the housing targets being proposed by the Housing Ministry, so if Spatial Plans mean more housing then I can’t see that proposal being welcomed, in fact the opposite is likely as residents press the anti-development case.

The vision also suggested that: “Low land values, challenging site conditions and a limited number of house builders are all contributing to the delivery gap”. I’m sure the housebuilders will not be happy to again be seen as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Implications

Kent County Council has recently highlighted the implications of having to build an anticipated 178,600 new homes, with its population rising by nearly 400,000 requiring more than 170,000 to be created. The scale of the challenge is enormous, with massive implications for infrastructure and how it’s going to be funded. KCC estimates the funding gap for the infrastructure needed to cope with the growth to be £3.96bn.

The commission also proposed changing the geographical remit of the South East LEP and creating a LEP for Essex and one for Kent. Here I must declare an interest as I sit on Kent & Medway Economic Partnership, the federated partner of SELEP and am also an alternate board member of SELEP representing Kent business.

I’m a great believer in the fewer people at meetings the better and I can’t see what the commission would gain by having to deal with three LEPs (it also covers part of the London LEP) rather than two. It would also have cast East Sussex adrift to fend for itself or join Kent or neighbouring Coast to Capital LEP

SELEP is now in a good place, there’s widespread political support for its work across Kent, Essex and East Sussex, plus the unitary authorities of Medway, Southend and Thurrock.

While it is a very large LEP, there are many issues shared by its communities and now being addressed through the Skills Strategy and in the work on the Strategic Economic Plan. Personally I can’t see that commission proposal gaining traction, especially with the business community. 

Finally, and to be welcomed, the commission called on London Resort to submit its DCO by the end of 2018 or face the consequences of losing support and being consigned to history. There’s been much political capital invested in the 23,000-job project and it’s great to see somebody saying publicly what I’m sure is being said privately.

The Government will respond in the next six months, but other organisations – public and private – will not be shy in coming forward with their views.

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