I was in the Economist last week talking about the Thames Gateway. As New Labour’s flagship regeneration programme, the Gateway has not surprisingly been dropped by the Coalition. It hasn’t vanished completely though. Later this year, the Centre for London is publishing a collection of pieces on prospects for the area (for a flavour see this post and discussion). What we might call ‘Gateway Thinking’ also periodically reappears, for example in legacy planning for the Olympics, and in the proposed Thames Estuary Airport. And the place retains a strong hold over a certain kind of urbanist, especially in the dystopian excursioneering pioneered by Iain Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Ford.
I spent some time working on Gateway policy while in DCLG, and all of this got me looking back through old notes and papers. Some rough thoughts follow.
First, the Gateway concept now feels madly ambitious – especially compared to today’s minimalist development environment. Remember that the 70km Gateway was one of four ‘growth areas’ set out in the 2003 Sustainable Communities Plan. The Plan proposed around 550,000 new homes in these zones by 2016 (42,000 a year, when current annual housing starts for the whole country are now around 98,000), and envisaged ‘delivery’ of 430,000 additional jobs.
In practice, the other three growth areas – Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor – involve building in popular areas where developers are happy to operate. The Gateway was always going to be a much more challenging environment.
Second, there was (and is) a strong social argument for public investment along the Thames Estuary. Some communities along the river are deeply deprived , with residents held back by low incomes, low skills and thin local labour markets. However, the economic case is rather weaker. It was never clear whether the Gateway programme was intended as a response to economic pressures in the Greater South East (in particular, high house prices and low building), or a much bolder attempt to restructure the deeper regional economy. Neither was it clear why these communities merited public spending ahead of (say) those in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds.
The Greater South East economic ‘system’ is heavily weighted towards the North and West of London, where there is a polycentric system of smaller cities (Milton Keynes, Oxford, Cambridge, Reading) around the capital. East of London, towns and cities tend to be smaller and local economies are heavily commuter-powered.
As the Economist notes, parts of London’s economy have been moving Eastwards for years. But the Gateway attempts to shift the entire urban system towards the East – and to shift activity away from commuting towards self-contained communities. The evidence tells us that urban economies are highly path-dependent (e.g. here, here and here), and that this kind of rebalancing takes decades if it happens at all. By contrast, the Gateway strategy promised 160,000 net new homes and 180,000 net new jobs over 15 years.
Third, this terraforming aspect is integral to the Gateway’s staying power. As a classic grand projet, the programme was highly appealing to a certain kind of politician (Michael Heseltine, John Prescott, Gordon Brown) and urban planner (Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell). Brown actually raised the jobs target to 225,000 in 2007, just as the credit crunch was kicking in.
Such visioning also gets in the way of getting things done. An obvious but important example: the Gateway isn’t a single zone, but a collection of very disparate communities. This matters. Treating the Gateway as a kind of continuous policy space made for convenient shorthand in speeches, but obscures the huge differences between key economic sites like Canary Wharf and Shellhaven, versus smaller towns like Thurrock, and struggling former resorts like Southend. Arguably, it also made it harder to think about economic development, since policy had to be retrofitted into a high-level planning concept rather than based on local circumstances.
Fourth, Gateway delivery systems were pretty badly designed. Governance somehow managed to be both too top-down, as explained above, and not dirigiste enough at a local level. Notably, detailed policy development was generally left to Urban Development Corporations, who lacked a democratic mandate, had no statutory powers and held no assets. By contrast, New Town Development Corporations could set long term planning goals, and leverage a substantial public land portfolio. The trade-off was the lack of accountability, but land holdings eventually transferred to local authorities.
None of this is to call time on the policy or the area. As I said earlier, the kind of deep structure change envisaged by Heseltine and others take decades to take shape. Developments like the London Gateway Port are potentially transformational, and London’s eastern boroughs will continue to evolve. By starting with economic fundamentals rather than grand planning, and placing help for individuals alongside physical regeneration, a simpler, more effective approach might begin to emerge.
[apologies to TINAG for stealing the title.]