Monday, April 24, 2006

This is why the environment needs to be on the political agenda...what a mess.

The ODPM's plans for building 200,000 homes in the Thames Gateway have been widely derided. In this article, Ed Howker investigates the proposals and sheds light on some of the serious concerns that loom over another of Prescott and Cooper's seemingly doomed policies :

There are no tall trees on Tilbury Marshes to the east of London. The sea salt in the soil prevents them from growing. But here, on the edge of the capital more than anywhere else, you get a real feel for the peculiar beauty of the Thames's great flood plain.

Tilbury Marshes, where Queen Elizabeth I declared she "had the body of a weak and feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king", is now earmarked by developers as part of the Thames Gateway project - the massive development of land on both sides of the Thames, roughly 43 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from London's Docklands to Southend in Essex in the north and to Sheerness in Kent to the south.

It is across this enormous area, which includes parts of three administrative "regions" and 15 local authorities, that John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, is making perhaps the boldest physical statement of the Labour government. If all goes to plan, then perhaps 200,000 homes will be built in this area over the next 20 years.

The plan was conceived in the early 1990s by the Tories' Michael Heseltine. It was developed by New Labour as a way to address the national housing shortfall of at least 40,000 homes a year and cater for the pressure from people who want homes in the south-east. It is fraught with environmental contradictions.

The area is prone to flooding, yet desperately short of drinking water; it is close to London, yet a million miles away in culture from the metropolis; it contains great swaths of brownfield sites, yet has some of the finest wetlands in Britain. Now a "national priority for urban regeneration", and the "greatest piece of town planning Britain has ever seen", about 1.6 million people live there today, but perhaps twice that many will in just 15 years' time.

Travel across it, however, and there is little evidence on the ground that anything much is happening at all, let alone that the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds is being planned. There are plenty of brochures listing developers' and quangos' intentions, but building work is isolated. And as the project develops, it appears to be becoming ever more complex, ambitious and, some would say, incoherent.

Even the few facts released are complex. Under current, official, government plans, 120,000 homes are to be built in the area by 2016. But that figure does not account for other ad hoc developments sanctioned by local authorities or ones suggested by the three regional assemblies. The South East of England regional assembly, for instance, says it is planning 28,900 new homes every year until 2026 - nearly 600,000 in total - but it is impossible to say how many will be in the Gateway area. One study, by the London School of Economics, suggests 200,000 homes could be built in the area. Wrong profile

Few people, moreover, have any idea about what is going on. A study last year by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that "very few participants had heard of the Thames Gateway". In the past six months, the project's profile has grown for all the wrong reasons. In October, the London assembly declared the capital was at "serious risk" of flooding, and that this would increase as a result of the Gateway homes being built on the flood plain.

Then the pressure group Transport 2000 found that £432m-worth of roads were to be built in the area. If the proposed £450m Thames Gateway bridge, now the subject of a long public inquiry, is included, then perhaps £1bn is planned to build roads in the areas - despite the government's commitment to reducing traffic and climate change emissions.

To add to Prescott's woes, the Commons environmental audit committee last week lambasted the plans for sustainable housing. Talking about plans for the south-east as a whole, but clearly including the Gateway, the MPs accused Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) of "a complete lack of urgency in considering the environmental impact" and predicted that people would be moving into the area without schools, hospitals or transport. "The need to build homes is seen as an absolute imperative and is used by government to sweep aside . . . concerns about the environmental impact," said the report.

The confusion over sustainable homes was identified by Robert Napier, head of the WWF. Last year, he walked out of an ODPM housing steering group "in despair" at what he thought was the government's failure to encourage more energy-efficient homes in the Gateway.

Now the attacks are getting personal. Consultants Hornagold and Hills found this year that only 13% of all the stakeholders in the project believed Prescott to be an effective leader for the Gateway. And a report by Lord (Richard) Rogers' Urban Taskforce has suggested the plans suffered from a "lack of vision".

It is highly confusing for people living there, many of whom feel excluded from the decision-making process and are suspicious about any benefits it may bring.

Anne Power, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, and one of the authors of the report A Framework for Housing in the London Thames Gateway, says the low-density developments planned for the Gateway could make conditions worse in east London. While no one can guarantee that 180,000 jobs will be created, she says, the wrong sort of development might lead to people leaving London.

"The East End will just get poorer if low-density housing is built throughout the Gateway," she says. "Low-density housing has huge costs for future generations. It is an inefficient use of land, and you encourage middle-class migration, with greater commuting times and more car use."

Environment groups say the Gateway has the potential for huge harm, because it is situated on the flood plain, has little access to fresh water, and because the ODPM has missed the chance to demand sustainable housing. The Environment Agency has stated £80bn of property could be damaged by floods in the Gateway and that massive investment is needed. However, Chris Burnham, a policy adviser at the agency, says: "Flood risk is being addressed. Local authorities must ensure that vulnerable developments are not placed in higher risk areas."

Meanwhile, fresh water supplies are a problem, too. Plans for a desalination facility in Beckton were rejected by London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, last year. Thames Water has already exploded plans to build 30,000 homes in Harlow, further north, by explaining that there simply wasn't sufficient capacity to support them.

"The government came up with figures for jobs and housing without any strategic environmental overview," says Jennifer Bates, London campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "Rather than testing if the growth would deliver on social goals or could be accommodated within environmental constraints, it has been a case of 'make it up as we go along'." Piecemeal development

Bates' view is echoed by politicians such as Andrew MacKinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock in the heart of the development zone. "Three years have passed since the Gateway plans were first suggested, but development in my area remains piecemeal," he says. "We need transport, environment, health and education infrastructure. There doesn't seem to have been much joined-up government."

Yvette Cooper, the housing and planning minister, is adamant that all these concerns will be addressed. "We are maximising the environmental opportunities the Gateway provides," she says. "Already 89% of the development is being built on previously used land. We are investing in infrastructure and have already invested £6bn in transport, health and education projects - for example, on local train services on the Channel Tunnel rail link line, and on the joint campus facilities for the universities at Medway. We are also increasing the energy efficiency in new homes by 40%."

Last month, there was belated recognition that the whole plan was in danger of coming off the rails. Fifteen million pounds of public transport funding was made available for Dartford, and plans were announced to improve the energy efficiency of new housing. Last week, a further £15m was rustled up for transport to support new homes.

The formation of a new panel of ministers and quango chiefs to oversee the London part of the regeneration was also announced. They will meet quarterly to discuss progress to assign priorities and "to chart progress" on delivery.

But as critics point out, while getting the individuals who manage the Gateway around the table will help, it may take more than one meeting every 12 weeks to bring the project under control.


At 11:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thames Gateway

Really useful blog.Good work.


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