From Canary Wharf to Canvey Island

Thames Gateway: environmental disaster in the making, bleak repository for the worst of ticky-tacky volume housebuilding, or an unrivalled offer of increased prosperity, enhanced environment and vibrant quality of life? Only one of these asssessments is drawn from a Government website. You can probably guess which.

In the wake of a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, commentators have been lining up to give ‘the Thames Gateway project’ a comprehensive monstering. The NAO criticised the project for having too many organisations involved, and for lacking clear leadership, a costed delivery plan and performance indicators.

This is all fine as far as it goes (though as an ex-researcher for the Audit Commission, the NAO’s local government equivalent, I know that these criticisms are audit boilerplate, applicable to almost any area of public life), but it’s worth keeping a sense of scale.

The Thames Gateway is vast: more than 700 square miles of land, stretching from London’s East End to the Isle of Sheppey (as far as the distance from Marble Arch to Oxford). It contains multitudes: marshland and power stations, wharfs and wild horses, factories and new towns, Canary Wharf and Canvey Island. Should there be – could there be – a single vision or plan for such a place?

Architect Sir Terry Farrell thinks there should. He has been decrying the Government’s failure to adopt his ‘vision’ in the media. He thinks we could accommodate not hundreds of thousands, but millions of home in London’s built up areas, leaving the rest of the Gateway as a national park and creating new islands at the mouth of the Thames. But these proposals are more a welcome provocation than the sort of plan the NAO are seeking.

I should declare an interest. In a previous life, I helped develop plans for London’s slice of Thames Gateway. These were profoundly modest in their scope, and even then took more than a year of debate between multiple agencies and layers of government. It’s hard to see what the alternative is, in a pluralistic and complex society. Which organisations should be knocked out of the way: county councils, the Mayor of London, regional development agencies?

To an extent, the Government is a victim of its own hype, or even of hubris. They trumpeted Thames Gateway as the biggest regeneration project in the world and said that they were in charge. Their bluff is now being called. They have a small team in Whitehall, some new urban regeneration bodies, and a budget of £700 million over three years. This is a lot of money, but looks smaller spread across 700 miles; it’s probably only about twice the build costs of London’s Olympic stadium. To be honest, government can only tinker at the edges, while Barratt, Persimmon and Bellway Homes get on with business as usual.

There is a growing debate about whether the state should become more interventionist, and should start to manage house building and urban regeneration more directly, rather than seeking to regulate and plan a market over which they have little real control. This is a subject for another day, but in the meantime we might ask: is the problem that Thames Gateway is too big, or that government is too small?