Tales from the riverbank
24 April 2006
Over the past five to 10 years there has been no shortage of hype and spin about the potential impact of regeneration in the Thames Gateway and Ashford areas, both of which have been identified by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster (ODPM) as being one of the four national growth areas for the next 15 years.
On countless occasions we have been told that between now and 2021, 50,000 new homes and 80,000 new jobs are planned for the North Kent and Ashford areas alone.
Billions of pounds are being pumped into the Thames Gateway area by the ODPM and, having committed itself to ensuring that these areas are the standard bearers of regeneration and sustainability, one can be reasonably confident that further funding will follow.
So why are the Thames Gateway projects being criticised for being rudderless and failing to interest members of the public?
Management consultants Hornaglod and Hills issued a report in January 2006 claiming that the Government has not committed the necessary funding and that the projects are lacking both money and inspirational leadership. However, the report concluded: "The most ambitious, large-scale urban economic development ever seen in the UK is starting to gather pace. It would be a tragedy if that gathering momentum was now to be slowed by either economic constraints or befuddled thinking."
So with all this mixed hype, what is really happening on the ground?
The main landowner is Land Securities, whose landholdings alone have the potential to deliver 13,000 new homes, 6.27 million sq ft of commercial space and 3.3 million sq ft of supporting retail, community and leisure space. The Kent Thameside area is split into various projects, comprising Eastern Quarry (657 acres, for which outline planning permission was obtained last year for a market centre and series of villages around it), Ebbsfleet (378 acres, which will centre around Ebbsfleet station, which will open in 2007), Swanscombe Peninsula (387 acres, which will provide 1,750 new homes and up to 250,000sq ft of industrial space), Waterstone Park (38 acres), Crossways (315 acres, 90 per cent of which is now built out) and The Bridge (owned by Pro Lodgis, which has planning for 15,000 homes, 1.5 million sq ft of business space and a school to be run by the delivery board and where construction works have already commenced).
The plans for Kent Thameside are ambitious but well developed. However, there has been some criticism that, of all the regeneration areas, Kent Thameside has been long on hype and short on action. Nevertheless, works on The Bridge have commenced and it is hoped that the first homes in Eastern Quarry will be ready in 2008.
This has been an area that is brimming with expectation and there are many projects that are off the ground.
Medway waterfront represents a unique opportunity to create a linear city spanning 11km of the River Medway. It will have a revitalised Chatham at its hub. When complete, it should deliver up to 16,000 new homes and 40,000 new jobs.
In 2004, Medway Council adopted a development framework for the 64-hectare site in Chatham Centre and its waterfront.
Rochester riverside is now being cleared and decontaminated (pursuant to a collaboration agreement between Medway Council and the South East England Development Agency (Seeda)) to make way for 2,000 new homes, business and community facilities. On Strood riverside the first phase has already been completed and 98 acres of the waterfront is planned for development over the next few years. The 20-acre Gillingham Waterfront site has a planning brief for commercial and residential development. It is expected that this particular project will be completed by 2010.
Temple Waterfront, a 52-acre site, has a development brief that has been approved and the owners will now market the site: development is expected to start in 2007. Finally, Chatham Maritime and St Mary's Island is an area of 136 hectares, on which there has been a considerable amount of development already in the past 10 years, with much more planned. It is the home of Medway's 'multiversity', where the universities of Kent, Greenwich and Canterbury Christchurch have 6,000 students. By 2010 it is expected that 10,000 students will be attending.
Although smaller than the other regeneration areas, Swale has the benefit of being able to focus on smaller, but no less important, projects such as the construction of 1,000 new homes at Queensborough and Rushenden, where there will also be some mixed-use development.
The ODPM is investing £7m via Seeda for the land assembly. Plans are reasonably well advanced. In addition, Sittingbourne's town centre is to benefit from significant regeneration, as are the town centres of Sherness and Faverhsam. Kent Science Park near Sittingbourne has been identified as a flagship for technology and business development in the Gateway. It is fair to say that the ODPM's support has been considerable. The park is due to be doubled in size and further laboratory and business space for 40 businesses should be completed by the end of this year.
With a skills shortage being a concern throughout Kent, it is generally felt that Kent Science Park provides an excellent means of attracting skilled labour and businesses to the county.
Ashford's masterplan is well structured and well developed. The overall objective is to double the size of the town with 31,000 new homes and 28,000 jobs by 2031. Three urban villages will be linked to the town by a bus system. The town centre will be renovated considerably. There are many individual development projects that have already begun in and around Ashford, but there are funding gaps between private and public sector funding to be resolved before the masterplan can bear fruit.
South and East Kent coast
Away from the large regeneration areas - and the spotlight of ODPM attention - the delivery boards responsible for regenerating the coastal towns are able to make progress on smaller projects.
The restoration of empty buildings in Folkestone town centre has provided a new 'Creative Quarter', which will extend to the harbour and link to a new mixed use waterfront development. Dover Pride is a new partnership project intended to revitalise the town centre and waterfront with new business and mixed use developments. It is still hoped that Kent International Airport and Lydd Airport will provide new focus and interest in the coastal areas. Margate's revitalisation is spearheaded by the Turner Contemporary, an impressive arts centre and library.
The focus and attention brought to Kent by the Thames Gateway and Ashford masterplans has led to a general upturn in activity. Although construction work has not yet begun on some of the major projects, smaller projects have been encouraged by the general consensus that significant progress will be made during the next 20 years, even if such progress does not quite match the hype.
Mike Scott is a partner and head of the Thames Gateway group at Cripps Harries Hall