What Thames estuary growth plans could mean for climate change… and accountability
The government’s backing of proposals to target the Thames estuary for massive development flies in the face of wider calls to tackle climate change, according to one of CPRE’s leading lights in the area.
In June last year the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission published a report calling for the building of more than a million homes and the creation of 1.3 million new jobs in east London, Essex and Kent.
The commission, an advisory body to the government that was announced in the 2016 Budget and tasked to “develop an ambitious vision and delivery plan for north Kent, south Essex and east London up to 2050”, had also urged that ‘joint spatial plans’ be created in both Essex and Kent, which it said should take more of London’s housing need.
It also called for greater strategic planning and the creation of development corporations “with planning, and compulsory purchase powers to drive the delivery of homes and jobs aligned to major infrastructure investment”.
Responding in March this year, James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, stressed his support for the commission’s recommendations.
“The Thames estuary has long been a gateway to the UK economy and has enormous untapped potential, which has the power to benefit those that live and work in the area,” he announced.
“Having considered the recommendations of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission, I have announced a number of steps we are taking to unlock an even brighter future for the estuary’s economy, marking the beginning of a new and bolder approach by this government to support the area.”
He said government “expects all local authorities to plan for the number of homes required to meet need in their area” and “would encourage cooperation between the London boroughs and neighbouring authorities in Kent and Essex and welcome further engagement with those places, including with groups of London boroughs, in exploring how we might support them to plan for and deliver significant increases in the provision of homes”.
The government is also “committed to exploring the potential for at least two new locally-led development corporations in the Thames estuary”, “subject to suitable housing ambition from local authorities, and we encourage local areas in the estuary to come forward with such proposals”.
The response included a commitment of £1 million to establish a Thames Estuary Growth Board to “oversee and drive economic growth plans for the area” and £4.85 million “to support local partners to develop low-cost proposals for enhancing transport services” between Abbey Wood and Ebbsfleet.
The wish to impose high levels of growth on an already desperately overcrowded part of the country is alarming and of course would entail substantially expanded infrastructure, most contentiously a Lower Thames Crossing, a road many believe would exacerbate traffic congestion rather than alleviate it.
Hilary Newport, director of CPRE Kent, said: “A new crossing, should it be built, is projected to reduce traffic flows at Dartford by a pitifully low 22 per cent. That is a minuscule benefit, but the environmental and community harm caused by the biggest UK road project since the building of the M25 would be substantial.
“A new crossing would be all about intensifying overcrowding in the South East and opening up countryside development. It is now beyond dispute that increasing road capacity results in more vehicle journeys – we cannot build our way out of congestion.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we need to take immediate action to curb catastrophic climate change, yet here we are stuck with the government’s obsession with a new Thames crossing to help pave the way for colossal levels of business-as-usual development.
“To say the government’s focus on new road capacity is out of date is to hugely understate the problem. Rather than investing solely in new roads, it should be promoting better public transport links, rationalising the over-reliance on road-based freight movement and supporting planning policies that support walking and cycling.”
The revised focus on the estuary comes after the previously mooted Thames Gateway project stalled, partly through a downturn in the economy and partly through the ditching by the coalition government, which came to power in 2010, of regional planning.
Now, perhaps ironically, there are concerns among some in the planning world that local authorities in north Kent have not engaged in joint strategic planning in the same manner as their counterparts in south Essex and the capital.
Six local authorities in south Essex have come together with their county council to form the Association of South Essex Local Authorities and pledged to prepare a joint plan.
Catriona Riddell, of the Planning Officers Society, which represents local-authority planners, said: “I think the south Essex part of the Thames estuary is way ahead of the game in terms of what it’s doing on strategic planning.
“The London Plan will cover the London bit of the estuary and you’ve got the south Essex joint plan being prepared. You’re going to have to have something in north Kent. You can’t have two out of three areas doing formal joint strategic planning without north Kent doing the same. That is a big hole at the moment.”
She says north Kent authorities have not worked together partly because of lack of agreement about whether a strategic plan should cover the whole of the county or just the northern part focused on the estuary.
“I suspect they will have to think quite quickly now because of the government’s response,” she said. “I don’t think they will have much leeway in terms of not doing something.”
Stuart Irvine, of planning consultancy Turley, added that the growth board would have influence with government, which could sway spending decisions. “It does potentially have the ear of government, which could be useful from a financial and infrastructure perspective,” he said.
“That could have a big influence on how Kent’s planning authorities choose to behave. If funding is channelled through the growth board, I think north Kent will have no choice but to change direction towards the Thames estuary.”
Some see the introduction of a growth board and emphasis on strategic plans as a renewed willingness by government to embrace regional planning again.
“We’ve got a similar approach being taken on the Cambridge-Oxford corridor,” said Thames Estuary Commission chairman John Armitt. “You need to look at it on that regional level.”
And at last year’s Conservative Party conference, planning minister Kit Malthouse said government wanted local authorities to come together in “regional groupings” and prepare strategic plans in return for Whitehall infrastructure cash.
Ms Riddell is not convinced, however, stressing that fewer than half of the councils in the Thames estuary would be represented on the new growth board.
“I find it really ironic that they abolished regional strategies and assembles because they were apparently unaccountable,” she says. “They’re reinventing regional planning but with less accountability and political representation than we had in 2010.”
Similarly, CPRE Kent’s Hilary Newport believes the future of the Thames estuary needs broader consideration.
“Sustainable transport should be prioritised over new road-building,” she said.
“If growth in the estuary is to continue, we need significant investment in the area’s public transport, walking and cycling options.
“As CPRE’s policy on transport makes clear, we need to manage our existing road network better, rather than expand it. As such, we would prefer investment in the estuary’s railway network, such as an extension to Crossrail, to be prioritised over the building of a Lower Thames road crossing.”
As for the push to focus development on the estuary, Dr Newport said: “There needs to be wide-scale public engagement and consultation on the overall growth proposals, allowing alternative options to be considered before policy decisions are made.
“We believe that there should urgently be a full Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry into the proposals, to look at the potential impact on both the local environment and on the economies of more deprived regions in England.”
Monday, June 10, 2019