The government has asked Lord Heseltine to take a look at the regeneration of east London, and the wider Thames Estuary.
In his budget speech, chancellor George Osborne revealed the appointment, saying: “Michael Heseltine has accepted my invitation to lead a Thames Estuary Growth Commission and he will report to me with its ideas next year.” The idea is that the review will come up with recommendations stretching ahead up to 2050; and it will focus on industry, productivity and creating skilled jobs, as well as considering infrastructure. His brief is a wide one, taking in a region from east London out to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe, Tilbury and Dover.
The move was one of a number of comments made by Osborne in his budget, which included positive noises about infrastructure investment plans such as Crossrail 2. And it has been widely welcomed.
“We know from our good growth research with think tank Demos that London lags behind other UK cities due to the pressures related to its economic prosperity such as housing affordability and transport congestion,” said Tina Hallett, PwC’s government and public sector leader. “So this is good news not just for those living and working in London but those commuting in from afar too.”
Heseltine has recently been working on an initiative to enhance the area around Redcar, Teesside, where a major steel plant has closed. There, he has proposed a mayoral development corporation to help create skilled jobs and drive development forward.
George Kieffer, acting chair of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, commented: “There is nobody who is better qualified in the context of both the Thames Gateway and regeneration than Lord Heseltine. We hope to show him the region at the earliest opportunity and outline the case for a new Lower Thames Crossing which we are actively encouraging business views on at the moment plus other key pieces of transport infrastructure highlighted in the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership’s recent work.”
The initiative has been welcomed by the Essex Chamber of Commerce, where director of policy David Burch said: “In principle we welcome the creation of the Thames Estuary Growth Commission to be chaired by Lord Heseltine. The Thames Estuary and south Essex are major contributors to the UK economy but need investment, especially in infrastructure to enable that growth to continue. Whilst we wait to see what form it takes we believe that it must work with local businesses and residents to develop solutions locally and not impose ideas from Whitehall.”
And writing in City AM, Nick Vose of Iceni Projects noted this latest move was effectively an adoption of a more “heavy handed” strategy that the Conservatives had previously criticised Labour’s Yvette Cooper for attempting. “Fast forward seven years and the 40 mile stretch has arguably failed to live up to its potential, with communities hearing a lot about aspiration and vision and not much about action. Heseltine may well be the man to ‘bang heads’ together, but the devil will be in the detail.”
Heseltine has not suddenly been brought in from the sidelines. He remains an influential character, having delivered a report in 2012, at the request of government, looking at how wealth might be more effectively created. That document, No Stone Unturned: in pursuit of Growth, made 89 recommendations. It named the Thames Gateway as “probably this country’s greatest single prospective area for growth”, noting the success of the public-private LDDC in transforming London’s docklands.
Heseltine’s report also noted: “Existing arrangements for the development of the Thames Gateway are wholly inadequate.” He said the membership of the Thames Gateway Strategic Group contained too many public bodies: “These arrangements will just not do. You cannot have a serious discussion about the future of this hugely important part of our country with just two business voices at the table. The arrangements need to be brought more into line with the approach of the LDDC and be a proper collaboration between central and local government and the business community. The leadership needs to be someone with excellent private sector credentials and experience.”
According to recent press reports, this group has not met for more than two years, and does not even have its own website.
His recommendation was that “the Government should set up a new Development Corporation under an independent chairman from the private sector, comprised of representatives of central government, the Mayor of London, London boroughs, Kent and Essex councils and with a majority of members from the private sector and related disciplines. It should not exceed 20 members. Once created the Corporation should be given the powers it needs to drive its vision
for future growth. It should be able to bid for its funds from the single pot.”
He also warned: “It is important to avoid planning blight to the maximum extent possible. An early responsibility of a new development corporation should be to release the vast proportion
of the area covered from its planning disciplines so that local authorities’ responsibilities
remain intact therein.”
LPA Perspective: In years gone by, there have been promises of a new Thames Estuary airport, recently revived by outgoing mayor Boris Johnson, that would have transformed this region in many ways. That appears less and less likely in austerity-led Britain. And barely more likely are more cross-river connections, which both north and south of the region would benefit substantially from. A Lower Thames Crossing could be a big deal, taking the pressure off the existing Dartford crossing, which struggles with the demands placed on it.
However, the involvement of Heseltine has lifted spirits. Here is a man widely credited with getting development going in the London docklands, and coming up with the name Thames Gateway. Despite strongly criticising current arrangements, the peer has been invited back as probably the best qualified person to do better. At 83, he still appears to have plenty of life in him, and for the sake of the Thames Gateway we must all wish he continues with the same vigour for the next few years.