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24 September 2014

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Wigeon at Rainham Marshes

RSPB in the Thames Gateway

The coast of South Essex is part of one of the top five, wetland areas for birds and wildlife in the UK. Find out more about the RSPB in the Thames Gateway.

The camera pulls back from the map revealing perhaps the most famous river bend on television; the famous theme tune dies away and we settle back to be immersed in another slice of life in the relentlessly built up east end of London.

It’s a fantastic creation but all a bit of an East End cliché – and the clichés don’t really stop there.

Go further down the Thames into Essex and there, people would have you believe, it’s all white vans, heavy gold jewellery and, in days gone by, souped-up Ford Capris showing the name of the driver and his girlfriend on the sun-strip.

True or not, those clichés are only a small part of the picture.  East London and South Essex are at the heart of Government plans for massive regeneration along the Thames to the east of London.

Known as the Thames Gateway, hundreds of millions of pounds are to be made available to build huge numbers of houses (around 160,000), revive the economy (creating 180,000 jobs) and put the area at the forefront of sustainable development.

“Sustainable development” – exactly what does that mean and, more importantly, what does it mean for Essex and London?

There are all sorts of definitions. At one extreme, it has been claimed that development is sustainable when it makes a profit year on year.

Such a blinkered, one-sided view ignores what sustainable development can and should do for the economy, communities and the environment.

A more meaningful definition might be arrived at by considering that the coast of South Essex is part of one of the top five, wetland areas for birds and wildlife in the UK.

Tens of thousands of birds, including Brent Geese that breed in Siberia, spend the winter here.

There is also a bewildering array of plants, insects and animals.  The best known of these is probably the water vole (made famous as Ratty in Wind in the Willows).

It’s possible that a tenth of all Britain’s water voles live at RSPB’s new Rainham Marshes nature.

All this wildlife inhabits fantastic areas of open space, which could significantly enhance the quality of life if made more accessible and enjoyable places to visit.

This is where a more rounded definition of “sustainable development” begins to emerge.

It is development that acknowledges the natural environment as an asset that will enhance economic development by giving the place a better image and making it a pleasanter place to live and work.

The RSPB sees the beauty of South Essex as a well-kept secret that needs to be shared.

Through a process known as the South Essex Greengrid, the RSPB is working with a range of partners, including local authorities, government, landfill operators and other commercial and non-commercial organisations, to do just this.

We have a team working across South Essex and based at Basildon's Wat Tyler Country Park, running wildlife watching and healthy living events that encourage people to get the most from the countryside on their doorsteps.

With financial support from the Veolia ES Cleanaway Pitsea Marshes Trust, DCLG, EEDA and the Environment Agency, we have acquired parts of Vange Marshes and West Canvey Marsh.

They will create a huge area of high-quality green space that will attract wildlife and allow people to enjoy the local countryside in a way that was not open to them previously.

Straddling the border between the London Borough of Havering and Thurrock is the RSPB’s most advanced project, Rainham Marshes.

With financial support from Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation, together with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Cleanaway ES Havering Riverside Trust amongst others, we have opened up access there for the first time in over 100 years.

The reserve’s Environment and Education Centre in Purfleet really lives the sustainable development dream.

Despite the dramatic appearance created by the startling orange, pink and brown exterior, its design means that it sits very gently in the environment by using the latest techniques to minimise water and energy use.

With fewer wide-open spaces, it may be harder to see how this approach might apply to the Thames Gateway further upstream but the same principles still apply.

Make the most of existing assets, which could include parks and gardens; include new open spaces when planning new development; and ensure the new buildings that do go up are of the highest quality and have a minimal impact on the environment when in daily use.

The key to sustainable development across London and South Essex must be to include the needs of the natural environment as part of the planning for economic delivery. This could be as simple as ensuring that all new homes are within easy walking distance of a park or open space.

It might be a more technical solution such as ensuring that, like the RSPB’s new building in Purfleet, all new buildings include water and energy saving measures.

On a grand scale, the push towards the 2012 Olympics can set the standard.  The plans for that stupendous event must integrate the future needs of local communities and the environment.

It is not a question of balancing the one against the other. That smacks of compromise on both sides.

Just like our athletes who are aiming for gold, the 2012 Olympics, and the Thames Gateway, must be the best they can be – without compromise.

If we neglect our environment and leave a legacy of poor quality development, we will fall a long way short of being the best.

Sustainable development is about providing for the needs of today without depriving those who come after us.

If the development proposed for London and Essex does not do this, it will not be sustainable and thus, by definition, it will fail and we will all be left regretting that we didn't do better – for ourselves and for our children.

last updated: 15/02/07
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what's good about the additional housing?

George Watkins - Leigh on Sea
I am also very concerned about this because the rspb should be putting up a protest in the building plots. but if the government were to build on the ground where the animals live they are taking away a substantial amount of wildlife homing.

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