Viewpoint: Paul Wheeler
Paul Wheeler, Editorial Director of the Thames Gateway Forum and Gateway Magazine, sees the Gateway developments as something that will represent our society for years, if not centuries, to come...
“Lord Bruce-Lockhart, former leader of Kent County Council, and now chair of the Local Government Association recently said of the Thames Gateway: “When future generations look back on the Gateway, we want them to say that we really understood what we were about, in the way that today we appreciate Regency terraces, or Victorian alms houses set around a courtyard, or the people-filled squares of our historic market towns…”
This is my favourite observation on the aspirations of the Thames Gateway. It says nothing about new housing numbers or job creation targets, or even improving access to the countryside, culture and heritage – but it implies that the Thames Gateway is about creating something special and long lasting – a whole new piece of the country in fact.
Thames Gateway’s long-term success will be dependent upon whether the places that we are starting to build now are, and remain, vibrant for decades - let’s aim high – for centuries to come.
The challenge is for future generations to aspire to live in the Thames Gateway, in the same way that today people aspire to live in Sevenoaks or Tunbridge Wells, or Chiswick and Kew.
At the moment it’s difficult to get a good understanding of what it will be like, as very few “Thames Gateway” projects have been built yet.
Don't believe what you read
Certainly don’t believe the papers when you read that the Thames Gateway will concrete over the last green space in the south east – and don’t assume that it will be an endless corridor of soulless tiny boxes; a giant manifestation of the dull and bland modern housing estates we got used to through the 1980s and 1990s.
It is largely about tackling this often blighted part of the south east. Regeneration and development will in the main take place on previously used brownfield land. It is about making our towns work better, containing the development within the existing urban fabric, and not allowing them to overspill into the unspoilt countryside. At the same time it is about improving access to open space, from small urban parks and squares to the wilds of the Thames and Medway estuaries.
Housing: Quality not quantity
Even just a couple of years ago Government tended to talk about the Thames Gateway in terms of housing numbers and affordability – and unsurprisingly many took this to mean there would be a lot of cheap, bad housing.
This was never the intention but uncharacteristically the government PR machine missed the point. Yes it is about affordability – a critical issue to the economic sustainability of the south east. If people can’t afford to live there they won’t be able to contribute to its economic activity. But it is also about quality, and increasingly sustainability, for which read fit-for-purpose for the long-term future.
Many of the early major schemes that are now coming forward, such as the Bridge in Dartford, and Rochester Riverside are exceptional and genuinely exciting.
Through schemes such as these, mainstream developers and house builders have shown they can raise their game - and these early schemes will set a very high standard for the rest of the Thames Gateway.
But it would be very easy for standards and aspirations to slip. Commercially it is difficult for a private developer to justify delivering very high quality schemes in an area where land and house prices are currently low. That is not how their tried and tested business models work. But that is precisely what is needed and it requires the private sector to take a much longer-term view on investment.
Learning from our mistakes
The question is often raised of whether we are in danger of creating the ghettos of the future – and repeating past mistakes, particularly the social housing disaster of the 1960s. This is a very valid concern and one that we should always be mindful of.
But we have learnt from our mistakes of the past – so for example the planning system is now designed to create (but doesn’t always achieve) proper mixed and balanced communities; and we better understand the need for “social infrastructure” from doctors surgeries and schools to sports, leisure, parks and cultural facilities. Perhaps most importantly we understand the need to properly manage and maintain both the physical places and the services that support them.
Quoting Sandy Bruce-Lockhart again: “It is now a shared understanding that we can create places which are really attractive, safe, friendly and distinctive – which have a sense of place and belonging, and are places where people really want to live.”
It really is the case that places attract people, people attract business, and businesses attract development and investment. That is why the Thames Gateway really could work, and it is why the improvements will benefit the people who already live in the Thames Gateway, as much as those who move into the area.”
Paul Wheeler is editorial director of the Thames Gateway Forum and editor of Gateway magazine
last updated: 04/06/2008 at 16:26