Community in crisis: Greenhithe's Gateway blues
Residents of Greenhithe say that their local Thames Gateway developments are doing nothing for community life in the area. In fact they are seeing the creation of an increasingly disjointed, congested and noisy urban sprawl.
Not so long ago, Greenhithe was a quiet riverside village, but today it finds itself at the epicentre of one of Western Europe’s largest housing developments.
Just a few hundred yards away is the shoppers paradise of Bluewater, in spitting distance are the shiny new housing developments of Ingress Park and Waterstone Park, and just round the corner lies the scar of Ebbsfleet Valley, due to be transformed over the next 20 years into a town of some 10,000 homes.
At the crossroads of all this building work is St Mary’s Church, from where Reverend Richard Barron has an uninterrupted view of the ever-changing landscape. He is saddened by the failure of developers to meet the needs of the growing local population:
Richard Barron, Rector of St. Mary's Greenhithe
“There is nothing that has been built for the community in the last ten years. It’s a though the community has been by-passed. Things like playing fields, places where children can let off steam, doctors and medical facilities.
“There's a lot of talk, but when it comes to social cohesion – it’s not there. People have to go elsewhere for leisure and pleasure, which is getting away from a socially sustainable community because they’ve got to get in their cars and go somewhere else.”
In February 2007, the Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali voiced similar concerns about developments taking place in the Medway area. He believes that because the Thames Gateway development is led by private investment, it lacks a central vision:
"The planners and developers have to give a lot more attention and a lot more of their resources to making sure these communities have a heart," he said.
"They need to make sure they are not just places where people come to sleep."
Price of progress
With Ingress Park nearing capacity and Waterstone Park already welcoming it's first occupants, the local population has exploded, bringing with it increased traffic congestion and noise. More than at any time in the past, local people are beginning to question whether the Thames Gateway experiment is working.
And this is not the first time residents have questioned the 'sustainable communities' mantra touted by Thames Gateway developers and planners. At the Gallions Reach estate near Greenwich, residents have been plagued by vandalism and anti-social behaviour caused, in their view, by the fact that a high number of the properties on the site have been bought-to-let.
Back in Greenhithe, residents both new and old are already getting a glimpse of what life might be like behind the Gateway's silver lining. The award winning Crest Nicholson development at Ingress Park was one of the first Thames Gateway sites to be occupied and the new residents, many with young families, are keen to engage with local toddler groups, schools, medical centres and community events. The trick is, Ingress itself has no on-site facilities and the thinned-down local services simply can't cope.
At the existing Greenhithe Community Centre, the available parent and toddler groups are all fully booked and many are concerned about what their children will do as they get older.
Zahreh: "There's no-one for him to meet"
I spoke to Zahrah, who's lived in the area for two years: "With nothing here, there's no one for him to meet - so it's trying to get my son to grow up with people other than those he will meet at school."
Community centre worker Claire agrees: "I worry for my 8-year-old and what he will do once he starts to lose interest in the activities that I take him to. I don't want him just wandering the streets and unless I run him around everywhere there's nothing for him to do," she said.
Them and us
While some are forced to use their cars to access basic local facilities, others are simply moving in and moving on, preferring to make a quick profit by selling or buying-to-let than put down roots in the area.
Frank King, local resident
Frank King has lived in the Greenhithe area for 50 years and has watched the number of community facilities dwindle before his eyes: “At one time Greenhithe was a small community with a village atmosphere – it had it’s own shops and bank.
“Things like doctor surgeries and new schools that were promised to us have never materialised. It’s now more of a dormitory area – just a satellite to London.
“People no longer see Greenhithe as a village. I feel in some ways we have lost a lot by the new developments, whereas we could have gained a lot by them.”
The paucity of community facilities in Greenhithe is unlikely to help with the integration of new and old. Another resident, Tony Wray, can only see things getting worse in the future:
Tony Wray, local resident
“Each development has got a separate pocket and they tend not to mix because there has been very little put back into the area – places where people can meet.
“It’s going to become even more disjointed – it will foster the them and us attitude and it’s likely to cause problems with social deprivation and so on. It’s a very real thing that will go on if something is not done about it now.”
The developer of Ingress Park is Crest Nicholson. Managing Director for the South East, Steve Jones, insists that the final phase of development will see greater emphasis on community facilities:
"The proposal will include a health centre with doctor’s surgery, pharmacy and a community area. A site has also been set aside for the building of a school."
"We, in conjunction with Dartford Borough Council, are committed to the long term regeneration of the area and ensuring that Greenhithe remains a desirable and sustainable place in which to live," he said.
Lessons to be learned
With overall responsibility for Thames Gateway developments in the north Kent area is the Kent Thameside Delivery Board. It is their job to oversee the building of over 30,000 new homes and the creation of jobs, roads and bus links by 2026.
Chief Executive Michael Ward acknowledges that more could have been done to provide better community facilities at the planning stages of developments.
Michael Ward, Chief Executive Kent Thameside DB
“My job is to make sure some of those lessons are applied into the next phase of the development to make sure we get the facilities we need on the developments that are now going up.
“The Ebbsfleet development is being planned as a series of villages, each with its own centre. These are walkable and public transport communities with the aim of ensuring that no one is more than a few minutes from their local bus stop.
“This is a development that is being phased over a long period of time - to try and make sure that people learn exactly the lessons that the churches and others have pointed out – about how you ensure that new and old neighbours can live side by side and how you can make a reality of sustainability."
Many would say that these honourable aspirations for Ebbsfleet Valley are too late for the likes of Greenhithe, which is having to live with the legacy of poor community planning in the early stages of the Thames Gateway masterplan.
Plans for St. Mary's Greenhithe
But with the community 'hubs' of Ebbsfleet Valley still years away, more urgent action is required to prevent further social disintegration. But who's job is it to nurture community spirit? If you listen to the 'sustainability' hype, then the answer is government and local councils. But looking at reality, it becomes clear that perhaps local people need to take charge instead.
Indeed help may be at hand back at St. Mary’s church where Richard Barron has plans for his very own building development. His proposed 'Centre for the Community' would see the existing church and hall adapted into a multi-functional community centre for worship, theatre, conferences or exhibitions:
“We have a site which could be developed into a community hub – a heart for the community. It would be a place that is really serving the community, helping people to enjoy life."
St Mary’s stands awkwardly at the epicentre of the Kent Thameside housing developments but it may well transpire that its very position will prove to the church's, and the community's, only salvation.
last updated: 05/06/2008 at 10:29