It may have flown under the radar due to the ongoing Brexit shenanigans and drama at Westminster, but last week saw the government publish its response to the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission, an important development for the South Essex, East London and North Kent alike.
Whilst there was nothing particularly revolutionary within the government’s response, its publication does mark an important stepping-stone for longer-term development and growth across the area and confirms the Estuary as a region of focus for the UK. A number of key points and issues either emerge from, or are confirmed by, the response:
- The Thames Estuary region is seen as a highly significant region for the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit environment given its proximity to London and the concentration of largescale logistics and trade services and infrastructure. That the government has referenced the Estuary alongside other high-profile growth regions, including the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands England and Oxford-Cambridge Arc, confirms the region as a strategic economic geography for the UK moving ahead.
- The Thames Estuary region needs more streamlined, coordinated and efficient political and planning leadership to make the growth vision a reality. As the government highlights, ‘fragmented governance’ is a challenge for the region with 18 local authorities alongside the GLA and LEPs to bring together. In light of this, it is pleasing to see the government allocate £1m to establish and operate a new Thames Estuary Growth Board with a new ‘Estuary Envoy’ to chair the Board as well as a new Cabinet-level ‘ministerial champion’ for the Estuary. We will, of course, need to wait and see to determine the success or otherwise of the new Board but the fact that funding has been committed to develop better regional structures across the Estuary region can only be a positive step.
- The growing focus from central government on ‘placemaking’ is evident throughout its response to the Commission and in terms of what it wants to see from future growth in the Estuary. Development and growth is very much targeted towards tackling the ‘pockets of deprivation’ that exist within the Estuary region; building and creating ‘sustainable communities’; fostering improved levels of skills within the local economy; and encouraging creative and cultural economies across the region. Government is backing a vision that goes far beyond housebuilding and is looking at largescale regeneration of areas of the Estuary region. Plans and proposals that support these agendas will be viewed favourably.
- The government’s response also indicates awareness of the challenges already impacting the region, particularly around population density and the ability of local public services to cope. Interestingly, the government’s response to the Commission highlights the need for an ‘integrated approach’ that delivers physical and social infrastructure ‘before new homes are built’. Getting transport, health and education provision right across the region is going to be vital and, realistically, will be the only way local buy-in for greater levels of housebuilding can be achieved. Seemingly, government is wise to this.
With the ambition to deliver 1 million new homes across the region by 2050, a focus on delivering homes that counteract the South East’s affordability issues and a commitment to consider at least two new locally-led development corporations, the Estuary region will be strongly focused on development plans and opportunities in the coming period. Of course, the government’s response and positive endorsement of the vision set out by the Growth Commission is the comparatively easy bit. Making this a reality will be much harder, but increasingly all eyes are on the Thames Estuary.