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Can the private sector deliver new London?

THAMES GATEWAY - Thames Gateway has been described as Europe's biggest regeneration project, but exactly how big is it and can the construction industry deliver such large-scale change under the time constraints? Paul Wheeler investigates

NOBODY seems to have realised quite how big the Thames Gateway is, at least in terms of the investment and development opportunity.

Physically it extends 60 km down the Thames from Canary Wharf to the Thames Estuary mouth at Southend in Essex and the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

The planned scale of growth is breathtaking. By 2016, if all goes to plan, the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds will have been dropped into an area that already boasts a population of 1.5 million.

But, contrary to public perception, the intention is not to pave over the whole area to create an endless linear suburb. Leading architect Sir Terry Farrell has pointed out that virtually all of the development could be accommodated in the Thames Gateway's 3,000 ha of brownfield land.

A point that most critics of the Thames Gateway fail to recognise is that development is largely concentrated in unattractive, economically and socially run-down areas. Put bluntly, the Thames Gateway is an attempt to make a silk purse from a sow's ear - it has nothing to do with concreting over the last of the green spaces in the south-east.

There are 14 areas - or 'zones of change'- where development will be focused. Six of these lie within London, and there are three each in Kent and Essex.

Across the whole of the Gateway, current Government targets are for 160,000 new homes by 2016, 91,000 within London and a further 43,000 and 27,000 in Kent and Essex respectively.

Apart from the jobs created during construction, the Government estimates the development of the Gateway has the potential to create 232,000 permanent new jobs, of which 150,000 should come from five major developments at Canary Wharf, Stratford City, Greenwich Peninsula, Ebbsfleet/Eastern Quarry and Shell Haven.

The Government believes the Gateway can accommodate this scale of housing and employment growth up to 2016 - and that it has the potential for substantial further development if the right supporting infrastructure is put in place.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has set high targets for affordable housing and the emphasis in the Gateway is on quality, high-density, mixed-use developments that create homes and employment opportunities, come with a good public transport system and make the most of the riverside setting.

Unquestionably a huge amount of money will be spent over the next two decades but are we going to get it right? Britain doesn't have a great record on place-making or social engineering and arguably neither have been attempted on such a scale before.

There is strong optimism that Thames Gateway might just pull it off.

Certainly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has established the framework within which the Gateway will be developed, has no doubt that the scheme will succeed.

The concept of sustainable communities is central to the ODPM's vision.

As much as anything, this means creating places that people want to live in - and will continue to want to live in, in 20 years' time.

Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of Kent County Council and chairman of the Local Government Association, believes the two biggest challenges facing the Gateway are low expectations - from all involved - and the question of who is going to fund the necessary infrastructure.

So serious is the concern about quality that Kent last month appointed leading architect Piers Gough as the county's first ever design champion.

His job is to ensure that the growth plans create an architectural renaissance, rather than a disaster.

Mr Gough recently said that the major challenge was to get local authorities to think what they want and then persuade house builders to build their vision, rather than just waiting for house builders 'to turn up with their standard stuff ' And Mr Gough believes local authorities are going to have to make it absolutely clear that they want high quality: 'A lot of people think design is just the external look of buildings, but it is actually deeper and more fundamental. It is about planning for communities.You plan all the other uses that should go with houses - pubs, shops, schools and hospitals.And they must be planned so that they link up and unite into what we used to call a village or a town.'

So that is the challenge and, as it happens, it is also a very simple and clear interpretation of the Government's sustainable communities plan.

One of the biggest obstacles to delivery is that the government is looking to the private sector for most of the investment funding. It sees Public-Private Partnership as the way forward. But some claim this fails to acknowledge the inherent contradiction between the public and private sectors.

John McCready, regeneration partner with Ernst & Young, says the private sector is driven by the need to achieve return on capital:

'Developers make money out of land.And the longer and more drawn-out the process, the more expensive it becomes.'

Faced with long and uncertain planning applications, Mr McCready predicts that developers will withdraw or up their rates of returns.'That is de-risking by doing what they know will work in the market, ' he adds. It is not exactly the environment that is likely to bring about cutting-edge, quality design.'

Yet Tony McNulty, a minister at the Department of Transport, is very keen on the potential of public private partnerships, not just for the delivery of major infrastructure such as Crossrail - but the Thames Gateway in general.

He says: 'We have got to be more flexible and get imaginative. It should not be beyond our wit to collectively devise funding mechanisms that will work for both the public and private sectors.We have got to break out of the 'can't do'mindset.'

Another problem is that of navigating the minefield of organisations active in the Gateway. It is not immediately clear where, for example, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation fit in with the three regional development agencies active in the Gateway (the LDA, EEDA and SEEDA), the regional planning assemblies and the local authority planners.

There is also a plethora of Thames Gateway delivery boards and partnerships.

Kent, quite sensibly, has organised itself into three geographically focused Public-Private Partnership delivery boards covering Kent Thameside, Medway and Swale. But London and Essex are also partially covered by newly-formed Unitary Development Corporations.

Adding to the confusion, the new London Thames Gateway Development Corporation covers the London boroughs on the north side of the Thames, excluding Newham, but none of the boroughs south of the river.

So the planning protocol and powers vary considerably within different parts of the Gateway.

Will McKee, chairman of both developer Tilfen Land and Thurrock UDC says this has come about because of a clear indication 'that some areas need direct intervention and a completely focused approach' Mr McKee also believes the new UDCs represent a significant evolution of the earlier development corporations.

'A UDC needs special skills, not normally associated with public sector bodies, to engage the private sector, ' he explains, adding that UDCs take a longer-term view, rising above the 'short-term pressures of local politics.'