How strategic arrangements in the Thames estuary could pan out

The government has backed proposals to revive joined-up growth arrangements for the Thames Estuary. But what does it mean for planning in the subregion, Adam Branson asks.

Thames Estuary: government and growth commission both say it is important that the area's local authorities work together on larger-than-local strategic plans (pic: Getty Images)
Thames Estuary: government and growth commission both say it is important that the area's local authorities work together on larger-than-local strategic plans (pic: Getty Images)

When the coalition government swept away the system of regional planning and economic development after it came to power in 2010, the Thames Gateway project to drive growth in east London, south Essex and north Kent appeared to fall by the wayside. However, when exchancellor George Osborne announced in 2016 the creation of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission to examine ways of boosting the fortunes of the subregion, it looked as though the government had changed tack. The commission’s report, published last year, called for "a minimum" of one million homes in the estuary by 2050 to support growth.

At the end of March, the government responded, saying it wanted to see more "strategic level" joint planning in the area. It also said it was considering setting up "at least two" new development corporations in the area and called for councils interested in housing deals, in which central government provides infrastructure funding in return for the authorities promising higher housing growth, to come forward. It is safe to say that the commission was pleased with the response. "It was a positive response in that pretty much all the things we recommended they supported in principle," says Sir John Armitt, commission chair and chair of government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission. "You can almost say that we got our report played back to us."

Both the government and the commission stressed the importance of councils in the estuary working together on larger-than-local strategic plans. The six authorities in south Essex, which have come together with Essex County Council to form the Association of South Essex Local Authorities and pledged to prepare a joint plan, were praised for their progress on that front. "I think the south Essex part of the Thames Estuary is way ahead of the game in terms of what it’s doing on strategic planning," says Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, which represents local authority planners.

Steve Cox, corporate director for place at Thurrock Council, agrees. "It reinforces the work the south Essex authorities are doing," he says. "The government’s response makes a very clear reference to ambitious joint statutory spatial plans, which is what we are looking to put in place. We’re working very collaboratively to achieve that." However, Riddell says the situation in south Essex is not replicated across the estuary. "The London Plan will cover the London bit of the estuary and you’ve got the south Essex joint plan being prepared," she says. "So, you’re going to have to have something in north Kent. You can’t have two out of three areas doing formal joint strategic planning without north Kent doing the same. That is a big hole at the moment."

So far, says Riddell, north Kent authorities have proved unable to work together, in part due to a disagreement between them about whether a strategic plan should cover the whole of the county or just the northern part focused on the estuary. "I suspect they will have to think quite quickly now because of the government’s response," she says. "I don’t think they will have much leeway in terms of not doing something." The government’s response also said it would create a growth board to "oversee and drive economic growth plans for the area" and appoint an envoy to lead the new body. While the board will not have the ability to direct the subregion’s authorities, commentators expect it to play a key role in coordinating work and ensuring partners continue to have regard for the bigger picture. "I think the growth board will maintain a spotlight on the estuary," says Cox, adding that the envoy needs to be a joint appointment rather than a diktat from government. "The envoy shouldn’t necessarily be a government appointment. It should be done jointly with local partners so that there is local ownership of the appointment. I think this should give the estuary the focus it deserves."

Stuart Irvine, a senior director at planning consultancy Turley, adds that while the growth board will not have any formal planning powers, it will have influence with government, which could be important when it comes to spending decisions. "It does potentially have the ear of government, which could be useful from a financial and infrastructure perspective," he says. That could have a big influence on how Kent’s planning authorities choose to behave, he suggests. "If funding is channelled through the growth board then I think north Kent will have no choice but to change direction towards the Thames Estuary."

A further commitment by the government is to work with groups of local authorities in the estuary to strike housing deals. According to Peter Geraghty, chair of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport’s housing, planning and regeneration board, and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council director of planning and transport, the six south Essex authorities would be keen to go down this route. "We are prepared to work together and the real clarion call from this part of the South East is that we understand that we have to accommodate growth and we have to do so in a manner that is supported by the right infrastructure," he says.

Finally, the government said it was committed to "exploring at least two new locally-led development corporations" in the area. John Walker, technical director at community interest company Garden City Developments and ex-chief executive of the government’s former Commission for New Towns, says that unlike previous incarnations of development corporations, the locally-led bodies will be owned by local authorities rather than central government. However, he points out that any compulsory purchase orders made will still need to be signed off by the communities secretary. "I’m assured that civil servants and ministers understand this fully, but if there was any hesitation the corporation effectively becomes a waste of space," he says. "They would be effectively castrated."

In terms of delivery, there is broad agreement that if the government’s aspirations for the estuary are to come to fruition, it will have to come up with the necessary funding. Henry Cleary, the former head of the growth areas division at the then Department for Communities and Local Government, says: "If you’re going to turn around the housing offer in some of these locations, it’s going to take significant resources, not just for housing sites and their immediate site links, but also for education, services and transport. You need to focus on a few locations where you really can make a difference and change the market."

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE SAYS ABOUT ITS WIDER APPROACH TO PLANNING

According to commentators, the introduction of a growth board and the emphasis on strategic plans demonstrates a growing willingness by the government to encourage larger-than-local subregional planning, something that fell out of vogue when the Tory-led coalition came to power in 2010 and swept away regional structures.

"We’ve got a similar approach being taken on the Cambridge-Oxford corridor," says Thames Estuary Commission chair John Armitt. "You need to look at it on that regional level." At the 2018 Conservative Party conference, planning minister Kit Malthouse spelled out ministers’ intent when he said the government wanted local authorities to come together in "regional groupings" and prepare strategic plans in return for Whitehall infrastructure funding.

But the Planning Officers Society strategic planning specialist Catriona Riddell says fewer than half of the councils in the Thames Estuary will be represented on the new growth board. "I find it really ironic that they abolished regional strategies and assembles because they were apparently unaccountable," she says. "They’re reinventing regional planning but with less accountability and political representation than we had in 2010."


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