Could a new Milton Keynes-style town spark a boom in the Thames Estuary which governments have attempted to redevelop for decades?by Michael Heseltine / February 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
The redevelopment of London’s docklands began in 1989 © AP/Press Association Images
My involvement with London’s docklands came about entirely by accident. In the early seventies, as Minister for Aerospace, I was responsible for drawing up plans for a new London airport just off the Essex coast. I chartered a light aircraft and flew out along the Thames in order to survey the proposed site on the Foulness mudflats. The airport has of course never been built, but the trip was far from wasted.
As I flew across London, I was struck by the vast tracts of dereliction spread out before me. The advent of container shipping had rendered the old London docks obsolete almost overnight and the abandoned docklands ran like open wounds east of the capital, acre after acre of crumbling Victorian warehouses and toxic dumps.
Opinion was divided about what should be done. Those on the left recommended additional subsidy be pumped into the area. But this amounted to little more than expensive life support, with scant prospect of the patient ever recovering. Many on the right argued that intervening would be pointless or even counter-productive. Once prices fell sufficiently, they argued, developers would move in and begin to rebuild. But this apparently hard-nosed analysis was in fact built on a romanticised view of what the market would achieve here, left to its own devices. The lack of progress since then in much of the surrounding area is proof of this.
I am a committed conservative who values the virtues and disciplines of competition. Indeed, I believe I am responsible for more privatisation than any other minister in UK government. But this left-right debate always seemed to me both misleading and stale. In reality, no efficient market can exist without the presence of the state and no modern state can function without the dynamism of market activity.
With this in mind, I established the London Docklands Development Corporation, a dedicated redevelopment agency, free of political control and with wide powers over planning and land-assembly. It was staffed by a mix of experienced private sector developers and local authority representatives.
My senior cabinet colleagues saw this as a misguided attempt to get a government department to construct an entirely new local economy. They misunderstood what we were proposing. The idea was to take a derelict area, eliminate the negative value caused by pollution, assemble large sites through compulsory purchase, and release them back onto the market, ripe for redevelopment. Our ambitions were large, both in terms of the scale of the area being regenerated and our desire for big coherent development projects. But our ambitions were also limited. We never had a “plan”.
Despite my belief in the approach, it does require a considerable amount of faith in the response of the business community. Who could we persuade to move to this somewhat inaccessible and baron peninsula five miles from the centre of London? At the time we had no idea and, looking back at the remarkable chain of events that followed, there was no way that we could have guessed what would happen next.
The story of Canary Wharf is by now well known. There are currently 100,000 people working on this once derelict dockyard. It recently overtook the City of London as the biggest banking centre in Europe. And it’s not just finance. Half of the people employed by JP Morgan (Canary Wharf’s newest resident) are not bankers and a quarter of jobs in the area are in admin, retail, catering, transport and storage. Investment in housing and infrastructure has since rippled out around the docklands. My only regret is that we didn’t apply this approach to the rest of the Thames Estuary.
A report recently published by the Centre for London, outlines just how this could be done. It shows how bringing together the particular abilities of the public sector with the talent of our best private developers can help unlock development right across this once-bustling area. Andrew Adonis, editor of the report, argues that the development corporation model should be used to establish an entirely new town on the Ebbsfleet Peninsula—the first in the UK for 50 years. A separate Thames Crossing Development Corporation would use private finance to improve connectivity by building three new crossings between Tower Bridge and Dartford. Taken together with the other proposals, including support for a huge theme park being planned on the North Kent coast, these measures should unleash development across the region.
If I had stood up in parliament in 1981 and outlined a plan for the Docklands that included Canary Wharf, the new Wood Wharf development, London City Airport and the ExCel Centre and the O2 arena (Europe’s most popular entertainment venue) all serviced by High Speed 1 and Crossrail, then my colleagues in the Commons would rightly have fell about laughing. But if we are going to solve the housing crisis and bring down unemployment in the South East then we must regain the belief that, when we create the right conditions, and the private and public sectors work together, anything is possible.
Go East: Unlocking the Potential of the Thames Estuary is published by Centre for London, www.centreforlondon.org