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…