Making the Thames Gateway Twice the Sum of its Parts

When I was at college in Oxford in the early to mid ’90s, Headington was dominated by two landmarks – the polytechnic (which had a Doctor Who-style regeneration into Brookes University whilst I was there, and partially explains why an 8ft ‘Oxford Polytechnic’ sign ended up on the wall of my friends house one night*) and Oxford United’s football ground – The Manor.

The Manor was an antiquated, but atmospheric place, and we used to stand behind one of the goals and watch Oxford mainly lose (unless it was the Cup, when they were capable of causing the odd upset). This didn’t really bother the hardy fans, who were very good at amusing themselves. My favourite ditty was when the left hand side of the stand I was in sang to their right hand neighbours, ‘we are the left side, we are the left side, we are the left side ‘London Road!’  The repost was inevitably – and where I was standing – that we were indeed the right side  ‘London Road.  For a stand that held no more than about 1,000 people, it didn’t strike me as crucial to differentiate oneself, but of course the camaraderie and banter was as much about togetherness as separation.

Which brings me in a convoluted, and some might say parochial, route to the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. Which is a bit like the current route to get anywhere east of say Port Tilbury to east of Gravesham.

The national press has hardly bothered with the Government’s (via Highways England) announcement on the consultation of the proposed route for the Lower Thames Crossing (a point I come back to later), and it has been left to the local Essex and Kent media outlets to pick up on the respective pros and cons of Option 3 versus Options 2 and 4. All three scenarios would see a recessed tunnel stretch from the banks of the Thames in Higham, Kent, to open land situated between Tilbury and East Tilbury in Essex. Perhaps inevitably, those closest to the proposed siting of the crossing are more objectionable to it, whereas Essex and Kent county councils are proponents of the project.

A Lower Thames Crossing has the potential to transform the lives of millions, and at circa £7Bn, is as major a piece of infrastructure costing seven times the amount of the Northern Line extension. Yet for whatever reason, it has failed to catch the publics imagination to date. It is absolutely right to highlight that the Lower Thames Crossing will profoundly change distribution patterns, commuter flows, and relieve pressure on the existing Dartford Crossing/QE2 Bridge for the benefit of the wider south east. What has yet to be articulated is the potential shot in the arm a Lower Thames Crossing could have for the Thames Gateway as a sub-region, and those communities that reside within it.

For those of you that have consigned your Thames Gateway Forum delegate lists and badges to the annals of history (I.e. the rubbish bin), it’s easy to forget that the Thames Gateway is still a national priority zone for regeneration.  Back in the mid naughties, and with the context of regional planning policy to assist, many well meaning public and private sector bodies stood on their soap boxes to claim the virtues of growth and regeneration, in a corridor stretching from Docklands to Southend and the Isle of Grain. It was, of course, always necessary to signpost a northern and southern shore outpost, because it was physically impossible to get between the two locations, other than travelling all the way back to the Dartford Crossing – or via a barge.

Here lies the missing part of the discussion about the Lower Thames Crossing.  A tunnel has the potential to unite both sides of the Thames Gateway in a way that is not possible east of Dartford at present. Too many locations on both the north and southern side of the Thames have only half a catchment; with the potential of locations such as Gravesend disappearing into the sea. A single crossing will not eradicate the isolated characteristics of all outer lying areas, but it has the potential to place residents of Kent into the catchment zone of employment centres such as Port Tilbury and DP World London Gateway in a time frame presently unimaginable. And it has recreational value to boot. The Mucking nature reserve to the east of East Tilbury is a fantastic asset that should benefit a wider population, likewise the forts of Tilbury and East Tilbury, and both the Kent and Essex estuary shorelines. I am not a fan of the Terry Farrell-conceived Thames Gateway Park, because I think the name is misleading; the Thames Gateway should clearly be a hotbed of employment opportunities and housing sites, and to adopt the moniker of park is, in my opinion, misleading to the public, who rightly could assume from the name that the greater emphasis should be on retention of undeveloped land. However, there is no doubt that a case exists for a Thames Gateway masterplan, that nits together the existing assets of both the northern and southern sub-areas, and thinks strategically about how a 21st century river crossing could accelerate further opportunities for regeneration and change.

The Thames Gateway won’t have the luxury of a Doctor Who-style regeneration; it is gong to take time, and it probably requires a 30 year commitment from national and local politicians.  All players need to recognise the value of maintaining local distinction whilst pushing for a common cause – for the first time ever, one Thames Gateway rather than an Essex version and a Kent version. There is nothing wrong with Essexonians chatting that they are the north side of the Thames, or for their counterparts in Kent to remind them of their geographical presence to the south.  What is surely crucial though, is for both to unite and to hone the virtues of being to the east side of London, and to taking full advantage of what a crossing can mean to local communities as well as the national imperative.

* My partner in crime, and the tenant-owner of the wall in question, is now head of planning at a large council.  Under duress, he will say he had nothing to do with it.  But he knows…