Welcome to the future, A Brave New Dawn

What’s blue, red, and blue? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not Cardiff City FC.

I spent Thursday and Friday at West Thurrock and around the area known as the Thames Gateway, starting to photograph and explore some ideas for my first case study/ site-specific body of work.

New housing estate in Strood, in a disused chalk pit
New housing estate in Strood, in a disused chalk pit

It is fair to say that I have been obsessed with the idea of the Thames Gateway for a number of years, ever since I first visited the evocatively named Isle of Grain in 2005. At the time I was going through a period stress following the discovery that I was failing my photography degree and had three weeks to turn it around or I would be asked to leave the course. Due to the increased stress, an idea got under my skin; it started off just being about the industrial landscape, but over the years became refined and increasingly politically motivated.

The Thames Gateway was New Labour’s flagship regeneration scheme, in reality it built upon a plan started under the last days of John Major’s Conservative government surrounding HS1, then simply known by the far less “cool” Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The original plan for HS1 had it going under South London by Tunnel to an underground international terminus near Kings Cross. This plan was rejected in favour of a plan to send the line through East London to St Pancras. The plan was Michael Hesaltine’s legacy to urbanism, he saw that the East End of London had some of the poorest wards in the UK and was ripe for regeneration.

The label ‘Thames Gateway’ is said to have been coined by Michael Heseltine while being given a helicopter tour of East London and the lower Thames. With a bird’s-eye view, Heseltine became convinced that the whole area – over 40 miles of river bank and floodplain stretching from the London Docklands to the Thames Estuary, and traversing some 16 local authority boundaries and three government regions – needed to be treated as a single strategic whole.

As Heseltine rightly saw, the area badly needed investment and regeneration. Where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War, and as the docks declined and industry and population fell away, an area which was already poor and environmentally degraded took a further toll.
Whatever happened to the Thames Gateway? By Ben Rogers on 12th April 2013

The project expanded hugely under New Labour and became one of four poster boys for regeneration set out in it’s Sustainable Communites Plan (2003). Along with plans for Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor, The Thames Gateway was by far the most ambitious, which ultimately played a major part in its downfall. The plan for the Thames gateway called for the building of 91,000 new houses in a 70km window by 2016.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 20.57.17

By 2020, London Thames Gateway will be a destination of choice for living and working. It will form a new city within a city, with a well-designed mixture of houses, a range of job opportunities, excellent social and cultural infrastructure and good transport connections to the rest of London, South East England and Europe.

Tapping into the development potential of the Thames Gateway will help to accommodate London’s growth without encroaching on green field sites or the Green Belt, will deliver significant quantities of affordable housing, and will improve quality of life through integrated social, environmental and economic revitalisation for existing communities.

Public sector agencies, and local and regional authorities, will work with the private sector to build new housing that is integrated with – and reflects the character of – East London’s existing communities, that centres on hubs served by new and existing public transport, and that is designed to include buildings and public space of the highest quality.
London Thames Gateway Development and Investment Framework

In reality very little of the proposed development ever came into existence and that which did was either for the 2012 Olympic development or off the back of pre existing conservative projects; the millennium Dome and surrounding Greenwich peninsular, or HS1. The below table of development in the Thames Gateway region is taken from Wikipedia, so it needs to be considered on the correct level, but it does give an overview of the project.

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The current coalition government quietly sidelined the Thames Gateway project when it wound up New Labour’s regional development agencies in favor of local government oversight. My original intentions for the Thames Gateway section of my PhD was to explore the legacy of this project on the region, the affects of a series of disjointed infrastructure decision taken and altered by a series of governments, whose first mandate is always to ignore what has been put in place by the opposition before them and start again.

Given all of this, I was incredibly surprised when George Osbourne’s announcement surrounding Ebbsfleet Garden City came out. What surprised me further was the choice of language.

We’re also for the first time in a hundred years going to build a garden city in Ebbsfleet, in the Thames Estuary. This means morehomes, this means more aspiration for families. This means economic security and economic resilience because Britain has got to get building.

In Ebbsfleet, well the initial plans will be for 15,000 homes. I’ve spoken to the
local MPs. They’re enthusiastic about it. We know that local people want to see the regeneration. We’ve got a high speed stop actually on the high speed line to the Channel Tunnel, so it’s closely linked to London, and it will be …

(over) Fifteen thousand is a huge amount, isn’t it?

Well it will be a proper garden city. It’s not something this country’s attempted for decades. But that’s one of the messages of my Budget. You know Britain has to up its ambition, Britain has to upits game, Britain has to earn its way in the world. Yes the economy is recovering, but that is not enough. We’ve got to finish the job.

I don’t want to be offensive in any sense to Ebbsfleet, but a lot of people have said that this or thought that this new garden city would be in Oxfordshire or somewhere up in the richer parts of the country. Why have you chosen Ebbsfleet?

Well Ebbsfleet, there is the land available, there is fantastic infrastructure with a high speed line. It’s on the river. It’s in the South East of England where a lot of the housing pressure has been and, crucially, you’ve got local communities and local MPs who support the idea. We’re going to create an urban
development corporation, so we’re going to create the instrument that allows this kind of thing to go ahead – in other words sort of cuts through a lot of the obstacles that often happen when you want to build these homes.

Will we see turf cut before the Election?

Well I hope we will get go… There are already some homes being built on the site, so actually progress was underway but it was on a much much smaller scale and with much less ambition than what I’m setting out today. You know I think this is … When you look at Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City or Milton Keynes, you know our predecessors, they had the ambition to build for Britain.

My first issue is the use of the term first Garden City in 100 years; suddenly we are removing the whole new town movement and all its supposed negative connotations. Instead we have tapped into the concept of the rural idyll and a mock historical vernacular. John Grindrod in his book Concretopia (2013) describes the Garden city movement as being ‘The Britain of bucolic railway posters, those mythmaking images where the latest locomotives were seamlessly blended into the rolling landscape, as if they had always been there’. Even the supposedly politically independent think tank Centre for London, starts referring to the East, West London divide, where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. To use the term Arcadian suggest that only the semi rural or ‘Rurban’ is an acceptable, aspirational method of development.

The apparent separation of Garden Cities and New towns in George Osbourne’s mind suggest that he has no knowledge of what he is tapping into or worse a deliberate spin of the history, to further distance the conservative government from left wing ideals of true regeneration as they have done with the NHS and state education. Both Garden Cities and New Towns are interconnected.

Ebenezer Howard was a Quaker and reformist who in 1898 published To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, this book would lay out plans for a third type of landscape that was neither town nor country, but instead Town-Country. Howard was repulsed by the quality of life in the slums of our industrialised cities and proposed a series of new settlements inspired by Port Sunlight and Bourneville. ‘There are in reality not only, as it is so constantly assumed, two alternatives- town life and country life, but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination’. I can’t see how a true garden city can be built in an old chalk pit next to Bluewater.

The site of the proposed Garden City, with Bluewater on the left and Ebbsfleet Intl Station on the right
The site of the proposed Garden City, with Bluewater on the left and Ebbsfleet Intl Station on the right

The squalid slum conditions that Howard was trying to save the working classes from, on the whole no longer exist. To me the adoption of the garden city smacks of the snobbery that existed during the new labour years, the idea of aspiration. According to New Labour and the current coalition, we are all supposed to aspire to being middle class, or at least the middle classes that Grayson Perry explored in his channel four program In The Best Possible Taste (2012). Everyone should go to university and get a degree, everyone should drive at the very least a new VW if not BMW, our homes should be decorated wholesale with Next soft furnishing. It seems to be no longer acceptable to be working class, industry is dirty, along with places like the Thames Estuary, they need to be dragged into the 21st century.

Please don’t sully the history of the Garden City and New Towns with your watered down, private finance lead ‘regeneration’. The new towns were brave developments and took an act of parliament to see them through and avoid the NIMBYism that will clearly haunt this project. They were born out of a desire to make the world a better place.

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.
Che Guevara

This is by no means an extensive post on the subject of either New Towns or the Thames Gateway, and I still have an extensive amount of reading to do on the subject. My intention is to work on this case study over the next 6 months leading to a series of publications. I look forward to expanding on these early musings.


One thought on “Welcome to the future, A Brave New Dawn”

  1. Just a quick thought….
    The new “Garden City” will be a new edgeland. Let me explain: the centre is London, here they need workers – probably white-collar mainly, but also all those supporting services too. What is needed for these extra people are dormitory towns, so dress mutton up like lamb and call them Garden Cities. The degree of “edgeness” will change with the distance travelled from the epi-centre of a particular economy. This could be related to fall-out zones. Building on brown-field sites makes it slightly more acceptable and is seen as rejuvenating and seen as a jolly good thing.
    If a town expands, it will bulldoze existing Edgelands and create new ones. The effect will be like ripples on the surface of a pond. What will be interesting is when two adjacent centres arrive at a mutual edge.
    What is lacking is an interst in a real long-term plan that accounts for quality of life rather than expedience in the current society. Will our growth be seen as a mark of a great civilization or the ravaging of the country?

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