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Carving out a community
New Start – 31 January 2003

At the heart of the Thames Gateway, the biggest regeneration scheme in Britain, lie plans to turn disused quarries into new communities. Mark Smulian reports

In a few weeks' time, what is claimed to be the largest single planning application ever lodged in the UK will land on the desks at Dartford Council.

The application is for the prosaically named Eastern Quarry, which will have room for 7,500 homes, plus commercial and community facilities. It is the largest part of the largest hub of the UK's largest regeneration scheme.

The site adjoins Kent's vast Bluewater shopping complex, also a former quarry. And there are plenty of other developable quarries around because, unlike most of south-east England, Kent Thameside was until recently a place of heavy industry.

It depended on cement and paper works, was home to large power stations, a lead smelter and a lot of green belt that was 'green' in name alone.

Though surrounded by prosperous commuter towns, this industrial legacy has left much of the area with problems of poor older housing - often cottages built for cement workers - and serious deprivation.

But being situated near London, on the M25, and with a planned station on the Channel Tunnel high speed rail link at its heart at Ebbsfleet, Kent Thameside enjoys some advantages denied to other former industrial areas as it tries to regenerate its communities and economy.

Kent Thameside is the 22 square miles of the boroughs of Dartford and Gravesham between the A2 and the River Thames. It forms part of the Thames Gateway regeneration area, and with Stratford in east London is one of its two designated 'development nodes'. After 2006, half of all the new homes built in the gateway area will be in Kent Thameside, some 30,000 in all.

In contrast to most other former industrial areas, the unemployment rate is only 2.4%. This is partly because the cement industry declined slowly as material was exhausted, allowing displaced workers to find other jobs, often in London or at Bluewater. Unemployment hit 18% in the early 1990s, but then declined sharply.

The result is that the numbers of jobs expected to be created as a result of Ebbsfleet station, and its associated business parks and urban developments, will swamp the area unless planned for carefully.

Ian Lindsay, executive director of the area's strategic implementation team, says: 'We expect some reverse commuting because there will be 50,000 new jobs in the area. With unemployment at only 2.4%, we will need others to fill them. But giving existing communities the skills to take opportunities is important.'

He is particularly keen not repeat the experience of parts of London Docklands, where opulent new developments sit amid almost untouched social housing.

'There are pockets of deprivation in this area; some wards are in the top 20% of deprivation though none are in the new deal for communities category,' he says.

'We have said that affordable housing should be 30% of the total. This is an important issue for us, as we are looking for a general uplift of the area, not for blocks of new development that have dropped from outer space.'

'Dropped' is the operative word. The former quarries have left the development opportunities at the bottom of sheer chalk cliffs, 30m below older settlements built on the spines between quarries.

'Some communities will be on the edge of a cliff above a quarry where development will happen. We do not want sparkling new development at the foot and deprivation higher. This is fundamentally not about creating hermetically sealed new developments with no jobs for local people,' says Mr Lindsay.

Various training initiatives are planned to tackle any skills gaps, but the key to helping existing residents to take advantage of the looming developments is the area's Fastrack transport system and its Green Grid (see panel).

A local learning partnership brings together all providers including the University of Greenwich, which although based elsewhere draws about half its students from the area.

Kent Thameside is one of five OECD-designated learning regions, though this is more a matter of prestige and access to best practice than a source of money.

Mr Lindsay says: 'We are creating lifelong learning centres and schools of the future will be designed to facilitate this. There will be links with employers for the skills for new jobs, and the five new villages in Eastern Quarry will each have a commercial centre with a learning institution.'

In a bid to create new communities, rather than vast dormitory suburbs, Eastern Quarry and other developments will be built as urban villages, not as swathes of housing.

This approach would appear to chime perfectly with government policy, but has already led to problems over finance.

Developers face far higher costs when building on a former quarry than on a greenfield site. There are, for example, one billion tonnes of material to remove, and complex water table issues.

This leaves less money for deals with local authorities to provide the schools, doctors' surgeries and infrastructure needed to create a new community rather than just houses.

Mr Lindsay explains: 'John Prescott said in July that new housing development in the south east is important and we are in largest growth area in the south.

'Our issue is if you are going to do this it has to be about new communities, not just new housing, and there is a price tag that we have to have help to pay from central government if that is to stack up as an integrated community.'

The sums involved are large. The bill for transport and community infrastructure is around 300m, only half of which might realistically come from developers. The councils also need 450m from the Housing Corporation for the affordable homes.

The government has not said 'no' outright, and negotiations continue, linked with discussions about the vehicle that will eventually be approved to deliver regeneration.

Dartford and Gravesham, both Labour-run, work harmoniously with Tory Kent County Council, and the three authorities want to be designated jointly as the lead body.

They would prefer not to have a fourth regeneration entity created by the government on top of their arrangement.

But Dartford leader John Muckle admits that the government might want 'reassurance'.

'We are looking at the idea of the three councils signing a public service agreement with the government, so that we would be delivering a contractual commitment,' he explains.

Mr Muckle, a lifelong resident of the area, is an enthusiast for its development, but concedes that public support might be more conditional.

He says: 'I think people are supportive, but fear they will be living in a giant building site for ten years and get little benefit. Quite rightly, they want to be involved and to get a share of the new jobs and homes.'

transport and regeneration

By 2007 a new station at Ebbsfleet will see passengers whisked to Kings Cross in 17 minutes, Brussels in one hour 45 minutes, and Paris in two hours. Kent Thameside will become one of the country's main transport hubs.

To ensure both that local residents can take advantage of this, and also to try to prevent traffic gridlock, Kent Thameside is developing its Fastrack network to link the existing towns with the new station, Bluewater shopping centre and the newly-built communities and business parks.

David George, its project manager, explains that this will be operated by rubber-tyred vehicles, of an as yet unspecified kind, running on routes segregated from conventional traffic.

'We know it has to have a degree of "wow" factor to get people to use it. If there is not a substantial move to public transport we will have gridlock and the whole regeneration will not work,' he says.

Earlier plans for a light rail network were dropped because parts of it would have to be built long before the areas served had enough patrons to support it, and also because of engineering problems with the quarry cliffs.

'The modal shift is very important. We need to go from 20% of journeys being made by public transport up to 40%,' Mr George says.

It is likely that operators will be invited to tender for the whole Fastrack system as one package.

Mr Lindsay says: 'We are using transport as a regeneration tool. There is a danger that the Channel Tunnel link will whisk people up to London and people will just travel in and out.

'Fastrack will link Dartford and Gravesend and also less prosperous communities like Swanscombe, Greenhithe, Northfleet and Stone.' This will enable residents of both the new and existing communities to get where the jobs will be.

Meanwhile the Green Grid is being planned as a different way to knit the area together, linking its open spaces with paths, parks and bridges. Up to one quarter of the Swanscombe peninsula will be open space. The project will reclaim old industrial land and make better use of riverside walks.