What Thames Gateway development?

Tristram Hunt is repeating an old scare story when he says the Estuary is 'beautiful, historic and doomed'. He's wrong on all three counts.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics

‘One of the largest regeneration projects in Europe’; ‘conveyor-belt McTerraces straight off the developer’s spreadsheet’; ‘planners are simply throwing up singleton flats’. At least that is what British historian Tristram Hunt says about what is happening to the Thames Gateway (1). Of course Hunt has warned us before of a ‘tsunami of concrete’ to accommodate ‘London’s monstrous growth’. He has also written of ‘year-zero vandalism dressed up as regeneration’ (2) and the ‘massive construction programme set to engulf what remains of Britain’s rural heritage’ (3).

Perhaps it is because it is made of concrete that Hunt’s tsunami is travelling so slowly. His first warning was five years ago. But as Eric Sorensen, the Thames Gateway Partnership chief admitted to me, there has been no step-change in house-building since the government identified the Thames Gateway as a development priority. In fact, Sorensen even understated the problem. When the government made the Thames Gateway a priority building decreased from around 26,000 new homes a year to 20,000.

That the Thames Gateway has been earmarked by the government for one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe is exactly what has arrested growth there. The identification of the priority froze the developers in their tracks. Cynics will say that they are trying to bid up their prices by withholding – but they were, in fact, simply paralysed by indecision once they heard that things might change very quickly (though of course that is the one thing that did not happen with this self-defeating prophecy).

But even if all 180,000 homes were built, they would hardly make a dent in the 80,000 hectares of land that is the Thames Gateway. Typical suburban densities are around 25 homes per hectare: 180,000 homes would easily fit into 7,200 hectares, or less than a tenth of the Thames Gateway – though in fact the planners intend to squeeze them in a lot tighter than that, if they ever get around to having them built. The threat to the Thames Gateway is largely in Tristram Hunt’s imagination, an expression of his own irrational fear of the masses.

Prompted by architect Ian Abley and House Builders’ Federation economist John Stewart, I have been warning that the country has been building too few houses for the last five years (4). The government had been listening to conservationist lobbies like the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Urban Task Force and to nostalgia-merchants like Tristram Hunt.

In 2004, Bank of England economist Kate Barker warned that the housing shortfall was ramping up prices. Late last year the government launched a new quango to lobby for more building in a belated acknowledgement that it had choked back new building so much that ordinary people were being priced out of home ownership. A new white paper that was supposed to liberalise the planning laws was published – except that it only introduced new costs for developers. At the same time that the government was failing to liberalise the planning laws, it hit volume house-builders with an additional burden – new rules for ‘zero emission’ houses. Already, volume house-builders have started to revise their new building plans downwards, just at the point that the government says it wants them to increase their output.

Honestly, the Thames Gateway is not the place that new building would happen if it were allowed to follow its natural course. It would be much more sensible to follow the economic growth areas up the M4 westwards towards Oxford, or north of the Gateway, around Cambridge. The Gateway was chosen precisely because the Urban Taskforce burdened developers with the injunction that they must build on already developed land (‘brownfield’ as opposed to ‘greenfield’), and Essex, suffering an economic downturn has more of that than most areas.

Britain’s future homebuyers, having been warned off the toffs’ green fields and shepherded into a run-down flood plain, might have thought they had suffered enough. But they had not reckoned on Squire Hunt’s belated attempt to talk up the Thames’ historic connections as another excuse to prevent people being housed. Hunt may have reached deep into his store of historical knowledge to intimidate us mere philistines, but he’s got a lot of his facts mixed up.

What about ‘the wetland culture of marshes and river life which Dickens hauntingly evoked in David Copperfield?’ Hunt implored – except that it was Great Expectations, not David Copperfield. ‘In Essex, the Domesday village of Harmondsworth’ is ‘scheduled for destruction’, Hunt warned – except that the Harmondsworth in the Domesday book is in Middlesex (5). More Blunderkind than Wunderkind, Hunt’s many comment pieces in the newspapers are liberally decorated with editors’ corrections (6). One might have thought that inaccuracy was a fatal flaw in an historian (I found typographical and factual errors on pages seven, 33, 62, 93, 195, 196, 270, 351 and 406 of Hunt’s recent book Building Jerusalem), but he seems to be untroubled by it.

The history that Hunt seems to be less aware of is the history of middle-class objections to development in the Thames Gateway. Between the wars, before there were planning laws, working-class people bought up uneconomic farmland and built holiday chalets that later became self-built homes – plotlands. Much of the charming vernacular architecture that Hunt romanticises in his brief visit to Essex is precisely this plotland development.

At the time, of course, Hunt’s ideological forebears were railing against them in much the same terms that he rails against the prospect of development today. A 1930 planning report captures the flavour of middle-class outrage: ‘This type of development has been called the “bungaloid growth”, and as in the country at large, so too on the river, it is the disturbing and disintegrating element.’ (7) Like Hunt, the opponents of ‘bungaloid growth’ disguised their concern about working people – just – by attacking the ‘developers’ who were selling these plots. But of course development, before we turn it into a dirty word, is just what we need if ordinary people are going to find somewhere to live.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build: Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next 10 Years. He is speaking about the housing we need at the Freemasons Hall, Manchester, on Thursday 21 June.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield asked: ‘Who’s afraid of the Thames Gateway?, explained that Britain’s housing boom is a phantom one and that the government’s 2005 housing plan was all talk and no bricks. James Woudhuysen warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism. Jennie Bristow slammed the government’s Sustainable Communities Plan. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) Sold down the river Guardian G2, 18 June 2007

(2) Grow with the Flow by Tristram Hunt, Guardian, 26 July 2005

(3) Labour betrays heritage, and its history, by Tristram Hunt, Observer, 8 December 2002

(4) See ‘Get off our land’, Blueprint Magazine, January 2002; The government must stop finding reasons not to build new homes by James Heartfield, Guardian, 21 February 2005; James Heartfield, Let’s Build! Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years, Audacity, 2006

(5) Labour betrays heritage, and its history by Tristram Hunt, Observer, 8 December 2002

(6) See the correction to Lessons for Beijing emerge from the Dickensian Fog, Guardian, 6 June 2006.

See also blogger Scott Burgess’ logging of Hunt’s many howlers here:

(7) Quoted in Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s history of the plotlands, Arcadia for All, 1984: p 172

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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