Focus on the economic potential of the Thames Estuary has intensified recently with the launch of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission, which is to be headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine. The promise is that the commission will put in place a process that will “unleash growth for decades to come”.
The Commission is not going to make recommendations without consulting local businesses and other stakeholders though, so this is a prime opportunity for the Kent business community to make its voice heard and take an active role in shaping the county’s economic future.
Fast movement to project initiation
The Thames Estuary growth plan was launched in July by a high level group of business and government experts. Leading the charge is Heseltine who has had a successful track record of working to regenerate areas such as Docklands and the city centre of Liverpool. The Commission is working to a fairly tight timeline and has to get consultation responses in, draw up plans and get them to the Chancellor, Amber Rudd, in time for inclusion in the 2017 Autumn statement.
As far as government timelines go, this is extremely swift action and possibly a sign that Lord Heseltine is expecting a fast response from Whitehall to get things moving. Of course, some plans are already in place but he has invited everyone who has a stake in the region and some innovative ideas, to step up to the plate and contribute to the vision.
Covering the forty miles between Canary Wharf and Thanet in Kent, the Thames Estuary is almost certainly uniquely placed in the UK for its economic potential and proximity to the capital. The area covered by the commission is extensive and includes Canterbury, Dartford, Gravesham, Medway, Swale and the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Greenwich, Havering, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. Also covered are the Essex councils of Basildon, Castle Point, Rochford, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock.
The area is well primed to handle substantial development. The Estuary itself has a population of 3 million, so there’s a huge potential workforce ready to join new enterprises.
Of course, private investors and the government have been aware of the possibilities in the region and substantial investment has already taken place. There are already numerous projects proceeding down the pipeline. A prime example is Ebbsfleet garden city, now taking shape and providing new homes and jobs.
In a nation where infrastructure weakness is a growing concern, the Thames Estuary is shaping up to have the best transport infrastructure outside of London. This is where really serious private money is being spent.
The London Gateway Port is a good example of this with the probable cost being in the region of £1.5bn (private investors don’t put up those kinds of sums without the certainty of making a profit on their investment). With such large sums involved, it’s not surprising that there’s a government minister with the Thames Gateway as his portfolio (Mark Francois).
For air transport, Southend airport is going to expand exponentially. It’s been handling five thousand passengers a year but is slated for more than a million in the future.
And to cap it all, there’s the planned Lower Thames Crossing. The Highways England consultation closed in March. Over 47,000 people responded which is an excellent sign of local engagement in the development of the area. Highways England is currently analysing the responses and will be putting forward plans later in the year.
Centres of excellence
One of the key work streams of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission will be to create centres of excellence. This is extremely important in fostering high-quality jobs in advanced and innovative industries, so is to be welcomed.
The opportunities for businesses, communities and individuals are unrivalled. Most important of all is the will to succeed in growing the area, with the backing of government and private investors. Lord Heseltine has done it before, and he’s picked a top-performing team this time round. This should prove his most ambitious project to date and whatever the years and decades ahead hold for Kent and the Thames Estuary region, Britain has never before seen regional development of this magnitude.