A Bridge Too Far? The Thames Gateway & Olympic Village Projects

Contrary to all the dire prophesies from his opponents, Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor of London has not (so far) been a complete disaster. This seems to have rather piqued some of ‘The Guardian’s columnists and (understandably) his predecessor Ken Livingstone, currently in exile with his own talkshow on LBC radio. ‘The Guardian’ indeed, has found itself in the convoluted position of lambasting an appointment (Ray Lewis as Deputy Mayor) which it had initially lauded . It duly portrayed the subsequent resignation ( and that of the Mayor’s political adviser, Ian McGrath) as confirmation that the wheels were already coming off the new regime at City Hall. In a recent ‘G2’ interview, the previous DeputyMayor, Nicky Gavron, declared that her new role was ‘to give Boris a hard time if he doesn’t deliver on affordable housing,climate change,child poverty and women’s matters’.

The problem for her and the ‘Guardianistas’ is that the Mayor (unlike many politicians) appears committed to much of the programme on which he based his successful election campaign and has initiated measures to tackle the transport, crime and environmental problems which were fiercely debated by the three main candidates prior to May 1st. More police are patrolling the London underground and alcohol has been banned on the capital’s entire transport system. £710,000 has been allotted to tackle  youth crime. The further proliferation of  the skyscrapers favoured by Livingstone will from now on be ‘restricted to clusters’, if  allowed at all. The Mayor’s declared goal (post-election) is still ‘ to resolve the deprivation and inequality that is holding back kids and Londoners’. His critics believe (hope?) either that he will fail or his plan of action is totally misguided.

They may of course proved right. Though Boris has shown consistency on some issues , he is wavering on others. He continues to be against more expansion at Heathrow ‘ever’ and would prefer instead a ‘well-linked’ airport in the Thames Estuary. This has, however, inevitably run into vocal opposition from Kent residents. Following a report that the cost of the principal Olympic stadium has increased by £29 million to £525m in just 12 months, he has proposed a rescue plan for the £1 billion Olympic Village. The cash would come from Government funds available to him for affordable housing. The idea is that after 2012, the accommodation for the 17,000 athletes and officials would be converted into 3,500 dwellings and priority given to first-time buyers. Sceptics dismiss this as ‘bluster’ on the grounds that he can only ‘pull at the edges of a £9.3 billion project that was well under way before he won office’. He is also attempting to secure investment for the second stage of the East London Line extension , connecting Clapham Junction and large parts of south London to the tube and rail network via Surrey Quay,Queen’s Road, Peckham and a new station at Surrey Canal Road – and for all this to be completed in time for 2012.

There were doubts expressed before the election (especially by the other contenders) as to whether Boris would be capable of delivering on the £16 billion Crossrail scheme. This aims to link the east & west of the city and was finally approved by Parliament on July 23rd 2008.  It is envisaged that Crossrail will be financed as a joint public/private sector / Tfl (Transport For London) venture. The  Mayor has also assumed responsibility for the massive Thames Gateway Project – and indeed for deciding whether it should go ahead at all. Boris has voiced strong reservations about the entire undertaking. It is not clear, for example, as to whether he is for or against the planned six-lane Thames Gateway Bridge joining the boroughs of Newham and Greenwich. Initially, in May .his assessment was that it had been sited in the ‘wrong location’, had not been well-thought out and would add significantly to traffic congestion in the area.. It has now emerged that he has not ‘ripped up’ the present planning application after all as this would involve  ‘turning the clock back five years’ and starting all over again. It now may proceed, albeit with some modifications.

The Thames Gateway itself has been heralded by the Government as a ‘priority area for new housing and employment opportunities’. If implemented, it will stretch for 40 miles along either side of the river from the Docklands east into Essex and Kent and include the former industrial parts of the boroughs of Lewisham, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Newham, Barking, Dagenham, Havering and Bexley. If  the 160,000 new homes plus 180,000 jobs promised really do materialise, it would become Europe’s biggest & most ambitious regeneration project. Many observers are unconvinced that this can, should or will actually happen. They consider that the Government has ‘bitten off far more than it can chew’ and that what it has achieved so far hasn’t matched expectations. Parliament’s Public Accounts Select Committee has concluded that it could all become a “public spending calamity’and that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which is overseeing the enterprise is neither up to the job  nor has any idea what it will eventually cost the taxpayer. There are, it seems, “ too many agencies & funding streams involved. Without improved management it will remain a series of disjointed projects.” The Prime Minister has so far allocated £16 billion to the Thames Gateway – in addition to the controversial and spiralling bill for the 2012 Olympics. A major proportion of this expenditure will be on the Olympics Zone located at Stratford in the Borough of Newham.

Supporters of the Thames Gateway Project are adamant that it will boost the economy of the entire Thames Estuary region. What is currently marshland, farmland and brownfield (formerly industrial or commercial sites) will be utilised to build new towns, create employment and relieve the constant pressure for more housing in London and the south-east. Others disagree. One major consequence of climate change is likely to be rising sea levels. The Thames Estuary will thus become a potential flood risk zone. There are concerns about the wider environmental impact, the prospect of increased erosion and the extra strain on available water supplies. The North Thames Marshes are classified as an ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area’ by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Dr. Hilary Newport (Director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in Kent) has pointed out that the 1.45 million people already living nearby are worried about ‘vanishing green spaces” and are looking for Government assurances that they will be protected.

Boris Johnson believes the flood risk can be managed and that any new developments will take this risk into account. However, as he has emphasised to ‘Live in London’: “We must not make the mistakes of the past. The new developments will be built with the needs of the future in mind and that means being environmentally and community friendly”.In his opinion the Government has completely failed London. He asserts that their record pales in comparison to what the last Conservative Government did in the Docklands (“ now a world financial centre in its own right with excellent transport links”.) He is determined to “ensure that we get this right for all Londoners but also that “spending doesn’t spiral out of control”. What is built in the Thames Gateway “must be sustainable, what people want and with adequate transport links”. The conflicting views emanating from City Hall and Central Government will not be easily reconciled.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on August 5th, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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