Guardian of the Gateway

With 25,000 new homes being built over the next 20 years, the north Kent region of the Thames Gateway is a huge project. Tom Idle met up with Paul Williams, the man who will ensure the environment is considered at all stages of the development

Having lived in and around north Kent all my life, I have been intrigued by the Thames Gateway programme since it was announced by John Prescott's ODPM in 2004. Swathes of new development are planned for the region over the next 20 years.

In the previous two decades, pockets of residential estates have cropped up; built around existing derelict brownfield land. But the regeneration project - in which 25,000 new homes will be built and 60,000 new jobs created in the region - will ensure that the former industrial sites are transformed into sustainable community spaces.

But how will the area cope with this significant development? What about transport? Surely the north Kent region is congested enough. And what sort of environmental impact will this huge building programme have? Well, this month, I met up with the man in charge of ensuring that all projects adhere to strict environmental codes of practice and that sustainability remains at the top of the agenda.

Kent Thameside's environment project manager, Paul Williams, arrives late for our meeting. But he has very good reason. "I've just come away from another meeting which was all about a feasibility study that is under way for a centre for sustainable construction," he tells me excitedly.

"We want to see the centre located here in Kent Thameside as it would bring together laboratories to test new technologies, an academy for new skills, a demonstration centre. And we would like to see this linked to an enterprise park, which would allow for new businesses springing up to plug this gap in the market."

The feasibility study in question has attracted funding of more than £150,000 from the South-east England Development Agency (Seeda). "Clearly, with 25,000 houses being built here in the region, there is a very strong argument for locating it here," adds Williams.

Kent Thameside
Kent Thameside, set up in 2003, is a government-sponsored partnership comprising the three local authorities of the region - Dartford, Gravesham and Kent - English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation and Seeda. Meanwhile, the private sector is represented by site owner Land Securities and Countryside Properties (among others). Working with other delivery boards in the Thames Gateway (the Medway Renaissance Partnership, the London Urban Development Corporation and the Thurrock Urban Development Corporation included) development projects are coming to fruition all the time. So, what impact will all this new build have on the environment? Isn't the area at risk of flooding?

"We've undertaken a strategic flood risk assessment of the area. It is a major growth area and we are fully aware of the issues around water because parts of the area are in the Thames valley floodplain, and water supply is topical at the moment. We are proposing that the new housing coming forward adopts the highest environmental standards so that water and energy use is minimised."

The rationale for building
in this part of north Kent is that around 25% of the area is brownfield land. An international railway has also been built through the area (at Ebbsfleet) which will have a domestic link from 2009. "It will change from an area with a travel time of 55 minutes to London, to 17 minutes from Ebbsfleet to St. Pancras," says Williams.
But, despite the scepticism surrounding major housebuilding in the South-east, (particularly with the fear of continued drought), Williams is confident the area can sustain the development. Rather it is the transport issue that may cause problems.
"Clearly, there are issues around transport and road capacity. But we have the Fastrack system [a new public transport concept, which you can read more about on page 23] which will be an integral part of all new development."

Fortunately, plenty of the brownfield sites have not required heavy clean-up action. Instead of heavily contaminated soils, developers have been met with old chalk quarries at the initial construction stage.

"It's not like we were working on former gasworks, so by and large this hasn't been a major issue," Williams says.

Many of the sites earmarked for development are owned by the regional development agency. This means the housebuilders will have to adhere to government regulations when it comes to environmental standards and the Code for Sustainable Buildings will be prescribed.

But it's a different story on other privately owned sites. "We don't have control over those sites," adds Williams. "The Kent Design Guide, which has been adopted as supplementary planning guidance, sets downs various standards, but it's not regulation. It's a code that could be adopted. But we will certainly be encouraging the major developers to adopt the highest codes."

Following Kate Barker's report of 2004, there's no denying that we need more homes in this country. Whether the Thames Gateway is the best place to build a sizeable proportion of these dwellings is still up for debate. But Williams is confident that at least what is constructed will offer a lasting impression.

"It's clearly in our interests to ensure that that each development is completed and maintained to a very high standard."

What we have seen time and again is cost-effective construction taking place with little regard to the legacy of what has been created. Williams is keen to point out the environmental credentials will be of utmost importance in all new projects.

The Green Grid, a concept adopted throughout the region to link green spaces with each, will provide opportunity for people to get out of their cars and walk or cycle. It will go towards improving air quality, alleviate flooding, open up wildlife corridors and promote biodiversity. From what I have seen from various brochures and plans, Kent Thameside is playing a key role in ensuring the creation of truly sustainable communities.

www.kent-thameside.co.uk
If you want to know more about what is going on in the Thames Gateway, the third Thames Gateway Forum event, being held at London Excel on November 22-23, will provide all the answers. It will include a modular conference with 160 top-level speakers and more than 220 exhibitors. For more information visit www.
thamesgatewayforum.com

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