Thames Gateway

– in the House of Commons at 10:10 pm on 21st July 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford 10:50 pm, 21st July 1999

The Thames riverside to the east of London, beyond docklands, includes parts of Barking, Dagenham, Havering and Thurrock on the north bank, and Greenwich, Bexley and Dartford on the south bank. That is the London Thames gateway.

The area provides one third of all London's jobs—some 900,000—and includes the largest concentration of manufacturing firms in London. A high proportion of local residents—about 60 per cent.—work locally. Major areas of land, amounting to 2,000 hectares, are available for industrial, commercial and residential development. Potentially, it is the greatest area of opportunity within Greater London today.

At each end of the area, major investments are being made in projects of regional and national significance. To the west is the London docklands, including the millennium exhibition site, the dome, which will be served by the Jubilee line extension and an extended docklands light railway. To the east, the first phase of the channel tunnel rail link will end at Ebbsfleet, linking the area quickly and easily with the continent. In addition, two major retail centres have opened—at Lakeside on the north bank and at Bluewater on the south bank—which serve both London and the south-east region generally.

When I look at the potential opportunity, I have a sense of having been here before. In the 1970s, I was privileged to be the first head of the London Docklands development corporation, and was responsible for establishing the organisation, for drawing up the development strategy and for initiating some of the earlier infrastructure. It was the largest area of urban development in the world at that time.

Today, I have the great privilege to represent in Parliament a constituency that is central to a similar major opportunity of national significance in the Thames gateway. The comparison between the London docklands development and the potential of London's Thames gateway is both exhilarating and sobering. It is sobering because many of the obstacles that stand in the way of realising the potential of the Thames gateway are the same as have bedevilled progress in docklands. The political climate of the 1970s made progress in development dependent on huge public sector investments. The economic austerity of the time prevented the Government from making those necessary investments to any great extent, and private investors were then reluctant to make parallel commitments.

The political climate then swung to the other extreme with the change of Government, so that the development was seen as being promoted almost entirely by market forces. However, the transport infrastructure of the area was totally inadequate. An early extension of the Jubilee line through the area was regarded as a prerequisite of private investment throughout the area. The Jubilee line, however, could not be financed through private investment.

The result was that private investors cherry-picked the areas around Wapping and the Surrey docks, while the potential of huge areas downstream was not realised.

Canary Wharf progressed only when the Government became committed to putting in the docklands light railway, and now the Jubilee line. The Greenwich peninsula remained derelict until the millennium dome came along, and the Jubilee line will arrive, there 20 years late, to accompany it.

The point of that analysis is not recrimination. It is to learn lessons, so that we do not repeat earlier mistakes downstream. A major lesson to be learned is that progress does not have to depend on comprehensive public investment in the style of the new towns. Equally, market forces alone will not progress development. There genuinely is a third way, which depends on a firm commitment to public funding to improve transport infrastructure, accessibility and the environment. That will, in turn, provide a favourable basis for essential private investment.

That strategy depends utterly on a firm commitment to spending on infrastructure, either through direct investment, PFI schemes or guarantees to limit the risk of the private investor. A fragmented, haphazard approach to public investment dependent on the state of finance in individual local authorities or public bodies will not generate confidence.

The problems of transport, accessibility and the environment for the Thames gateway area of London are similar to those in the docklands. The river and the relative absence of river crossings in that area, as compared with the equivalent area upstream of Tower bridge, are a major inhibition to the economic development of the area. A recent study by the Government office for London stressed that point, as has every study over the past 20 years, going back to the docklands strategy in the 1970s.

The effect of the river barrier has been to limit the scope of companies to recruit over a wide area, or to move their goods and services to other parts of London. Residents of the riverside wards in Greenwich and Bexley cannot travel easily to job opportunities elsewhere in London, so unemployment there is well above the London average: it is 10.5 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent.

Environmental objections must not become a veto on enhanced river crossing capacity, or these problems will deepen as the environmental benefit for some blights the economic welfare of many others. A balance between environmental and economic interests must be achieved.

On the south bank of the river in Greenwich and Bexley, the scope for moving goods westward towards the Blackwall tunnel or eastwards towards the M25 and Dover is limited by constrictions and consequential congestion on the road network. Likewise, the limitations of east-west public transport add to road congestion, as employees coming into the area or travelling to jobs elsewhere in the Thames gateway have no alternative but to use their cars.

The recently published study of new crossings sponsored by the Government office for London has made proposals to tackle the deficiency of river crossing capacity in east London. The solution, for which the economic benefit is assessed as double the cost, is to provide a third crossing at the Blackwall tunnel, a bridge over the Thames at Galleons reach for local traffic and a busway, and a rail tunnel at Woolwich capable of taking six trains an hour in each direction between Ebbsfleet, the channel tunnel rail link phase one terminus, and Stratford on the north bank of the river, passing through Bexley and Greenwich and called the Thames gateway metro.

This transport concept also involves introducing and harmonising toll charges between the Blackwall tunnel, the new Thames bridge and the Dartford river crossing. Taken together, this package of three measures could contribute to the regeneration of Greenwich-Bexley Thameside, and deflect passengers to public transport instead of their travelling by car.

Any two elements of the package could be privately financed without public sector support. The third element, which is vital to realising the full impact, would require public funding of about £25 million. That package would not only alleviate the present lack of river crossings, but provide east-west public transport through Greenwich and Bexley by way of the Thames gateway metro between Ebbsfleet and Stratford north of the river, and by way of the bus link over the Thames bridge and along the south Thames development route.

The south Thames development route consists of a combination of the roads A206 and A2016, which are dual carriageway most of the way between Woolwich and the M25, and then goes on to Gillingham. According to the answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Government have invested some £40 million in the route between Woolwich and the M25 in the last 10 years. That reflects the importance of the route for commercial transport into and out of the industrial areas on the south bank of the Thames.

There is just one snag in this grand design—the 1.7 km of the south Thames development route that passes through Crayford, in my constituency. It is still single carriageway, and a major source of congestion. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) and I are regularly lobbied by employers and residents about the slow-moving queues that are adding to their costs. A local conference produced many stories from industrial development agents who had abandoned the idea of locating in the area for that reason alone. I have a list of 50 major employers who have said that they are adversely affected by congestion on this stretch of road.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), then Minister of Transport, presented his road review to the House in July last year, he agreed that high priority should go to schemes under which an unimproved stretch of road prevents full realisation of the true value of earlier road investment. I doubt whether the Minister could find a better exemplification of that principle than Thames road, Crayford, the 1.7 km stretch of the south Thames development route to which I have referred.

Although the London borough of Bexley put the project at the top of its priority list, the present understanding is that it may be seven to 10 years before the problem is resolved. What is the point of so much earlier investment, if the true benefit is to be delayed for such a protracted period?

I am grateful to the Minister for letting me know of the river crossing proposals to which I have referred. I welcome the intention to safeguard a third Blackwall crossing, and to provide an alignment of the Thames gateway bridge with the Woolwich rail tunnel; but I am dismayed by indications that the Government will now delay progress until the mayor of London and the Greater London Authority are in place.

In a letter written last July, the Minister said that she firmly believed that the whole issue should be left until the Greater London Authority could form a view on it, but there is always some such reason why the time is not ripe. No doubt the Greater London Authority will demand a year or two, or more, to settle in, which probably puts a decision three or more years away.

Timing is important in matters such as this. It is bad government that causes people to await the convenience of the governors. All public and private-sector partners in both the Thames gateway London partnership and the Bexley Thameside partnership have written to the Minister to confirm their need for work on the proposals now.

There have been two undesirable features of this country's planning and urban development arrangements. The first is a mañana mentality, leading to institutionalised procrastination. The second—despite the good intentions of planners—is a piecemeal approach to opportunities when success demands concurrent action on several fronts.

The Thames gateway in London offers an opportunity for urban regeneration, which depends on public action on transport, public services and the environment, and on commercial action to provide jobs, housing and many other features of life in the 21st century. At present, general good intentions are expressed by public authorities and there are outline plans for a river crossing and east-west public transport. We have no idea when any of that will come about. All the signs are that the Blackwall tunnel's third crossing, the rail tunnel at Woolwich, the metro line, the bridge at Galleons reach and work on Thames road, Crayford will be handled by different public authorities, piecemeal and without any concerted timetable.

It may be that, for financial reasons, the timetable for infrastructure projects will be longer than many people would like, but any timetable that expressed a commitment that investors could believe in would be better than a "this year, next year, some time, never" approach. I ask the Minister to recognise that a piecemeal, project-by-project approach to regenerate the Thames gateway in London, with no commitment to a target date for completion, will fail. It will not give private investors sufficient confidence in the future of the area for them to make commitments.

Conversely, my appeal is for a concerted programme of infrastructure projects such as I have outlined to be drawn up with firm commitments to finance and timing. Work on the programme could be started now and presented to the mayor and Greater London Authority for ratification, or amendment on completion. There is no reason why the mayor and the authority should be an excuse for delay. Nor are the amounts of public money that are needed large.

Above all, let those projects be looked at as a package contributing to the economic regeneration of the area. Let them not be seen narrowly as isolated road, rail or tunnelling schemes. Success in realising the true potential of the Thames gateway in London depends on joined-up government delivering joined-up action on time.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 11:07 pm, 21st July 1999

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) on obtaining the Adjournment debate and on affording the House the opportunity to consider the issue. The House has been particularly fortunate because he has such direct experience of both the area and the issues inherent within Thames gateway.

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government actively support Thames gateway as a priority regeneration corridor. The sub-region's potential for growth and investment is widely recognised.

Thames gateway can boast a number of particularly important development schemes, where much needed investment on brown-field sites is delivering key London facilities and much needed new resources. At the royal docks, a new exhibition and conference centre is under construction. A new university campus is to open in September.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Greenwich peninsula is the home not only of the dome, but of the millennium village. It is the site of a major public transport interchange, including North Greenwich station, which is part of the Jubilee line extension, and a major bus interchange. The pier at the dome will enable river buses to serve what was formerly the site of a gas works.

Greenwich peninsula is now a site of national importance, representing significant Government commitment to the sub-region. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Jubilee line extension is already serving the peninsula.

There are many other examples of real activity in Thames gateway. Together, they are creating momentum to bring about lasting change, but we acknowledge that more is yet to be done. Barriers to development still exist. Contamination on sites, weak infrastructure and excluded communities remain. However, the Government are committed to ensuring continued change, both in physical and social terms, for the benefit of London, local communities and the wider sub-region.

On 15 July, there were two important announcements for Thames gateway. The single regeneration budget, SRB5, has brought significant new funding to the region. At least £33 million has been allocated for SRB5 projects within the primary Thames gateway regeneration areas—a real injection of funding to ensure that the benefits of new investment are realised in both the short and long terms.

The proposed assisted area map provided further good news, retaining Thames gateway wards within the eligible areas to apply for regional selective assistance. That will create and safeguard jobs, attract inward investment and contribute to regional competitiveness.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, transport improvements play a key role in the regeneration of Thames gateway. An extensive programme of improvements is under way to enable strategic accessibility to the area and to sites of potential major development. That will make Thames gateway a source of employment and a more effective competitor for business.

Phase 1 of the channel tunnel rail link is now under way. I am sure that hon. Members will recall that the positive regeneration impact of the link was a fundamental consideration in securing the project. It will consolidate the area's role as the gateway to Europe for London and the United Kingdom, and it will provide a new economic role for the area on which to build future development growth.

The first phase of the Jubilee line extension is already open, as I have said. Phases 2 and 3 will follow in the summer and in the autumn. The new docklands light railway extension to Lewisham is due to be in service shortly, and planned further extensions to the DLR will include access to City airport. An extensive bus network, providing high-quality public transport north and south of the river, is being explored by London Transport, in conjunction with local boroughs. As I have said, under this Government the River Thames is being brought into play as part of the capital's transport network.

The new stretch of the A13 has been opened, linking Dagenham to the M25. Also, the go-ahead has been given to the design, build, finance and operate plans for the A13, as part of the trunk roads programme. Collectively, these projects represent a major investment by the Government in providing Thames gateway with the integrated transport system that it requires to achieve its economic and regeneration goals.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

When does the Minister expect that the Stratford interchange of the channel tunnel rail link will be ready? The link will benefit not only the Thames gateway, but the whole of Essex and East Anglia.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the first phase of the channel tunnel rail link is on time and on budget. The requirement is that for the whole line to be built, so I cannot give a specific date for the completion of the Stratford interchange. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no doubt that it will be completed.

The Government have also taken the lead in exploring the scope for developing additional crossings across the River Thames, east of the Blackwall tunnel, to assist still further with the regeneration objective. We are aware of the strong interest among local communities in securing additional crossings, and of the importance of accessibility in opening up new business, employment and leisure markets in the area. That is why we made reference to the potential value of an integrated package of new crossings in our integrated transport White Paper, published last year.

A package of crossings has been developed, based on the appraisal of a number of different options against a specially commissioned appraisal framework. The Government have decided that the responsibility for determining the form of a crossings package should lie with the new mayor of London.

The mayor has regeneration, transport and planning responsibilities for London and will be in the ideal position to assess the most suitable integrated outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford stressed the importance of adopting a comprehensive approach to the programme and of avoiding a fragmented approach, with different crossings subject to separate and piecemeal proposals. It was precisely to facilitate an integrated approach, both to the planning and funding of the final strategy, that the decision was taken.

To enable the mayor to reach a decision on the future of the crossings as quickly as possible, further development work is being co-ordinated. The Government have safeguarded the most promising alignment for each crossing. London First is exploring, with private sector partners, the scope for its participation in the programme. London Transport, together with docklands light railway and Railtrack, is examining the feasibility of a DLR-based crossing to Woolwich. English Partnerships has undertaken a study of the regeneration implications and benefits of the crossings package. It is now considering the appointment of a project manager to orchestrate the work appropriate to this interim period.

I trust that it is clear, therefore, that the project continues to be taken forward in a sensible and practical way, which matches current circumstances. I am sorry that our decision has caused my hon. Friend dismay, but it is important that decisions taken now do not pre-empt the mayor's choice, either in the final form of the crossings or the financial structures put in place to secure them. I am certain that the approach adopted by the Government will achieve the most satisfactory and secure outcome to this important but complex issue.

My hon. Friend focused on a short section of Thames road, which he has highlighted as the only single carriageway section of the south Thames development route in Bexley. He also referred to the findings of a recently published study sponsored by the Government office for London. The south Thames development route could play an important role in any strategy which arises from this study. Certainly that could lead to improved public transport links on this section of Thames gateway.

I understand that the London borough of Bexley is keen to develop the case for this road scheme in its interim transport plan. In the event, it would certainly wish to focus on the regeneration benefits for Thames gateway and any potential contribution to improved transport integration. However, my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be wrong of me to go further than that in prejudging the merits, or otherwise, of the Bexley interim transport plan.

As I said in my opening remarks, the House has been privileged to hear the wealth of detail, stemming from direct experience, which my hon. Friend brought to this evening's debate. He detailed the overwhelming importance of the development of the Thames gateway, not only economically and environmentally, but socially. I reassure him that the Government share his appreciation of the importance of Thames gateway.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Eleven o'clock.