Economic magnet in Kent

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The Independent Online
EBBSFLEET, a pockmarked area of land in north-west Kent, could become a magnet for economic activity as powerful as Heathrow Airport. That, at least, is what its promoters hope when they build a small town there that will include the biggest shopping centre in Britain.

Last week, the Government approved the site, on the banks of the Thames between Dartford and Gravesend, as the location of the only intermediate station on the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel tunnel. It was a great boost for Blue Circle, which hopes to turn 2,500 acres of derelict land - which it used to quarry for chalk - into a substantial 'Euro City'. The City saw how lucky the group was, and marked its shares up by 12p to 322p.

As part of the lobbying exercise to persuade the Government to site the station at Ebbsfleet, Blue Circle has commissioned studies to demonstrate the potential economic impact on the region. These show that Ebbsfleet could sustain 70,000 jobs and 43,000 houses, to be built over the next 30 years. Bridget Rosewell, managing director of Business Strategies, says a more realistic job creation figure is 45,000.

But she believes the station, which will start operating when the high-speed rail link is opened early next century, could have a startling effect on a region that has increasingly become a dormitory area for London. 'Heathrow provided a focus that brought in a whole lot of new activities to that area,' she said. 'The Ebbsfleet site is big enough to provide a serious counterweight to Heathrow. It will encourage people to look east of London as well as west.'

Blue Circle, which is also a member of one of the consortia bidding to build the high-speed link, is working with Kent County Council to work out the shape of the new town. Mark Pennington, the project director, says no definite plans have been drawn up, but that he believes it will be 'unique, in the best possible way'. He said Blue Circle would approach banks and other developers, but not for some years.