Howard abandons grand vision of 'linear city': A task force of civil servants will prepare plans for the Thames estuary. Nicholas Schoon reports

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MICHAEL HOWARD, the Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday dashed hopes for massive Government-promoted development along the north and south banks of the Thames estuary. The proposal had been pushed by his predecessor Michael Heseltine.

The Government now believes it is 'unrealistic' to expect private developers or the public sector to invest large sums of money 'at this stage'. It envisages only a moderate level of growth in the corridor, stretching from Greenwich and Stratford in London to Tilbury, Essex, and the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

His announcement coincided with his publication of planning guidance for the entire South-east region. The draft guidance provides a backdrop for all planning decisions on industrial, housing and transport projects up to 2011. The most controversial part is that 855,000 new homes should be built by 2006. Planning laws give the Secretary of State the ultimate sanction of imposing the level of housing in the strategic plans of each county council. His position at the head of the planning application process also gives him power in allowing the goal to be met.

By announcing a task force of civil servants for outline planning of the East Thames Corridor, Mr Howard is keeping the underlying ideas alive but abandoning the grand vision.

He accepts that the corridor, its huge derelict sites, poor environment and unemployment blackspots, needs reviving. He also hopes that there is potential for major development which could take growth pressure off west London and shire counties.

But achieving this may require hundreds of millions of pounds of pump-priming investment by the Government, to clean up contaminated land, waste dumps and abandoned quarries. About a fifth of the suitable land is contaminated.

Planners have long talked about the corridor's wasted potential but it was a speech two years ago by Professor Peter Hall, adviser to the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine, that captured politicians' and journalists' imaginations. He spoke of a 'huge linear city' along the Thames unfolding over 50 years, becoming the 'gateway to Europe'.

But at a press conference yesterday Mr Howard rejected the term 'linear city' or any other planning blueprint.

The Whitehall task force will liaise with planners in 16 district and county councils and with local business and other government bodies to draw up a planning document.

David Hall, director of the Town and Country Planning Association, said: 'The Government's approach to the corridor can only mean it will have a very slow start.' But the leader of Dartford Borough Council, which is in the heart of the area in north Kent, welcomed Mr Howard's announcement. Kenneth Leadbeater, a Conservative, said: 'At long last we can see some of our dreams coming to fruition. This idea is going to fly now - it has official sanction.'

A government-commissioned report by the consultants Llewelyn Davies concluded that the corridor attracted the kind of 'soft-option' development which could cause further blight and damaged development prospects. The area already has several large power stations, and there are proposals for two huge municipal garbage incinerators and another gas- fired power station. The Government has recently approved plans for two large sewage sludge incinerators.

The report found that an overall strategy was needed and that as much as pounds 2bn could be spent on transport projects, environmental improvements and clean-ups in order to achieve rapid growth. Mr Howard said more than pounds 4bn was earmarked for road and rail projects serving the corridor.

The London green belt runs through the middle of the corridor. In the eastern half there are large areas of mudflats and marsh designated for protection by European Community and British law because tens of thousands of migratory birds use them. Mr Howard said these would remain protected. Yesterday he also announced changes to Hampshire County Council's strategic plan covering the period up to 2001. He increased the figure for the number of houses to be built by 6,000 but ruled out any new towns. Eagle Star has proposed building a town of 5,000 homes in countryside at Micheldever, between Basingstoke and Winchester.