Will a magic wand lure people to the eastern gateway?
Thursday 31 July 2003
Go east, young couples. That's John Prescott's message for house-hunters working in or around London. The number of first-time buyers is at the lowest level, nationally, for 20 years. People can't raise the deposit, especially if they need a house in the South-east. Now the Deputy Prime Minister reckons he's loosened this Gordian knot. Yesterday he announced plans for thousands of new houses in Essex and north Kent.
Undeniably, if you want to get London's house prices down, you must increase the supply. But is this the right plan in the right place? The terrain Mr Prescott is focusing on was given the PR name Thames Gateway. The Millennium Dome was intended as a Thames Gateway landmark. Enough said. The high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link was seen as the Gateway's great transport link. It is now burrowing its way along, at vast cost.
This demonstrates how hard it is to wave a magic wand, and push urban change where you'd like it to go. There's plenty of empty land in Essex and North Kent. But are these proposed houses really going to be where they're most needed? Already Thames Gateway includes the GLC's town of Thamesmead built in the Sixties, which has been an unmitigated disaster (Stanley Kubrick shot some of the grimmest bits of A Clockwork Orange here). It's a warning.
The fact is that the greatest pent-up demand for housing is west of London, not east. It always has been.
Some of the criticism of the new schemes will be aesthetic. The developers mainly propose traditional suburban houses, with pitched roofs and carports. But such criticisms are the least serious. Developers know that these are the homes people want.
Other critics will say these houses should be built in the North, backed by elaborate schemes to force industry (what there is of it) and assorted services away from the South-east.
This is wishful thinking. The long saga of regional development plans proves that it's a short-term gimmick to bribe and coerce firms into setting up where they don't want to go. When a cold wind blows, or when the government bribes are spent, the factories, assembly plants or call centres will fold.
The Government has got one thing right. London and the South-east are the motors of the economy. The jobs are there. So, increasingly, are the people, either through the workings of the birth rate or through migration (both from abroad and from within Britain). That is the truth that has to be confronted. But, socially, the Government's answer is off target.
Paul Barker is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Community Studies
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