There is no silver bullet to treble housebuilding. But one new policy which would make a big difference is the creation of new towns in and around Greater London, as it did when housing was last a crisis in the decades after 1945. Stevenage, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Crawley and Milton Keynes are among the post-war “new” towns. Between them, they today serve a population of 1.5m around London.
The challenge is to get started, and to do so with the broadest possible consensus. The identification of the first of “wider” London’s new towns is critical, and it needs to happen soon.
An excellent candidate for the first new town is Ebbsfleet. It is a large brownfield area – a series of disused quarries – just 20 miles east of central London. It adjoins Swanscombe on the Kent side of the Dartford Crossing, and is also served by a new rail station only 18 minutes on the high-speed line from St Pancras.
There is planning permission at Ebbsfleet for more than 10,000 new homes, and the area has significant wider regeneration potential – including bold plans for a theme park on the Swanscombe peninsular itself. Yet nearly a decade after the scheme was agreed, few of the houses have been built; and they are unlikely to be within the foreseeable future unless a public authority with dedicated powers takes charge of sorting out the local roads, schools and amenities.
The Docklands Development Corporation, which created today’s Canary Wharf, is the kind of new public authority required. It would work closely with the three local councils which cover the area, reconciling different interests without endless delay. Crucially, it would be given powers to install infrastructure and direct housebuilding, recouping the cost from a share of the value of home sales and business developments.
The proposal for a Paramount theme park is on an adjoining brownfield site: the ruins of a cement works at an otherwise stunning Thames-side location. The 880-acre, £2bn theme park would be easily the largest in the UK and could credibly rival Disneyland Paris. It could create 25,000 jobs.
Its chances of advancing rapidly would be enhanced if it, too, were part of a wider Ebbsfleet new town – much as Disneyland Paris is part of Marne La Valee. Disneyland Paris now attracts 15m visitors a year, almost as many as its counterparts in Florida and California. When it opened 22 years ago, consideration was given to locating it in the south east of England. But lack of commitment from the then government to provide the necessary infrastructure killed the idea.
In retrospect, this looks like another example of unimaginative British short-termism. And it is another reason why Ebbsfleet New Town is perhaps an idea whose time has come.
Lord Adonis was transport secretary in the last government. This is an extract from Go East: Unlocking the potential of the Thames Estuary, published by Centre for London.