Thames Gateway hinges on a vision

A vast slab of the South-East is about to undergo a radical transformation. Dubbed the Thames Gateway, 120,000 new homes are to be created across a 311 square mile area that meanders from the eastern fringe of London to the Kent and Essex coasts.

Nine regional bodies have been set up to deliver the programme, which promises to create 180,000 jobs. The London Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC), the highest profile of these, has perhaps the most difficult task, presiding over the economically deprived area of Thames Riverside and the Lea Valley.

To smooth the process of implementing the project, which will inevitably involve ruffling a few local feathers, it has just hired Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster (PRWeek, 20 January). The LTGDC is expected to ramp up announcements – hitherto thin on the ground –concerning plans for development, and part of the agency's role is to entice businesses and residents. It promises to be a tough task, given that there is  little to show but vague artistic impressions.

Looking to the future
'There will be no tangible benefit for years,' admits Connect Public Affairs deputy MD Emily Wallace, who represents the Thames Gateway London Partnership, a lobby group of businesses and public bodies. 'Instead one has to communicate the future and that
advances are being made.'

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister press officer Katie Fisher says attracting investment will be about promoting a vision. 'We aren't going to get media coverage for what has been achieved so far because it's hard to illustrate,' she says. 'If one small project has been completed it's not important to the national press. They want to know when 100,000 houses are being built and where.'

But small developments, such as the improvement of a playground or school, can be beneficial on a local scale. It is here that PR campaigns can convince residents – some of whom will receive compulsory purchase orders – to remain in the region when the bulldozers move in. 'We have to demonstrate that local character will not be lost during development and that the upheaval will be worth it in the end,' says Biss Lancaster MD Belinda Taylor.

Character, Taylor argues, is fundamental to the message. But the PR team cannot point to past successes – residents do not want a repeat of the harsh developments of the 1960s and 70s. And the post-war 'new towns' of Milton Keynes and Bracknell have not hit the heights of desirability planners said they would. Biss Lancaster will have to look abroad for comparisons.

'We'll use Barcelona and Lille as examples,' says Taylor. 'Parts of Barcelona were very ugly before its makeover, now it's hugely impressive.'  Lille, meanwhile, has become France's fourth-largest city, largely as result of increased investment on the back of the Eurostar's arrival.

Biss Lancaster will focus its efforts on 'sustainable development', arguing that regeneration will leave a positive legacy. Taylor says it will run workshops and forums to keep residents and interested parties informed, as well as try to keep the press onside.

But the Thames Gateway is already under pressure. Last week consultancy Hornagold & Hills completed a survey of 100 'stakeholders', who criticised the direction of the project and the
role of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as its figurehead. They said vision and communication were vital to the scheme's success – elements that have proved difficult due to the sheer scale of the project.

'There are too many organisations involved,' says Regeneration and Renewal reporter Joey Gardiner. 'Part of the LTGDC's job is to make sure people know what it is there for, but it's not doing this very well.'

Indeed, alongside the LTGDC are organisations set up to oversee preparation for the London 2012 Olympic Games, as well as the London Development Agency, six councils and English Partnerships – all understandably eager to promote their opinions.

And outside parties are also battling for share of voice. Last week, for instance, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) made more than 100 recommendations on how the area could be redeveloped.

Fresh start
'It's a challenge to change public opinion of how to accommodate
families in high-density areas,' says CPRE Thames Gateway project manager Nigel Kersey. 'They don't want densely packed housing. But it works in Notting Hill, and it needs to be sold on that basis.'

He adds that the focus needs to be on young families. 'PR initiatives will have to target them,' he suggests. 'If you don't attract them, no one stays, and there is no development.'

Biss Lancaster does have an ace up its sleeve, though. In 2012, four years from the project's scheduled completion, the Olympics arrive.
'The Olympics should be a catalyst,' says Kersey. 'If you can tie Olympic coverage in with regeneration of the area, it's a powerful message.'

But the task is huge. The public seem to be aware that development is occurring in east London, but are largely ignorant of its scale. And many certainly do not want to be part of it. As R&R's  Gardiner says: 'Broadly speaking the project is supported. But that area of London is where you go when you can't live anywhere else.'

Who is responsible?
There are nine organisations in the Thames Gateway area charged with creating jobs and housing as part of the Sustainable Communities Plan:

Basildon Renaissance Partnership 
Renaissance Southend 
Swale Forward
Medway Renaissance Partnership
Kent Thameside Delivery Board
Bexley Partnership
Greenwich Partnership
LTG Development Corporation
Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation

All nine delivery organisations carry broadly the same powers. The LTG Development Corporation describes its role as follows:

Acquire, hold, manage, reclaim and dispose of land and other property

Carry out building and other operations n Ensure the provision of water, electricity, gas, sewage and other services

Provide funding to organisations whose activities meet our objectives

Undertake any appropriate activity which may underpin the regeneration of the area

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