The cockney Siberia

The Thames Gateway development is the largest urban regeneration scheme ever attempted in Britain. I

Appendix 2, Figure A2.1 on page 98 of the delivery plan launched by Gordon Brown in September 2007 is called "Governance of the Thames Gateway". It is intended to encapsulate, in diagrammatic form, the structure that the government has devised to ensure the regeneration of an area that stretches 40 miles along both sides of the Thames Estuary, from Tower Hamlets in London to Southend in Essex and Sittingbourne in Kent.

The colour-coded diagram features a bewildering variety of government offices, inclu­ding the Thames Gateway Cross-Government Board, the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership and the Thames Gateway Executive. It attempts to illustrate, with a series of directional arrows, how these state organisations variously "influence, advise, direct or collaborate with" the equally bewildering number of agencies "tasked", in the government's language, with "delivering" the desired changes.

To those unschooled in the ways of government, it looks a mess.

Philip Cohen, formerly of the University of East London, is co-editor of London's Turning: the Making of Thames Gateway, published in 2008, which collects essays on aspects of the government's scheme. He calls it a "labyrinth": "You'll meet many lost souls wandering in those places." The Brentwood and Ongar constituency of the Conservative Party chairman, Eric Pickles, lies on the edge of the Gateway. He ought to be able to make sense of it if anyone can, yet he says the diagram is the Westminster version of a Sickert painting: "Look at it for long enough and you'll go mad."

Perhaps the complexity is not surprising. The Thames Gateway scheme, to develop the vast tracts of brownfield land that begin in east London and extend far beyond the city's borders, has been described as the largest urban regeneration project in the world. It is certainly the largest of its kind that has ever been attempted in the UK. "Not since the Great Fire of London will the capital city have been subject to such an enormous and concentrated process of change," writes Cohen in the introduction to London's Turning.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is in overall charge, but many other government departments, including those for health, education and transport, are also involved. The area covers 15 local authorities, home to some of the most deprived wards in England, and three regions of England. It is home to 1.6 million people at present, but planners believe it has the capacity to absorb half a million more: the government aims to create 160,000 new houses and 225,000 new jobs in the region by 2016, as well as the additional infrastructure, in the form of schools, hospitals and transport links, that will be required to support the communities emerging on the banks of the Thames.

There are six "strategic locations" - Stratford, Lower Lea and Royal Docks; London Riverside; Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich; Thurrock; Kent Thameside; and Medway - and five areas of "urban renewal" - Barking; Basildon; Erith; Sittingbourne and Swale; and Southend. There will be major investments in education, including two new universities in Southend and Medway, and £1.4bn has been allocated for new or improved hospital provision.

Even the government concedes that there is much to be done - as one of its recent "vision documents" notes, the Gateway consists of "rundown town centres, poor transport links and uninspiring business areas". Anyone who has driven down the blighted corridor of the A12, ushered eastwards by pylons and puddled wastelands, will have formed an even less favourable impression. The Guardian's architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has described it as "the cockney Siberia". Steven Norris calls it "the land that God forgot". Yet, as Ken Livingstone said in one of his last published documents as mayor of London, the city's economic centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, and the Thames Gateway is the place where London's "needs and opportunities meet".

Livingstone is not the first planner or politician to have noticed its potential. Already, the scheme to regenerate the Gateway is entering its third iteration. When it was conceived more than 20 years ago by Michael Heseltine and Peter Hall (professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London), the emphasis was on providing transport links to create a "linear city" extending along the banks of the Thames. Under John Prescott, the priority changed to affordable housing, but according to Philip Cohen, Thames Gateway Mk III is reverting to a form closer to the original prescription, with an emphasis on public works projects. He says it is hard to identify a coherent plan and yet even if there was one, the events of the past 18 months would have made it hard to realise. "It's all predicated on the assumption that private development is very profitable and that private developers will be prevailed upon to pay for the necessary infrastructure," says Michael Edwards, one of Hall's colleagues at the Bartlett.

Since 1990, developers on most major schemes have been required to contribute to the cost of roads, parks, schools, hospitals and social housing under a provision known as a Section 106 Agreement. "It worked tolerably well during the years of the long boom when profits were staggeringly high, but now the boom is over, it's not producing anything," says Edwards. The government plan was to spend £9bn in the Thames Gateway between 2008 and 2011, in the hope that its investment would attract £43bn of private-sector money in the next 20 years. Edwards believes such figures have become unrealistic. "What worries me is that the profitable bits will get done, but the infrastructure and the social equipment won't be provided. We shall just get great splurges of speculative housing and a few retail parks, and it will have very poor collective facilities. It could be awful - a very poor-quality experience for the people who live there."

Peter Andrews, chief executive of the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation - one of two such bodies that have been created to implement the government's plans - concedes that raising private-sector funds is proving "challenging". The LTGDC, which is responsible for regeneration projects in the five London boroughs that fall within the Gateway - Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham and Tower Hamlets - plans to invest £150m in capital projects by 2011: £120m in public funds is guaranteed, but it will have to raise £30m by selling land assets; the yield from assets has been cut from £117m due to the collapse in property prices. "Two years ago, nobody could have forecast what would happen," Andrews says. "The credit crunch is impacting, and if we were writing our corporate plan now, we would probably look at things differently."

In one sense, the financial crisis has worked to their advantage: the LTGDC was set up in 2004, but, unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation, it didn't have land "vested" in it - it had to buy it. With the downturn, people have become more realistic about values. "We're able to acquire greater areas for less money - what we can't do is put our hands on our hearts and say we'll be able to recycle that money very rapidly."

However, Andrews says the market will recover sooner or later. He believes it is important to maintain a long view: the LDDC was set up in a recession in the early 1980s, and survived another recession in the early 1990s before it began to see the "true fruits of its labours". "Regeneration is a long-term process - it does not happen overnight, and you have to accept that you will have to go through one or two economic cycles."

The LTGDC is based on the ninth floor of an office block in Marsh Wall, and Andrews's office windows look out towards Canary Wharf and the half-built towers of other Docklands developments. It is clear that he regards the Docklands as a benchmark for LTGDC's work. Other people see it as a cautionary tale. Critics say that the development of the Docklands forced out local people and destroyed established communities, and there are fears that the same thing will happen in the Gateway. In some places, it already has.

The government has identified the construction of the Olympic Park and the adjacent development at Stratford City in Newham, east London, as one of the "four locations for transformational economic growth" that will drive the regeneration process; but some residents, such as the photojournalist Mike Wells, believe it is only an elite that will benefit. "Regeneration is something that is done by one social class to another social class," he told me, when we walked round the site of the Olympic Park. "The social class that does the doing says it's being done for the benefit of the other social class, but I take issue with that. Basically, they're moving one lot of people out and moving another lot of people in - people of a different class and income bracket."

The Manor Garden Allotments, which used to lie between the banks of the River Lea and the Channelsea River, in the northern area of the Olympic Park, are the best-known casualty of the park, but there are many others. Wells used to live on an estate called Clays Lane that was home to 450 people. It was the UK's largest purpose-built housing co-operative, designed to address the lack of housing for "vulnerable single people", and it was erected in 1977 on top of an old landfill site called the West Ham Tip. Each of its 57 shared houses and 50 flats faced in to one of ten courtyards - an arrangement that generated a strong sense of community, and a strong loyalty to the estate among its residents. They were sufficiently well organised to force a public inquiry to recommend the compulsory purchase of the estate, but it was dismissed by a high court ruling in July 2007, and the estate has since been demolished.

The area it used to occupy, off Temple Mills Lane, lies within the Olympic Village, on the site of the Olympic Park, although even before the bid for the games was won Wells regarded it as an anomaly: "You had a lot of not very well-off people living on a scruffy estate next to this multibillion-pound development, and I couldn't see it lasting - at some point, they'd have got rid of it and built another yuppie block of flats there."

As a photojournalist, Wells has documented the progress of the Olympic Village, and as an activist, he makes the case against it. He now lives on a narrowboat on the River Lea or the Lea Navigation, and he regrets the destruction of the two and a half square miles of London that lie inside the infamous blue perimeter fence. "It was one of the most fascinating areas of the city," he says. "It combined the most beautiful elements with the ugliest. It was so diverse.

“You could see a congregation of 10,000 arriving at the Kingsway International Christian Centre while ravers were leaving the clubs on a Sunday morning. There was everything going on there - rough sleepers, artists, entrepreneurs and religious people. There were meat-processing plants and scrap metal dealers. And yet the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency make out that there was nothing there. It's quite bizarre."

After London won the bid to host the Olympics, LDA officials conducted a consultation process in which they asked local people what they wanted to see in the Olympic Park. When Wells looked down the list of amenities on offer, including "riverside walks" and "quiet areas", he realised that almost all of them were already available in the area: it seemed the ODA and LDA were planning to destroy what was there and then re-create it, at vast public expense. Wells identifies the travellers' caravans parked beneath the concrete bridges of the A12 and the Eastway as the boundary between the real world and the fantasy land of the Olym­pics, and he says the park's surreal nature is encapsulated in the specially commissioned logo that adorns the fence - it has been designed at great expense to look like a graffiti tag. The actual graffiti on bridges and underpasses tends to express local people's attitudes more succinctly. "Fuck the Olympics," says one. "The Olympics equals exploitation," says another.

Further south, two Victorian warehouses face one another across the still, dark water of the Lea Navigation - Queen's Yard is still intact, but King's Yard has been demolished. "In ten years' time, all you'll see will be flats like these," says Wells.

He gestures at the glass-and-steel buildings that have recently sprouted on Fish Island, where the LTGDC is developing "a comprehensive plan for new high-quality, mixed-use and industrial developments". In the distance, the towers of Canary Wharf rise above the jumble of buildings and flyovers that obscure the river's southward course.

To Wells, such schemes as the Olympics represent an extermination of history. "We'll lose our connection with the past, with our ancestors and with our built environment, and we'll leave people floating in soap-opera land."

Dr John Marriott, reader in history at the University of East London, who contributed a chapter about the industrial history of Thames Gateway to Philip Cohen's book, agrees that "historical amnesia" presents a threat to the validity of future developments. He rejects the conventional wisdom that the Industrial Revolution, in the words of the historian John Hammond, passed "like a storm cloud over London and broke elsewhere". Marriott points out that there were large industrial concerns in Havering, Barking and Dagenham, such as the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company and the Woolwich Arsenal, which employed 75,000 people during the First World War.

Almost all of them were swept away by the process of deindustrialisation that occurred throughout the UK in the 20th century with the loss of markets in various corners of the empire. Ford is cutting back on making cars at its Dagenham plant, though it remains one of the world's largest manufacturers of diesel engines. Tate & Lyle is the last major concern in the area around Silver Town and Canning Town, and Marriott says that significant industrial sites have also been lost around Stratford and the River Lea, bought by compulsory purchase as the site for the Olympic Village was assembled.

Yet Marriott believes that you cannot create sustainable communities unless you draw on the area's history. "It's not a 'tabula rasa', where nothing exists, or has ever existed," he says. Woolwich thrived as a community, because of the existence of the Royal Arsenal and Siemens Brothers, which manufactured submarine cable. "These were not places that provided just employment for their workers: they provided a huge range of facilities as well - entertainment, recreation and housing. Planners have to have due regard for these historical experiences. If they don't, very bad mistakes will be made and my fear is that we'll end up with the Docklands writ large, where the historical communities and the memory of those historical communities are obliterated."

He is concerned that the emphasis appears to be on providing housing, both private and social, to meet the metropolitan housing crisis, without sufficient thought to what the new residents of the Gateway will do for work and leisure. "We have been told the regeneration process will produce thousands of jobs for local people, but I just cannot see it happening." He warns that the provision of transport links, such as Crossrail, which will connect the residents of the Gateway with the financial centre of Canary Wharf, may prove counterproductive. "In a sense, the best thing that you can do is make them stay in the area - though if you're going to do that, you have to provide them with work. Otherwise, it will become a huge dormitory suburb for London, which will be a disaster. It will be dead. People will live and sleep there, but for their work and entertainment, they will go elsewhere."

Naturally, it will not be the old, large-scale industries that will provide employment if or when the regeneration of the Gateway comes about: planners will expect information technology, the so-called creative industries and "green-collar" jobs to fill the gap.

The LTGDC is developing a creative industries quarter in Barking, and it has recently appointed a development manager and a team of architects to help create what it has called a Sustainable Industries Park on a patch of derelict land by the river in Dagenham. It hopes to create "the UK's largest concentration of environmental industries and technologies" on a 25-hectare site enclosed by the A12 on one side, and the smokestacks and jetties of Dagenham Dock on the other.

At the moment, it seems a distant prospect. A row of decommissioned London buses, parked side by side in front of a sea of scrap metal, stands near the entrance to the SIP; vast pylons, which will dictate the height and location of new buildings, run through the middle of the site. When I walked round it, on a cold, wet morning, it seemed irredeemably bleak and inhospitable. And yet progress is being made. In autumn 2008, one of the first tenants of the SIP opened for business opposite the scrap metal depot. Closed Loop Recycling is the first business in the UK to recycle plastic bottles into food packaging material.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has said it wants the Thames Gateway to be "an eco-region", and in November 2008 it published a 47-point plan that attempts to define the term. In one sense, the need for environmental controls is clear - given that 42 per cent of the land in the Gateway has been reclaimed from the sea, flood protection is a priority, and in October 2009 the Environment Agency published a long-term flood risk management plan, Thames Estuary 2100. Within the Gateway, the government hopes to improve the environmental sustainability of all new developments and maintains that the area can become "an exemplar for the UK and other countries, helping to answer many of the big challenges of development for the coming century".

It is an admirable ambition. However, the exact details remain unclear, and Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth warns that old habits die hard. "We've had a hard time making sure that the regeneration plans don't result in the whole place being covered in concrete. It's a very rich area, and yet there is a danger that these sites are being picked off because someone wants to build another identikit office or warehouse."

He cites the case of West Thurrock Lagoon and Marshes as proof that the forces behind the Thames Gateway regeneration are still "stuck in the mindset of pouring concrete and turning it in hard landscaping". In the early 1990s, the power station that used to stand on the grazing marshes in south Essex was closed down and wildlife began to colonise the site. In the next 15 years it developed into one of the richest nature reserves in the country. Yet, in 2006, a planning application was submitted for a warehouse and lorry park, and in November 2008 Thurrock Development Corporation approved the plan. An organisation called Buglife led a three-year campaign to save the site, but in January 2009, the Court of Appeal concluded that the decision to build on the land was legal.

The planned development will destroy more than half of the site, including the flower-rich lands on which many of the insects depend, and many rare species will be lost from that area for ever. Buglife is equally concerned by the recent decision to develop a vast patch of land on the Isle of Grain, in Kent.

“We're in danger of denuding the Thames corridor of some of its most precious habitats," says de Zylva. "These are the kind of things which will be important to communities when the process is finished, and they'll have to try and re-create them when they're gone."

Had Havering Council run a more effective campaign, the newest reserve for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, at Rainham Marshes, might have met the same fate as West Thurrock Lagoon. Rainham is where London ends: the border between the London Borough of Havering and the Essex Borough of Thurrock runs through the middle of the marshes, and on a clear day you can see Canary Wharf and the London Eye on a bend on the river 16 miles away. Other man-made structures define its immediate borders: the raised carriageways of the A13 seal the northern edge of the reserve and the Channel Tunnel rail link marks its western limits.

There are bright red and yellow shells of trucks and trailers stacked in a wrecker's yard in Purfleet Industrial Estate beneath the arches of the flyover, and the marshes are dotted with shipping containers - emblems of the Gateway vernacular - that have been turned into hides and education centres. To the south, a high sea wall prevents the tidal estuary reclaiming the low-lying marshes, and to the west, the flats and houses of the old Garrison Estate on the edge of Purfleet rise behind the RSPB's new visitor centre: a sleek concrete box on stilts, encased in a feathered skin of brown and yellow planks.

Yet despite its precarious existence on Londons's industrialised fringes, the area is rich in wildlife. It is home to 10 per cent of the UK's population of water voles, to insects such as dragonflies, beetles and spiders and a rich array of birdlife, including knots, dunlins, redshanks, lapwings, ducks and geese. The Thames Estuary is part of the east Atlantic flyway, and so migrating birds pass through twice a year, en route from the Arctic to the north Atlantic and milder climates in the south.

The RSPB estimates that at any one time in the peak period of January and February, the Greater Thames Estuary between Canvey and Rainham is home to 200,000 birds - which rises to 300,000 if you extend the area to a line between Whitstable and Clacton. The birds are attracted to the mud that lies on both sides of the sea wall. It has been estimated that each square metre contains as much food energy as eight or nine Mars Bars. "Without this area, they don't have fuel and they don't get home," says Paul Outhwaite, the RSPB's communications manager for south-east England.

The site was finally reprieved in 2002, though the board inside the door of the visitor centre confirms it was a complicated process - it lists no fewer than 23 separate bodies that played a part in creating the reserve. "It's symbolic of what a mess it has become," says Eric Pickles, who is a keen birdwatcher and a frequent visitor to the site himself. "There were so many fingers in the pie and no one taking the big decisions. It's a beautiful reserve and a beautiful centre, but I can't help feeling it could have been a lot simpler if we'd all been a bit more rational about it." He wouldn't object if there were two or three organisations involved, he says, "But once you get into double figures, something has gone wrong."

Not all the proposed developments have met with opposition from environmental groups. Outhwaite says the RSPB has abandoned its "thou shalt not" approach and he commends the work of a firm called DP World, which plans to convert the former Shell refinery at Shell Haven into a port called London Gateway - the largest container port in Europe. Shell Haven Refinery, which stopped production in 1999, occupies one of the largest brownfield sites in the UK, with two miles of river frontage and 1,500 acres. DP World plans to expand it by reclaiming yet more land from the Thames.

The port is another of the government's four areas of "transformational economic growth" - the other three being the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and the Ebbsfleet Valley, the proposed location for Mark Wallinger's 50-metre-high sculpture of a white horse. DP World says it will create 12,000 jobs in the short term and 36,000 in total. The company suspended the project last year during a "global business review" prompted by the economic crisis that struck Dubai, but on 5 January this year, the Prime Minister visited the site to mark the start of construction. Outhwaite is pleased that it is going ahead. He says it is a good example of the way the Gateway should work.

The package of measures designed to compensate for the habitats that will be lost in creating the port includes plans to establish two new areas of tidal mudflats - one in Essex, near the port, and one in Kent, on the other side of the Estuary - by making breaches in the sea wall. "If you're going to break the cycle of self-reinforcing environmental blight, then you have to have quality development in a natural environment that makes the most of what you've got in terms of open space and wildlife."

The task of integrating the various elements of the existing landscape has been entrusted to the architect Terry Farrell, whose international practice is responsible for Thames Gateway Parklands Vision, one of the many glossy documents the scheme has produced. In practice, the vision consists of such commonsensical ideas as a continuous estuary path, new river crossings and a green grid of bridleways, footpaths and cycle routes. The RSPB is developing other sites in north Kent and south Essex, and the LTGDC is attempting to develop its own green grid by opening up the southern portion of Rainham Marshes in phases before 2023.

The resulting amenity, which the corporation is planning to call Wildspace, will be the biggest public park to be created in London for over a century - 645 hec­tares, or twice the size of Hampstead Heath. Ultimately, Farrell hopes to develop it into a "new kind of national park", which will run from the mouth of the Thames to the limit of the tide at Teddington, in Middlesex, leaving 60 per cent of the land on both sides of the river untouched.

Peter Andrews says the LTGDC had a number of conversations with Farrell, but these didn't add much to the corporation's plans: "I don't want to sound arrogant about it, but we'd already got ours pretty well worked through, and I don't think Terry has changed what we have to do in any way. The greater concern was areas outside London that weren't so well thought through. You're trying to improve people's lives, whether through trying to create jobs or better housing, and inevitably it is very complex."

He was disappointed when the plan for the Thames Gateway road bridge, which would have connected Beckton and Thamesmead, was cancelled in 2008. "Maybe it's a British disease: it was in the Abercrombie report in 1943 and we're still talking about it." Andrews argues that strong political leadership is essential, and cites Michael Heseltine's commitment to the Docklands as an example.

In the short existence of the LTGDC, Andrews has already worked with four secretaries of state and half a dozen ministers. Continuity is hard to come by, though the Conservatives insist they would not cancel the scheme if they were to come to power, as developers are already committing funds in difficult circumstances.

In fact, Pickles's successor as Tory shadow secretary for communities and local government, Caroline Spelman, says that the scheme is more important than ever, because it can be used to maintain a skills base in the housing industry and provide a stimulus as the country begins to emerge from recession. She would institute an audit to ensure the money was being spent properly, and offset the growing sense that the scheme is what Pickles calls "a Whitehall farce". They want to change the perception that it is dominated by planners who insist on putting up "little ticky-tacky boxes, without regard for the people who live there".

In a sense, such prescriptions are bound to be self-defeating: it is hard to remove one set of hands from the tiller without replacing them with another, equally deadening set of hands, and there are some who believe that all planners and politicians and their glossy brochures have become a hindrance to development.

“I think it's sometimes the people on the ground who have the real vision," says the RSPB's de Zylva. "So much attention and effort and money goes into these grand documents, but the people in the local communities know what they need and they don't need another high-profile architect or urban visionary to tell them. We go from one 'visioning process' to another and you're never quite sure what's going to come out of it at the end." His advice for everyone involved in the regeneration process is simple: "Listen to what people want and then give them a chance to express it."

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman.