Sir Terry Farrell’s vision for the Thames Gateway, which is largely accepted by David Miliband, is exactly what we should avoid. Instead, we should look to the East

With support from people such as Eric Sorensen, the chief executive of the Thames Gateway London partnership, Sir Terry Farrell appears to have succeeded in his masterplan to render the Thames Gateway as picturesque “green infrastructure”. He first argued for this in December 2003, supported by Demos, The Campaign to Protect Rural England and English Heritage. His idea is that beyond the Olympics in 2012, nobody needs build much along the estuary. Most of the 120,000 homes planned to 2016 can be developed from Stratford to Thamesmead, or by adding to settlements like Basildon, Southend, and the Medway towns.

Farrell found significant support for his views at the Thames Gateway Forum on 23 and 24 November. The 80,000 ha “growth area”, designated by John Prescott in July 2003, might become a vast park for Londoners, containing the 600,000 households who live there already and adding only 12,000 a year to their number over the next decade.

That low level of growth is the reason that Farrell is succeeding. While the growth area is large enough to double the size of Greater London, the scale of the development planned is not exactly a megacity. Fears of a Shanghai-on-Thames are misplaced.

Prescott announced on 31 March this year that “we have a unique opportunity – now and for future generations”. The Thames Gateway Strategy, with £6bn of public investment, would “… create sustainable communities, stimulate economic development, deliver sustainable homes, enhance the local environment, and restore historic town centres”.

Farrell rightly appreciates that Prescott can afford to do little more than at the margins of existing development. The prime minister’s ambitions extend only to “… transforming the lives of thousands of people by providing a high quality environment, better access to education, new job opportunities and the decent homes needed to keep communities strong and together”. Tony Blair talks about thousands of people, not millions.

The man behind Blair, and likely to relieve Prescott in future, is communities minister David Miliband. He clearly has no stomach for a London megacity. Among other revelations in the interview given to James Heartfield for the January 2006 edition of AD magazine, titled Manmade Modular Megastructures, Miliband rejected an eastwards expansion of London.

“The Western part of the Thames Gateway is definitely London. The Eastern part is not. It would be wrong to think of a 40-mile stretch eastwards as being London. Places like Southend have their own identity and are only part of the Greater London economic area.”

If policymakers would think like a late Victorian, or, for that matter, a 21st-century Chinese industrialist, they might allow transport infrastructure to open up developable land. They should look much further east

A 40-mile stretch of London is what the Gateway could be, doubling London. Nor need developers wait for public investment. If policymakers would think like a late Victorian, or, for that matter, a 21st-century Chinese industrialist, they might allow transport infrastructure to open up developable land. They should look much further east.

In Shanghai, sustainability means advanced infrastructure, such as the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train from Transrapid International. Opened in January 2004, the 19-mile elevated double guide-way connects Long Yang Road Station to Paul Andreu’s Pudong International Airport. The trip takes less than eight minutes. It will extend to the World Expo in 2010. Clean, silent and efficient, Maglev shuttles accelerate to 186 mph after two minutes, and cruise at around 270 mph, even up gradients.

Imagine 38 miles of twin Maglev linking the old city of London to 15 million m2 of new mixed-use development just off a flood barrier and road bridge in the mouth of the Thames estuary. That would be a 15-minute trip, including one stop at a new international airport. After allowing for the vast operating costs, and at a ticket price of £15.00, the £100m per mile investment in Thames Maglev would need an average of 1200 passengers an hour, or 150 passengers per trip, if it is to pay for its costs 50 years.

No plans exist to help any developer shrink the Gateway in this way. Farrell has given virtuous expression to New Labour’s retreat from the aspiration for “sustainable” growth. In Britain, sustainability doesn’t mean infrastructure. The only thing growing here is speculation on the property market.

Promoting the early Victorian compact city model, Farrell promises not to undermine London’s rate of house price inflation. His plan absolves those administering the Thames Gateway from meeting the infrastructural needs of the growing population in the South-east. “Success” only requires growth in biodiversity.

In fact, the vast muddy landscape is perfect for travelling over at Maglev speeds. We could plan to turn London into the megacity that, whether Farrell likes it or not, it has to eventually become. However as fear of collapsing the housing market is driving New Labour towards inactivity, Farrell’s do-little version of sustainable development is in favour.