Twelve months after John Prescott promised to kick-start Britain's biggest regeneration project in the Thames Gateway, visits three key areas and finds that few of the grand plans have left the drawing boards. Plus, the first of our regeneration jargon-busters
The government boasts that the Thames Gateway will solve some of south-east England's toughest problems at a stroke. If it is successful, it will provide the 200,000 extra homes needed by 2016, correct the capital's distorted housing market, loosen the tourniquet of the green belt and stoke the London economy.

Anyone who remembers the Thatcher years may feel that they have heard this magic-wand rhetoric somewhere before. In the 1980s, the regeneration of the East Thames Corridor, as it was called at the time, never got much beyond London Docklands. The question now is whether Tony Blair's government can reach the parts that Thatcher's failed to.

So far, one year on from the launch of the Sustainable Communities Plan – which made £446m available for such essentials as site assembly and remediation, additional affordable housing and infrastructure – the pace of change has been stultifyingly slow.

Here, players in three key regeneration areas explain why – and what's to come.

Kent Thameside Association sprang into life to spearhead regeneration in the county long before John Prescott had been appointed deputy leader of the Labour Party. The public–private partnership was formed 11 years ago to cover an area of 22 square miles in the boroughs of Dartford and Gravesham. It published a "vision document" in the mid-1990s, charting its intention to provide 30,000 homes, more than 50,000 jobs, 15 million ft2 of commercial buildings and a rapid transit system. Since then it has delivered 20% of the homes target, 20% of the commercial space and 23% of the jobs.

Now Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is citing the association's proposals for Ebbsfleet and Eastern Quarry as a model of mixed-use urban development in the communities plan. Land Securities' Springhead, the site surrounding Ebbsfleet station, will have 538,200 ft2 of offices and up to 600 homes. Then in 2008 will come Eastern Quarry – the 740-acre site adjoining Bluewater shopping centre and linked to Ebbsfleet station, which will have more than 7000 homes and 3 million ft2 of offices, shops and leisure. As Alan Cherry, chairman of Countryside Properties, a key developer in the district, says: "Kent has got more than a step or two ahead of some other Gateway areas."

But the communities plan has done little to accelerate progress, and Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the Tory leader of Kent council, says two key obstacles, employment and funding, loom as large as ever. "Employment growth in the west of London is running at four times the level of Kent, the Medway and Essex."

Lack of funding is equally contentious, with council leaders complaining that government departments are not taking an integrated approach on infrastructure spending. "Development hasn't gone as fast as it should because the funding hasn't been there. We have a 20-year housing strategy based on a three-year comprehensive spending review," says Bruce-Lockhart. "We need £9.6bn of community infrastructure. Now there is affordable housing to take on board as well as schools and roads. At the moment the only funding is coming from the ODPM, plus the regional housing boards, but what we are not getting is commitment from other departments, like transport and health. The council is putting £150-160m a year on the table for schools and roads, but we need more to come from developers and government."

The local authority has put its concerns to Prescott. "What is encouraging is that government is looking at other ways of funding – like getting infrastructure funding from commercial development around Ebbsfleet station," says Bruce-Lockhart.

Opinions in the private sector seem more positive. "There is real money for the first time. It's a start, but we need more," says Robyn Pyle, director of developer Land Securities. "We have to start breaking a few moulds in ways of reinvesting in infrastructure. But this is a huge project, so it requires thousands of millions of pounds in upfront investment. We are moving into unknown territory and that carries a higher risk."

Regeneration is coming to Thamesmead for the second time. Development of the town began in the 1960s, under the auspices of the Greater London Council. The resulting brutalist concrete aesthetic, the emphasis on council housing and the poor transport links have given the place an image problem. Tilfen Land, which inherited Thamesmead four years ago from Thamesmead Town Development Corporation, is working to change that.

"Thamesmead still suffers a stigma that it doesn't deserve," says Philip Humby, land and planning director with Tilfen. "We have an ongoing campaign to change that stigma and with each phase of development we're looking to up the ante and raise the quality. Now we're finding that people are coming to buy homes here, not because of the price, but out of choice."

The ante is now being upped by Tilfen and the government.

In January the Department for Transport agreed £200m of PFI credits for the proposed Thames Gateway bridge crossing the Thames from Thamesmead to Beckton. "Our concern is to get a structure that is worthy. We need a landmark," says Humby.

Also giving a boost to the area will be Tilfen's Tripcock Point, a 2000-unit scheme destined for a site between the Thames and Thamesmead. David Lock Associates has masterplanned the site and Glenn Howells Architects is designing the first phase of some 300 homes. Tilfen will develop some of the housing itself, but it will also be looking for housebuilder partners. Local jobs will be provided by two sites on either side of Tripcock Point: White Hart Triangle, with 1 million ft2 of business space; and East Thames Business Park, which will have 660,000 ft2 of space, designed by Thorp Architects.

New Thamesmead will butt abruptly against old, in the form of the town centre. "We've recognised that the town centre doesn't match the aspirations for Tripcock," says Humby. "We'll be looking at the whole area to see how we can replan parts of it. At the moment it is very much a retail town centre, and it needs more residential. There are two big car parks, which are wasted opportunities. We're already looking to extend the town centre to the riverfront, and possibly incorporate a hotel."

As principal landowner at Thamesmead, Tilfen has a head start over many Gateway players. "We're not having to assemble sites, get compulsory purchase orders, and so on," says Humby. "The land is ours, so we can plan it, control development and release land at our pace. Thamesmead Town didn't direct development – it did the remediation of the land, then traded it."

Humby says that Tilfen is progressing development faster than its predecessor, but adds: "There's a limit to how fast we can go – it will take us nine months to prepare the site for the first phase of Tripcock Point, as we have to remediate the land, build the canals, and build the roads and road bridge." Irrespective of the challenges Tilfen is committed to the Gateway, it has just bought a site in Woolwich, and is looking for more in Stratford, the Medway, and Barking and Dagenham. "There must be the opportunities, but it is getting them to crystallise," says Humby.

Thurrock in Essex, differs from Ebbsfleet and Thamesmead in that it had never undergone any regeneration before the communities plan came on the scene. Now an urban development corporation is drawing up a strategy for its physical and economic regeneration. It has already identified one pressing priority – more office space. There is such a shortage that the UDC is currently operating out of temporary offices at the ODPM's London headquarters.

"The economy requires diversification," says Will McKee, chair of Thurrock UDC. "We have got to look at added-value jobs in the future." Although Thurrock has a buoyant economy and minimal unemployment, jobs tend to be low paid and low tech. Most employment is in the local docks, distribution centres and retail. Lakeside shopping centre provides 20,000 jobs.

Two crucial areas for jobs have been identified by the East of England Assembly's draft regional planning guidance (RPG14). An area between Purfleet and Tilbury known as Thurrock Riverside has been earmarked for 2400 jobs, while the London Gateway – a redevelopment of the Shell Haven oil refinery as a major port and distribution centre – will create 16,500 jobs if it gets planning approval. The UDC also believes that the proximity of London Docklands' Canary Wharf will attract workers to Thurrock and help boost local employment. This would help to justify the UDC's plans for an increase in quality office space in Grays.

Thurrock has natural resources that could attract people to the area, says McKee. "There's a wonderful riverside and green belt, which could be improved and upgraded to provide a magnificent asset for the community," he says. Leisure and tourism are seen as opportunities, and McKee says bars, clubs and a marina are among plans for the riverside. But unless transport links are improved, Thurrock will find it difficult to exploit these resources. The A13 and M25 criss-cross Thurrock but RPG14 says improvements are needed, including slip roads for the two main road arteries and a lower Thames river crossing. Thurrock is not well served by rail and won't benefit from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which cuts through its boundaries. A station on the line would put Thurrock within easy reach of central London.

Thurrock has to build 18,500 homes in the next decade under the communities plan. A large chunk of the requirement – 7600 units – could be provided at Thurrock Riverside, according to RPG14. The aim of the UDC will be to build homes on urban land rather than greenfield.

The UDC, which was formed last November, will present its regeneration strategy to ODPM later this year. If the ODPM approves the plan it will give grants to the UDC to buy and develop land. The UDC will have wider compulsory purchasing powers than the local council and it will have power to determine strategic planning applications, although it will operate within the planning principles established within Thurrock council's local plan.

The last word in regeneration

In our mission to explain the seemingly inexplicable, our regeneration section will be seeking out the new buzzwords, acronyms and organisations of this fast-moving sector, and demystifying them with our own easy-to-understand definition …

Northern Growth Corridor
Proud northerner John Prescott has supplemented the measures in the sustainable communities plan with a dedicated Northern Growth Corridor – that’s an area stretching from Merseyside to the Newcastle and Gateshead region to you.

What’s in it, apart from a name?

The answer is a report, called Making it Happen – the Northern Way, and the allocation of £155m of government cash.

We’ve all heard of HGVs, well, LDVs are somewhat similar. They are local delivery vehicles, the Postman Pat vans of regeneration if you will.

LDVs are being established in the housing growth areas to plan and implement growth at the local level. And if you’re working in one of the growth areas, the chances are that you’ll be working with them.

Intensification has been going on in towns and cities throughout the UK for years, but it never had a name before. But proposals for large-scale development within Milton Keynes had to be called something, and so the word “intensification” was born. You have to admit, it is a much better term than the nimby’s version, town cramming. So wave goodbye to those massive surface car parks – they’re about to get intensified.