Lord Chris Smith, newly appointed Chairman of the Environment Agency, and member of the Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership shares his views on the Thames Gateway, its environment and the future for the Gateway as an Eco-Region.
It was a brave step to call the Thames Gateway our first eco-Region, not because it isn’t achievable, but because it acknowledges that we have to include existing housing, as well as the new, in the vision for a more sustainable Gateway. This makes the challenge more complex but also more equitable for existing communities and more exciting as part of the search for a sustainable future.
Eco-regionSo what is an eco-region and what does it entail? The essential elements must include building within environmental limits, enhancing the existing environmental quality, planning environmental infrastructure to coincide with growth and delivering developments that reduce their impact on the environment and, importantly, creating places that new and existing communities can enjoy and value.
In regenerating the Thames Gateway we are not starting from a point of sustainable living. In the South-east we already have seriously stressed water resources and high water consumption, high energy use and high domestic and transport carbon emissions, and generate huge volumes of waste with less and less space to dispose of it.
So it makes sense to try and redress these existing issues as we also develop new communities that draw upon the same limited resources. Fortunately new developments have the advantage of new technologies and a better understanding of environmental management.
How to retro-fit these technologies for older build is not clear, but it is a challenge facing the whole country and one which I hope will be grasped here in the Gateway – leading the way as a true exemplar.
The costs of trying to shoehorn new environmental infrastructure into existing communities is much higher than if it was integrated from the beginning
We are also not starting with a blank canvass. As well as the large volumes of contaminated land - a legacy from the area’s industrial past which can be remediated as we redevelop - there is also a fantastic array of natural and industrial landscapes that are treasured by local residents which we should draw on as assets to protect or improve. From the wild Kent marshes evoked by Dickens to the Historic dockyards in east London and Chatham they all give a local sense of place within this swathe of land called the Gateway.
Parks - and floodsFor this reason I applaud the development of a parklands vision which should set the context for how the area is redeveloped. The centrepiece of the Gateway, and a common thread through this vision, must surely be the tidal Thames. The relationship with the river, its quality and ecology, its benefits for transport and recreation, and the environmental resource it provides should be a key consideration as the area grows.
Of course the river, as history has painfully taught us, also poses a threat in terms of flood risk. It is a risk that has been well managed through the development of tidal defences, and will continue to be so if we both plan for the continued maintenance of those defences and protect the space to adapt those defences as sea levels rise. At the same time, we don’t want to separate communities from what is such a prize asset, and so we should be looking to adapt our river frontages to give greater access to all, whilst creating new defences that are assimilated into the landscape.
But what of the disaster scenario where our defences are overwhelmed by an extreme storm of the like never seen before? Well, like all risks in our lives, however unlikely, we can take reasonable steps to reduce them. For the Thames Gateway communities where, thanks to the tidal defences, the likelihood of a tidal flood is very low, we can reduce the risks still further by constructing developments that are located and designed to reduce the risk to lives, and which are supported by well thought out emergency plans.
We should also not forget the need to avoid flooding from other sources such as surface water drainage, which has a much greater likelihood of happening than the disaster scenario of an extreme tidal surge. To avoid development altogether however, as some have called for, would be to ignore the benefits, economic, social and environmental, that regeneration can bring to such an area.
A high quality environment is not a nice-to-have “add-on” which can slip off the agenda when times are hard
The river defences are just one example of environmental infrastructure that needs to be planned for. Far too often such infrastructure lags behind, leaving a trail of environmental damage in its wake. The costs of trying to shoehorn new environmental infrastructure into existing communities is much higher than if it was integrated from the beginning. Water supply and wastewater infrastructure, waste facilities and how we adapt to our changing climate all need to be planned for at the earliest stages of development and should be a consideration for all planners in the Gateway.
Making it happenEven with the political will and strategic intent to deliver an eco-region there is always a danger of a dislocation between strategy and delivery. The poor quality developments highlighted in previous CABE audits were, I’m sure, never part of any planners’ vision, but nonetheless they were delivered with all their inherent flaws.
Auditing development once it has been built, whilst valuable to monitor progress, is too late. I would like to see consistent, best practice, environmental standards incorporated into all delivery masterplans, creating a level playing field for developers yet raising the bar in terms of environmental quality. Yes, some environmental technology is relatively new to the UK, but there is much we can learn from partners in Europe.
My final and perhaps more cautionary comment, would be that we must not let the pursuit of housing numbers overshadow or deflect from the pursuit of creating a quality environment where people want to live. We must ensure that a high quality environment is part and parcel of regeneration, and not a nice-to-have “add-on” which can slip off the agenda when times are hard. Without it we will fail to create truly sustainable communities where people will enjoy living both now and, even more importantly, into the future.