Grant Shapps is the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government. Follow Grant on Twitter.
If encouraging the proliferation of quangos really could deliver
large-scale housing development, then the whole of the Thames Gateway would have
romped home years ago.
They were all at it…
From the Regional Development Agency (RDA) to the Government Office
of the Region (GOR), via the Regional Assembly (RA), which, in turn, churned out
their beloved Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). Each talked a good-game about house-building at Eastern Quarry
in Kent. Yet after more than a decade, not a single home was actually built.
This 1,000 acres of abandoned chalk quarries represents an enormous
brown-field site. Or perhaps that should
be a white-field opportunity to chalk up nearly 23,000 homes over the next 20
years. Yet it remained firmly stuck on the blackboard for a generation – until
The deal now signed will create 60,000 jobs over the next 20 years
with the first phase of the development at Ebbsfleet delivering 1,500 homes,
with spades in the ground in the coming months. This is by any standards an
historic housing deal.
So what lessons can be learned from today’s announcement?
I believe that there were two distinct phases to unlocking this
First, we had to abolish the aforementioned myriad of competing
Quangos in order to do away with their overlapping and ultimately competing
plans for developing this site. So we abolished the RDAs, the GORs, the RAs and
Next, I invited the local partners into my Department office so we
could understand which problems actually needed to be solved. In advance I’d been briefed that there were many.
The post-2008 turndown in the housing market meant that development on
this scale was no longer viable. There was understood to be an unbridgeable
funding gap that required at least £30m of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash to make
the deal work. There was concern over the size of developer contribution and
worries about the lack of transport infrastructure. Maybe it was actually all of
these complex problems together!
The overriding message in advance was clear. If this development
didn’t get going in the heady days of Labour’s housing bubble, backed up by
multi-billion pound quangos, then it isn’t a go-er in today’s austerity-driven
world. So there we were, gathered in my office. But the difference was that
for the first time the partners were genuinely local.
From Kent County Council to Dartford and Gravesham Borough Councils.
They were each able to present their concerns to my colleagues at the Department
for Transport and here at the Department of Communities and Local Government. We got to hear about the issues direct from
those on the ground. These were the people who actually knew what they were
talking about. They represented the area and they intrinsically understood the
We quickly established that there was a way through the impasse. We
dealt with a few of the myths that had been allowed to develop in a world of
Quangos where direct communication was an anathema. And we put
together an action plan so that by the time the meeting finished – no more than
an hour after it started – everyone had a clear idea
of what needed to happen next.
I don’t mean to oversimplify what has been a complex and expensive process.
Indeed the developer, Land Securities, has already invested over £100million in
preparing the site. But it transpired that plans had been delayed amid concerns
over things like the need for further investment in transport infrastructure.
By putting heads together, by working across Government, by using a
proportion of the New Homes Bonus to contribute towards the transport and
infrastructure programme, but most importantly by actually having on-the-ground
local partners around my table – we were able to get things moving.
I’d like to pay special tribute to my colleague, Transport Minister Mike Penning,
to the Leader of Kent County Council Paul Carter, to the Leader of
Dartford Borough Council Cllr Jeremy Kite and the Head of London Development at
Land Securities Colette O’Shea. Our outstanding local MP Gareth Johnson provided
unstinting support, as did colleagues from within local and national Government.
We know that every 100,000 homes built in this country
contributes 1% to our Gross Domestic Product. So everyone who has rolled up
their sleeves and got this huge development started will have played an
important part in helping to boost the economy. But the real winners here will be the local population who
will finally get the chance to own a home with the first of these new
properties completed by the end of 2013.
So with the quango clutter cleared and the same central and
local government can-do spirit that
helped serve up London 2012 on time, we can use this model to deliver many more
large-scale developments on brownfield sites –thereby helping to relieve our
nation’s long-term housing crisis.