Plans to build thousands of homes in and around the Ebbsfleet Valley, between Bluewater Shopping Centre and Ebbsfleet International, have been doing the rounds since the heyday of Tony Blair’s first New Labour government and its promise of an “Urban Renaissance” — all pavement cafés, trams and beautiful people — here, on the site of former Kentish chalk quarries.
Even before Bluewater opened its many doors and 330 shops in 1999 to what quickly became half a million “guests” a day, Texan-born architect Eric Kuhne was “bigging up”, as Mr Osborne might say, a new town of thousands of executive homes as a chorus to his operatic shopping mall. Here, as I wrote at the time, would be “a city with no gods other than Prada, Gucci and Starbucks, with no cathedral and temple beyond the naves and domes of the mall itself, and with no ultimate purpose beyond stupefying consumption.”
It never happened. Gordon Brown’s government talked of building 10,000 new homes here from 2007 as the high-speed rail link from St Pancras to Kent and the Continent arrived at Ebbsfleet International. Just 150 have been built between then and Mr Osborne’s breezy proclamation of a new urban development corporation charged with creating, between now and 2020, Ebbsfleet Garden City.
Londoners and others hopeful of a dreamy new home here have every right to be sceptical of this latest scheme. Planning permission was granted for thousands of new homes several years ago but recession hit soon afterwards, and precious little has happened.
George Osborne’s garden city is simply the latest promise to build lots of new homes. The term garden city might evoke visions of genteel, arty-crafty Kentish folk tending allotments, yet what is proposed between Bluewater and Ebbsfleet is really a clutch of four dormitory “villages”. Why dormitory? Because of the rail link to London — St Pancras in just 17 minutes — and because a city is a much bigger entity than 15,000 new houses can ever be. And, short of building a contemporary interpretation of a many-tiered and densely packed Italian hill town between Northfleet and Swanscombe, there is not the space here to build anything like a true city, especially if, as promised, 40 per cent of this new settlement is given over to green space. More than this, a city needs a purpose beyond that of a home to live in and a shopping mall at Bluewater. It is very hard not to think of the latest “garden city” as anything other than a tag for what in reality is a rushed housing development.
When Victorian social reformer Ebenezer Howard conjured the idea of garden cities more than a century ago, he was thinking of polite, self-sustaining towns of no more than 30,000 people, surrounded by green belt. People would walk to work and, yes, grow their own sunflowers and beans. What they would not do is commute. Despite certain degrees of success, many residents of the garden cities that were built — Letchworth and Welwyn — do commute to London. People need jobs as well as homes, and some want the kind of careers and a share in a way of life only a city like London offers.
So what would make a major new settlement at Ebbsfleet work better than a politically expedient “garden city”? It might be better to think in terms of several smaller developments adding thoughtfully to existing towns and “villages”, from Gravesend to Swanscombe via Northfleet and Ebbsfleet. At the same time, huge improvements could be made to Thamesmead, a new town of sorts in need of love, care and investment a few miles west along the Thames. Meanwhile, a cluster of city-style streets, squares, shops, a school, places to eat and places of entertainment could be built around Ebbsfleet International itself. At the moment, the station is isolated like some Tsar-forsaken halt on the trans-Siberian railway. Trams could connect this new Ebbsfleet settlement to nearby towns and to Bluewater.
While this was happening, the economic and cultural profile of the area could be raised. Currently, all government and planners seem to think of when they locate Ebbsfleet on the map is a blank canvas intersected by a fast railway and arterial roads, ripe for cul-de-sac housing. Yet here is a place intimately connected with the River Thames, with town centres, like Gravesend, that are special. While it is true this is also an area that has long served London and done its dirty washing — there are several sewage treatment plants as well as Kimberly-Clark’s Andrex factory — this is nothing to be ashamed of.
At the German-owned Littlebrook Power Station on the banks of the Thames, magnificent Rolls-Royce Olympus gas turbines, the engines that powered Concorde, remain at work. Imagine if this area was well landscaped and joined by new engineering-led factories offering skilled jobs to those choosing to live in and around Ebbsfleet.
Imagine the Ebbsfleet area as an economic powerhouse of the future and not just a dormitory suburb, an Ebbsfleet rejoined to the Thames brimming with new industry and a mix of city and village streets, rather than a government-approved settlement of thousands of little box homes for people doomed to commute and further clog crowded transport links. It could happen. Before we are bamboozled into a questionable “garden city”, we need to explore this area afresh, and to think before we build.