'TO SUGGEST that the Thames Gateway is in danger of collapse is total nonsense, ' a spokeswoman for the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) huffs, responding to last week's critical National Audit Office report on the progress of Europe's largest regeneration scheme.
The report Thames Gateway: Laying the Foundations fired a broadside at the DCLG.
Its polite wording didn't do much to soften the impact.
'DCLG's programme management is not yet capable of demonstrating that resources have been directed to the most transformational and critical path projects, or that the departmental management of the programme so far has helped to deliver more than the projects would have done alone, ' the report states.
Despite the criticism, the DCLG has found some positive things in the report. 'While there are clearly areas where further activity is still needed, such as accelerating the rate of house building, much of this is already underway, ' it says.
'The report is clear that considerable investment has gone into the area and progress has been made on delivering crossgovernment co-ordination on investment and programme management.' True. But it's also clear that investment to date could have been made to work harder, and that there is still a long way to go to get a unified approach among the different agencies involved in the Thames Gateway.
There are nine regeneration partnerships, that are charged with co-ordinating local authorities, private investors, government agencies and other major stakeholder groups in the Thames Gateway (see map).
The report also identies 30 different agencies with pivotal roles to play. The organisational challenge is vast as the experience of Kent Thamesside Regeneration Partnership shows. Its chief executive Michael Ward, says that there have been heads to knock together at the highest level.
'In the bit of Kent I'm in, we've been concerned about transport policy. DCLG and the Highways Agency have not seen eye to eye; DCLG has been focusing on economic growth but the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency has found it hard to organise its programme in support of that.' So communication between the two has taken the form of 'megaphone diplomacy' - lots of shouting and not much listening. We've spent a year working very closely with them and put a halt to that, I think.
But it's hard to see how we'll get the infrastructure we need to support regeneration, ' he adds.
The NAO report is clear that such problems stem from the top and that the lack of a programme plan is central to the confusion:
'The complexity of the decision making and delivery chains makes it difficult for potential investors, developers and government itself to understand the programme and integrate investment.' It continues: 'although it is right for local partners to take the lead on detailed planning, the Department [DCLG] has yet to bring those plans together into a single programme plan, without which it is difficult for central government to set an overall budget, direct resources to critical path projects and give an overall picture of what needs to be done where.' There is more: 'The government's vision for high quality, low carbon footprint and sustainable development has helped to ramp up expectations but there remains a great deal to do to translate the aspirations into clear and quantiable objectives against which progress can be measured and to develop appropriate levers to achieve them.
'The DCLG is not yet perceived by local stakeholders to have sufficient strategic inuence to solve problems within Whitehall that are creating obstacles to success.' Ouch.
No wonder the DCLG is touchy.
The report also picks up on the transport issues identified by Ward. 'Local partners see transport infrastructure as the main constraint to development, ' it says. The NAO lists a series of barriers to getting successful transport projects up and running. They include:
poor engagement of transport agencies into spatial planning,
the complexities of getting cash from developers to fund transport projects,
a lack of recognition that project lead times for transport infrastructure are extremely long.
Exactly how bad things are in the Thames Gateway depends where projects are located.
London Thames Gateway Development Corporation chief executive John Allen says the Olympic Village and Stratford City are producing a regeneration effect that is already rippling into the rest of his area.
Transport links are already well provided, with the soon to open High Speed 1 (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) rail station at Stratford plus London Underground and Docklands Light Railway.
Ward says his part of Kent is lucky to have a 35-year regeneration commitment from cement producer Lafarge and developer Land Securities. This will populate chalk quarries with offices, shops and houses.
'We're very lucky to have that long-term planning and investment promise - very few other places have the benefit of that.
Regeneration has been slow to start, though, 'because of planning and transport obstacles, ' he says.
But the Civil Engineering Contractors Association is also getting impatient with government.
'The overall lack of leadership and guidance from government, the lack of finance for key infrastructure and the lack of joined up thinking within public sector circles is seriously hampering the development of the Gateway area, ' says a spokesman.
'Without dependable, viable infrastructure, you condemn the area to a grim future beset by congestion and low quality of life. They need to rethink their approach, adopt a more streamlined process for putting the infrastructure in place and get some joined up thinking behind the project or it won't meet its own aspirations.' The NAO calls for stronger government leadership and risk strategies shared by neighbouring areas of the Gateway and agencies with common interests. It wants to see performance criteria and a delivery programme. And it wants someone to get government departments working with local authorities and regional assemblies.
But Ward warns against a major change of tack. 'Although the NAO report paints an accurate picture of the situation until recently, you need local focus.
You could envisage the regeneration being run through branches of central government, but you need local answerability.'