At a networking event I attended recently I was asked by a delegates whether opening an office in North Kent had worked for Thomson Snell & Passmore, while expressing his own view that the Thames Gateway regeneration project had not really done very much for North Kent.
It was an interesting discussion and one that left me reflecting on the developments I have witnessed since we opened our Thames Gateway office back in 2005. In 2005 the term “Thames Gateway” did not really resonate with very many people. It was something public sector organisations in North Kent were fully engaged with but for most private sector organisations it had little meaning.
Surprising given the scale of what was going on around us - the largest regeneration zone in Western Europe and an area extending 40 miles along the Thames from London Docklands in the West, to Southend in Essex and Sheerness in Kent, to the East. It has a population of 1.6 million people and a workforce of over 500,000 and the development potential of over 300,000 hectares of brownfield land.
Plans to build 120,000 new homes, create 180,000 new jobs, create new sustainable communities, educational facilities and substantial transport and infrastructure projects. To us, it appeared a real opportunity, so we opened the office on North Kent with a very clear aim it should grow organically based purely on what demand there was in each area. It was an exciting challenge and a fantastic opportunity.
Much of our first year was spent meeting business leaders, local professionals and authorities to understand what had already been achieved, what plans were in place for future projects, what issues and concerns people had and what useful role we might play as part of the process.
The Bluewater Shopping Centre at Greenhithe was probably the first real tangible development that people could see. Opened in March 1999 it is Europe’s largest retail and leisure destination and has, since its opening, created employment for more than 30,000 people.
Chatham Maritime, located within a large part of what was the former Royal Dockyard in Chatham, now comprises over 2,000 new homes, a shopping centre, offices, leisure facilities including a 500 berth marina and a university campus, home to the Universities of Kent at Medway (UKM).
UKM is a partnership between the Universities of Greenwich, University of Kent, Canterbury and Christchurch University and MidKent College offering a range of internationally recognised higher education courses to over 6,000 students. The establishment of such a facility has played a crucial role in helping to retain and attract an important pool of talent in North Kent.
Numerous business parks and innovation centres have opened or received further investment. Crossways Business Park in Dartford has already created over 6,500 new jobs and the mixed use development at The Bridge has 1.5 million square feet of business space with the potential of a further 7,500 jobs.
Meanwhile, further investment has been made at Sittingbourne’s Kent Science Park and Eurolink Business Park and new innovation centres have opened at The Nucleus and The Base in Dartford, the Innovation Centre Medway in Chatham and The Joiners Shop for Creative Industries in Chatham Historic Dockyard. On transport and infrastructure, we have seen the transformational effect of Ebbsfleet International Station with journey times of 17 minutes from North Kent into Central London and around 2 hours to Paris and Brussels.
The new Sheppey Crossing that opened in 2006 and improvements made to the A249 have improved connectivity to Sheppey enormously and had a significant impact on economic activity and investment.
These are just a few examples of what has been achieved so far and while progress has slowed in recent years, gains have been made to unlock the potential of key sites including the critical Ebbsfleet Valley, which has huge potential.
The recent announcement of plans to build a £2 billion “Disney-Style” entertainment park at Swanscombe Peninsula, which could create up to 27,000 new jobs, is testament to the progress made so far.
In the meantime our Thames Gateway office has grown from one person to 20 with plans to grow further over the coming years. It now accounts for over 30% of the firm’s commercial group income and, at the end of September this year, will be relocating to a bespoke office facility at the heart of the Crossways Business Park in Dartford.
I have no doubt the move to Thames Gateway has worked for the firm and will continue to do so. It was by taking the time to talk with organisations across the region that we developed a true understanding of the issues and, importantly, then try to actually do something about them.
The reports we published in 2006 and 2009 were well received as they bought those issues into clear focus and allowed us, through our TSP Plus events, to drill down and tackle them by bringing together key decision makers.
Given the importance of property development and construction in the regeneration of the region, we felt a forum to exchange ideas, network and do business was crucial. Hence our Property and Construction Club was kicked off back in 2007.
Since then we have worked closely with a number of organisations over that time and I have acted as Chair to the North Kent Employment and Skills Board and the Thames Gateway (Kent) Chamber of Commerce. I’ve also been a member of the advisory panel of Common Purpose and currently sit on the board of the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership.
But what gives me the most pride in our achievements is the way the team has demonstrated how much they really care about what they do. Not just the legal work, excellence there is assumed, but in understanding our clients businesses and the wider community in which we operate and being prepared to roll their sleeves up, get involved and try to make a difference.”