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Grant Shapps MP: Thousands of new homes unlocked with an historic deal that began by abolishing dozens of quangos

SHAPPS NEWGrant Shapps is the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Every quango under the sun had stuck their oar in. And I can tell you that this was a part of the world not short of a Quasi-Non-Governmental-Organisation. In fact they had sixty-two of them.

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 today.

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 site.

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 the RSSs.

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 problems.

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. 


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