Select Committee on Public Accounts Sixty-Second Report

1  Providing leadership for the programme

1. The Thames Gateway stretches along the River Thames from Canary Wharf to the mouth of the river at Southend-on-Sea and the Isle of Sheppey (Figure 1). It covers an area of almost 100,000 hectares and has an existing population of 1.45 million. It is one of the most deprived areas in the Greater South East. The Government wants to reverse its relative decline with the construction of 160,000 homes there between 2001 and 2016, and the creation of 180,000 new jobs.

Figure 1: The Thames Gateway

Source: The Department

2. The Thames Gateway is one of 15 mission critical programmes prioritised by the Government[2] and is the only large scale regeneration programme managed directly by the Department for Communities and Local Government (the Department). The Department is investing £673 million between 2003 and 2008 to accelerate regeneration in the region. The regeneration of the Thames Gateway requires broad cross-government working so that new homes are supported by adequate transport, education, health, community, leisure, green space and environmental infrastructure.[3]

3. It is unclear how the Department's management of the programme has added value to the projects that they fund. The Department points to its contribution in setting out a vision for the Thames Gateway; winning collective agreement from the Local Authorities; creating local regeneration partnerships to coordinate local delivery; working on specific projects to release sites; unblocking major developments and persuading other government departments to invest in the area. But the Department could have made these contributions without operational management of the programme.[4]

4. In the future, large-scale growth area programmes will be assigned to a new regeneration body, Communities England, which will take over regeneration and housing delivery responsibilities from the Housing Corporation, English Partnerships and the Department. The Department believes that transferring responsibility for operational management of the Thames Gateway programme to Communities England would cause too much disruption to its delivery arrangements.[5]

5. Local partners and central government officials involved in the programme and interviewed by the National Audit Office (NAO) did not consider the programme well coordinated or joined-up across Whitehall departments. Major sites are being delayed due to a lack of joined-up infrastructure investment. For instance the building of 9,400 homes at Barking Riverside is reliant on further transport infrastructure that is not included in the Transport for London or the Department for Transport's spending plans, whilst development of 30,000 homes in Kent Thameside is reliant on agreement from the Highways Agency, 12 years after they first knew the Channel Tunnel Rail Link would lead to housing growth in the area.[6]

6. Local stakeholders do not believe the Department has developed the strategic influence within Whitehall to solve such problems. The Department's capability review last November found this lack of influence to be a general problem which the Department faces, and may partially be as a result of its history of machinery of government changes. The Department's aim is to gain a reputation for strategic influence through its actions over the next few years. Meanwhile, persuading other government departments to contribute fully to the programme remains one of the Department's biggest challenges, and its perceived lack of clout within Whitehall reduces stakeholder confidence in its ability to manage the programme.[7]

7. Responsibility for strategic coordination of the programme at a ministerial level is through the Cabinet Committee on Housing and Planning. The Housing and Planning Committee has a wide remit "to set the Government's strategy to improve the effectiveness of the planning system and the supply and affordability of housing in England, and to monitor delivery". The Housing and Planning Committee must balance its many responsibilities and cannot devote much time to the Thames Gateway. The Committee assumed responsibility in 2005 from the Ministerial Committee on the Thames Gateway, which had focused solely on the Thames Gateway programme.[8]

8. The Department has already acted on the NAO's recommendation to establish a cross-government board of officials to provide better cross-government coordination and to direct the overall programme. It will look to the Housing and Planning Cabinet Committee for strategic direction, and its effectiveness will rely on getting all departments to agree a forward plan at Ministerial level for which all Accounting Officers will be jointly and severally accountable.[9]

9. The Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership was set up in 2000 to provide cross-government coordination, but the Department modified it in 2005 to focus exclusively on the relationship between the Department and local stakeholders. Whilst the Department and central government are responsible for overall leadership of the programme and investment in infrastructure, most of the delivery will be by local partners. The Department has established a network of partnerships that provides coordination horizontally across both the local and sub-regional level. These partnerships vary in form from unincorporated partnerships managed by the Local Authority to Urban Development Corporations formally accountable to the Department. The Department provides nearly £10 million a year for the administration of local regeneration partnerships and sends a representative to their board meetings.[10]

10. This partnership approach has the advantage of bringing stronger congruence between local and central government, local accountability, local knowledge, flexibility of delivery, and ability to bring in expertise. The Department believes this partnership approach effectively balances devolution of power and the involvement and inclusion of local communities, whilst maintaining a strong grip at the centre. But there is a risk of uncoordinated delivery across the Thames Gateway, inefficiencies in procurement, and a lack of capacity in some areas.[11]

11. The complex partnership networks result in unclear delivery chains for individual projects. Projects have multiple lines of reporting and accountability. For instance the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was provided with more than £4 million for the new visitor centre at Rainham Marshes from four separate public bodies: the East of England Development Agency, the South Essex Green grid, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation and Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation.[12] As each of these bodies is mostly funded by the Department, departmental funding has used four different funding streams to reach one project. In other areas it is unclear whether projects in the Thames Gateway are part of the programme or not. The Sheppey bridge for example was in the original 1995 Thames Gateway Planning Framework, but did not receive direct support from the Department, whilst Regional Development Agency support in the region is on the same basis as for its funded work outside the region.

12. The Department does not currently have a framework in place to judge the efficiency and effectiveness of partnerships as organisations. Some Local Regeneration Partnerships lack the capacity to manage significant developments, whilst others have been slow to get up to operational capacity. The Department has not set out clear expectations of local partnerships and has yet to establish a clear framework of performance criteria.[13]

2   Mission Critical Programmes are the priority programmes monitored by the Office for Government Commerce and reported on to the Prime Minister. Back

3   C&AG's Report, para 1.9 Back

4   C&AG's Report, summary value for money statement; Qq 2-3 Back

5   Delivering Housing and Regeneration: Communities England and the future of social housing regulation, consultation, Department for Communities and Local Government, June 2007 Back

6   C&AG's Report, summary value for money statement; Appendix four  Back

7   Capability Review of Communities and Local Government, Cabinet Office, p 17; Qq 14-16 Back

8   Ministerial Committees of the Cabinet and Policy Review Working Groups Composition and Terms of Reference, Cabinet Office, December 2006; Q 116 Back

9   Qq 18-21 Back

10   C&AG's report, paras 2.6, 3.2; Figures 8, 9; Appendix two; Qq 21-25 Back

11   Q 53 Back

12   C&AG's Report, Figure 2 Back

13   C&AG's Report, Figure 10, Appendix one, recommendation 5; Qq 65, 131-134 Back

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Prepared 15 November 2007