When the high-speed rail connection linking the channel tunnel to London opens in November – 13 years later than its French equivalent – incoming firms will enjoy the benefits of an investment programme in housing, offices, commercial property, transport and infrastructure that is starting to breathe new life into one of south-east England’s least developed areas.
For rail travellers arriving from Paris or Brussels, the Eurostar’s UK route from Ashford to London, sharing its track with slow commuter trains, has provided a stark contrast with the new, purpose-built TGV line in France from Lille to Calais. All that is set to change in November, when the new part of the UK high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link opens.
A record breaker
Eurostar’s record-breaking train journeys to London from Brussels (one hour, 43 minutes) and Paris (two hours, three minutes) have already grabbed the headlines and shown that journey times between the capitals will be much quicker than before. The new international terminal at London’s St Pancras will help to regenerate that part of London; but investment and faster rail services are going to have the biggest impact in north Kent.
By the time the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, the French city of Lille had lobbied hard for the international station to be sited in the heart of the city, and had put in place infrastructure and real estate projects that attracted large-scale investment, giving a powerful fillip to much-needed urban regeneration. Although the English equivalent has taken 13 years longer to come to fruition, the new high-speed rail link through Kent has been at the heart of an ambitious project to bring economic benefits to the north of the county, by designing, financing and building a cluster of mixed-use developments centred on the new, dedicated high-speed railway station, Ebbsfleet International. The station in north Kent is due to open on November 19, just a few days after the extensively refurbished St Pancras takes over from Waterloo as the London terminus for the high-speed rail link.
From that date, fewer international services will stop at Ashford, although the journey times from Ebbsfleet to Paris, Brussels and Lille will be impressively fast. And Ebbsfleet serves a much higher concentration of people living within an hour’s driving time – including much of east London, Sussex, Kent and, with the proximity of the Dartford crossing, large parts of Essex, Cambridgeshire and north London.
Speed is a selling point
Eurostar is working hard to sell the benefits of faster journey times to Europe. However, the travel improvement being most heavily promoted by Locate in Kent (Kent’s investment promotion agency) is the impressively short time that it will take to get to and from London, when the new, high-speed domestic services start in 2009. Companies considering a north Kent location should be tempted by the journey time from Ebbsfleet to St Pancras of just 17 minutes. The speed of the domestic service will be a special focus of attention in 2012, when participants in the London Olympics will be whisked from Ebbsfleet to Stratford International in just seven minutes.
The aim of the local authorities and the developers is to provide sustainable, flexible, mixed-used facilities, with plenty of green space and easy access to public transport. Ebbsfleet Valley, the development project closest to the new international station, is classed as brown-field land – although, like its near neighbour the Bluewater shopping complex, it is more white than brown, being based on a former chalk quarry.
The project plan includes 17 million square feet (sq ft) of floor space, to be allocated to residential, business, retail, leisure and community use, built on 1035 acres of land. According to Land Securities, this will involve up to 10,000 new homes and up to 20,000 new jobs in the next 20 years. Rapid, easy public transport is already in place, in the shape of the Fastrack bus service, which is set to expand to keep pace with the area’s population growth.
The three areas of the north Kent regeneration project close to the international railway station are at Thameside (comprising Dartford and Gravesham), Medway and Swale. According to government figures, between them, the sites will lead to about 45,000 new homes, 84,000 jobs and 6.5 million sq ft of new floor space by 2021.
As with any regeneration project on that scale, co-ordinating all the public and private sector organisations involved has been a challenge. The Thameside area of Kent is part of the Thames Gateway development project, but it also involves the regional development agency SEEDA, Kent County Council and several local councils, as well as the channel tunnel rail company London & Continental Railways, the train operator Eurostar and Locate in Kent. Private sector developers include Land Securities and Countryside Properties.
Judith Armitt, who took over as chief executive of Thames Gateway in November 2006, recently highlighted the difficulty of pulling all the strands together when she commented on a landmark agreement that will allow further housebuilding and investment in public transport in Thameside to go ahead. “This is exactly what Thames Gateway is all about: finding new ways to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles,” she said, following a meeting of all the local councils involved. “This positive decision is possible because of extensive partnership working between the private sector, central government and local partners, and last but not least by the Highways Agency, which have done ground-breaking work to resolve the transport issues.”
Transport has been at the heart of the regeneration programme and is a major cost to the public purse. The latest package announced for the Thameside area incorporates a programme of transport investment totalling £164m. The cost of the investment will be met by public and private sectors via a funding package comprising £74m from Thames Gateway and the Department for Transport, a contribution of £40m from Land Securities and a tariff to be paid by developers, which is likely to be set at a rate of £5000 per dwelling.
North Kent’s faster rail links, improved roads and local public transport infrastructure are also a key part of the offer that is starting to attract businesses to the area. According to Mandy Bearne, Locate in Kent’s director of marketing and research, north Kent is increasingly seen as an “edge of London” location, where lower property and labour costs, coupled with a rapidly improving living and working environment, are already attracting businesses.
“Our research shows that there is a latent workforce of almost 50,000 people commuting from the Kent part of the Thames Gateway and a further 27,000 travelling into London each day from Kent Thameside (Dartford and Gravesham). Most of them work in financial or business services and are a readily available workforce for companies moving here. In addition, there are several thousand skilled people who both live and work in the area,” she says. “In many cases, employers don’t have to be located right in the middle of London’s financial district. We think it won’t be too difficult to persuade those companies to move to more attractive and lower-cost new offices around Ebbsfleet, where their employees will have a much easier journey to work and a more balanced lifestyle.”
Companies moving to north Kent may be eligible for selective Finance for Investment in England (SFIE) Tier 3 grants; and part of Locate in Kent’s service is to help incoming businesses to apply for European funding. In spite of the reported decline in UK manufacturing, Locate in Kent still gets more enquiries from manufacturing companies than it does from the services sector.
Locating in Kent
Locate in Kent has already helped several companies to move out of London into the development areas served by Ebbsfleet International. Shirt maker Thomas Pink has taken new premises at Crossways, close to the Dartford river crossing; specialist packaging firm Howard Hunt has moved into the area; and Global Home Loans was one of the first financial services companies to relocate from the City of London to north Kent.
The county’s investment attraction agency has also helped to persuade US-owned Abbott Laboratories to increase its investment in Kent in the past four years, leading to the creation of almost 400 jobs. Abbott, based in Chicago, is the fourth largest pharmaceutical firm in the world.
Abbott’s Dartford site manufactures diagnostic products used for testing for infectious diseases and employs almost 400 staff. It also handles the initial stage manufacture of 63 products that are used in testing for conditions that include cancer, cardiovascular problems, and thyroid and metabolic disorders.
Locate in Kent worked with the South East England Development Agency and the (then) Department for Trade and Industry to encourage the company’s expansion in the county. Abbott’s expansion has helped maintain Kent’s position as one of the UK’s recognised bioscience locations and an important life science cluster in south-east England.