"The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth."
Dark air, mournful gloom, brooding motionless... Joseph Conrad may have been writing a century ago, but he captured the essence of the Thames Gateway project perfectly. The grandiose pipedream to regenerate 40 miles of Thames estuary has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. But as night falls , it's sunk deep in the heart of darkness, the stinking slimey mud of Big Government incompetence.
The latest setback took place yesterday, when Judith Armitt, Chief Executive of the Thames Gateway Delivery Unit, was suddenly replaced. She'd only been in this brand new job for a year, and just a couple of weeks ago published her much anticipated Thames Gateway Delivery Plan.
It seems she was axed because she incurred the displeasure of Communities and Local Government Minister Yvette Cooper (aka Mistress Balls- in post since June). And it must have been a major bust-up, because Cooper's spin doctors immediately got to work describing Ms Armitt's work as "crap".
The job has already been given to DCLG 2001 recruit Joe Montgomery, a crony of Cooper's ("as far removed from the Yes, Minister Sir Humphrey stereotype as it is possible to be; he is more Armani than Saville Row, more Groucho Club than Athenaeum" Hmm). Behind him is Dr Tim Williams, long-time Labour insider, and, according to his official biog, "in 2003 named as the leading regeneration personality in the UK by a panel of his peers". Wow!
There's obviously a sea of blood soaking into the DCLG carpet, but much more important to taxpayers is the grotesque incompetence of the whole Gateway project.
Last month, the Public Accounts Committee published their report on it. And here's what the inestimable Chairman Leigh had to say:
“The Department for Communities and Local Government is at present manifestly not up to the job of managing the enormously ambitious enterprise of regenerating the Thames Gateway region. Action must be taken now to prevent the enterprise ending in another public spending calamity.
It still amounts to little more than a group of disjointed projects which do not add up to a programme which is purposeful and moving forward. The Department has been incapable of taking the present rather insubstantial vision and galvanizing the multitude of central, regional and local partners in the scheme to work together to turn it into reality.
The Department has not yet established the basic arrangements for controlling the programme including - incredibly - a budget. It has failed so far to set clear and coordinated objectives and measures of progress. Crucial to the success of the enterprise will be a full and coordinated contribution by Whitehall departments but, like a small child clamouring for the attention of its bigger classmates, the Department does not have the influence to make this happen."
It doesn't get any worse than that. DCLG has spent £673m and produced a total shambles.
Just to recap, the Gateway project has been kicking around for most of Labour's time in office, and is currently supposed to regenerate 40 miles of riverside, from Canary Wharf to the mouth of the Thames:
In theory, that will include 160,000 new homes and 180,000 new jobs by 2016, with further development beyond. And in theory, most of the cash is supposed to come from the private sector.
The practice is rather different. As far as anyone can tell (which isn't very far because DCLG hasn't considered it necessary to collect any information), there's been very little private sector investment. Most investment so far has come from other bits of government:
"17. The Department estimates that the total capital spending in the region was £7 billion from 2003 and 2006 but it is unable to collect information on how this was spent and so does not know what proportion was part of the Thames Gateway programme. Much of the programme’s investment comes through other government departments or from the Department via other bodies such as English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agencies. Many projects are funded by a variety of partners that are, in turn, ultimately funded by the Department, making it difficult to monitor which projects are funded as a result of the programme and which are not."
And if that sounds like a large helping of government spaghetti, that's because it is. When the National Audit Office tried to unravel the giant knot of quangos and government departments involved, this is the best they could come up with:
Can you make sense of that? Neither can the 100 plus quangos, departments, local authorities and other assorted flotsam actually involved.
According to the PAC, there's no proper management, no clear objectives, no progress measurement, no coherent delivery chain, no meaningful budget, and no serious private sector involvement (despite the supposed imperative of attracting huge private sector investment).
And in case you lost count, that's a competence score of zero.
Needless to say, the Gateway's grand house building aspirations are failing to materialise. Here's what the PAC projects on present trends- a shortfall of 65,000 homes by 2016:
Two weeks ago, the private sector ripped into DCLG at the Thames Gateway Forum:
"Chelsfield Partners co-founder Sir Stuart Lipton, Lend Lease Europe chief executive Nigel Hugill and Jones Lang LaSalle’s head of professional services Andrew Gould... attacked the government for producing plans instead of acting on the Thames Gateway."
Plans instead of action.
You know, that sounds a teensy bit familiar.
"Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."
PS To read the official account of that Thames Gateway Forum you'd never imagine it was the disaster attended by those private sector property moguls. In fact, you'd think it was a brilliant triumph. Above a video of Bottler's keynote address, the opening sentence on the official website reads "The Thames Gateway Forum 2007 was a huge success - the best yet!" God knows what the previous ones were like.