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After their demise in 1998, urban development corporations are being resurrected to assist the Thames Gateway regen...
After their demise in 1998, urban development corporations are being resurrected to assist the Thames Gateway regeneration project but

their past lives may continue to haunt them, says Mark Smulian

Amid the constant calls from councils for more powers, examples of authorities voluntarily surrendering them are rare.

But that is what has happened at Thurrock BC and is about to happen, with a bit of argument about details, in eight London boroughs. Urban development corporations will take over their planning powers.

In the case of Thurrock, this will affect the whole borough. In London it will cover chunks of five boroughs and small areas of three more.

UDC boards will have council representatives, but the bulk of members will be drawn from business.

Local government figures who thought they had seen the back of UDCs when the last of the previous generation were wound up in 1998 may view this as letting the side down, but the councils involved support the UDCs - with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

All are in the Thames Gateway, Europe's largest regeneration project. The 40 miles from London Docklands to the North Sea has some 3,000ha of brownfield land available for redevelopment. It previously housed docks, quarries, refineries and other industries that have largely vanished.

The problem is, before most of the land can be used, problems about site assembly, decontamination, flooding or road access must be solved.

Thus the UDC concept has risen from its coffin. They have wider compulsory purchase powers than councils, and can own and develop land and engage in business. They also take over planning powers from councils, though not plan-making powers.

The steer from the ODPM is that councils will nevertheless keep day-to-day development control powers and will be able to collaborate with the UDCs on everything except the actual decisions. But why would any council want to surrender even this much?

In Thurrock's case, the problems of assembling viable sites for developme nt are so complicated that the council felt only a UDC could tackle the job.

'We actually wanted it because of the scale of the work that is to be done,' says regeneration head Rod Lyons.

'The government says it has learned the lessons of the old UDCs, though the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.'

This is a reference to the criticisms often levelled, in particular at the London Docklands Development Corporation, that these bodies were obsessed with building and paid scant regard to local communities.

Chris Donovan, assistant director of strategic planning and regeneration at Bexley LBC, says: 'We accepted the concept of a benign UDC working with local authorities and other partners.

'The UDC in theory should have greater capacity to tackle land assembly through its compulsory purchase powers. We have used compulsory purchase in town centres, but it takes an awfully long time.'

He says a UDC should also be able to access wider sources of money and be in a better position than individual councils to lobby for major infrastructure.

The area affected in Bexley is one of the few substantial manufacturing centres in Greater London, and the council is determined that land earmarked for industry should not be used to help deliver the 120,000 homes the ODPM wants to see built in the area by 2016.

'This is not going to be about taking every piece of employment land and using it for housing. We will be seeking a sustainable balance,' says Mr Donovan.

However, this sort of tension between competing uses for land is just the kind of issue where a council and a UDC may fall out.

Across the river at Barking & Dagenham LBC, regeneration head Jeremy Grint says the UDC proposals are 'broadly helpful if they meet certain standards'.

In particular, there must be a clear understanding of how it will work with councils and the numerous other agencies involved, such as the London Development Agency and English Partnerships.

'It is essential that a UDC attracts the right level of both public and private investment as this is the key to ensuring we achieve genuinely sustainable communities,' he says.

The question of who will run the UDC is a vexed one. The Local Government, Planning & Land Act 1980 limits board membership to 13, and the ODPM has said that 'no one interest group' should have a majority of seats.

This is not a problem in Thurrock, where there is only one council, which holds a minority of board seats.

But in east London, to avoid one interest group dominating, some of the eight boroughs involved will lose out. Bexley has told the ODPM the boroughs most affected should get the seats, Mr Donovan said.

How useful the seats would be is a moot point. Janet Ludlow (Lib Dem) represented Tower Hamlets LBC on the London Docklands Development Corporation board in the early 1990s. It was not an entirely happy experience.

She recalls: 'It was totally business driven. We were expected to give the local angle, but we did not have very much power.'

Nearly 20 years ago the government became so enamoured by the London Docklands Development Corporation it created more than a dozen others.

If Thurrock and east London deliver results, the UDCs could be on the march again.

The Reborn UDCs

Thurrock UDC (established November 2003): Thurrock Council.

East London UDC (consultation issued by ODPM, November 2003): Barking & Dagenham, Bexley, Greenwich, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest LBCs.

UDC powers:

??? Buy, own, manage, reclaim and sell any land or property.

??? Carry out building or other operations.

??? Ensure provision of utilities.

??? Carry out any other activities which will help regenerate the area.

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