Levelling up is ambitious in scope, and laudable in the aim of reducing inequality, creating opportunity, and increasing prosperity across the UK. For some, the term can be problematic, suggesting some sort of competition between the South East and the rest of the UK. And with London viewed as an economic powerhouse, there’s a problem that areas within the capital facing some of strongest socio-economic challenges in the UK will be overlooked.
Right now, I see at least three significant risks to achieving levelling up in practice. Firstly, the wider economic uncertainty – in the UK and internationally – will make the sustained investment necessary to achieve lasting positive change extremely challenging. Secondly, diverting investment and resources in difficult times could lead to levelling down London instead of raising the bar for everybody. Thirdly, any physical regeneration that does occur ends up being disconnected from the local communities and people it’s supposed to benefit.
For me, levelling up means bring improvements in the social and economic wellbeing of people in neighbourhoods up and down the country, achieved by working in partnership, ongoing investment and sharing wealth. Peabody’s approach to placemaking and regeneration in Thamesmead is a great example of how you can level up in practice and mitigate some the risks I’ve outlined here. We’re committed to transforming this town for the long-term to benefit people and place, now and for years to come.
Thamesmead – a short history
Thamesmead is a captivating place with a fascinating history. Master-planned in the 1960s and hailed as the ‘town of tomorrow’, this South-East London town – with its abundance of green space, man-made waterways and modern homes – was designed as an appealing alternative to cheek-by-jowl inner city living. In many ways it was conceived of as an inner-city version of the post-war new towns – those ambitious attempts by the government to apply the garden city model of the early twentieth century on a grand scale. But like many of the new towns, the ambition of Thamesmead was soon undermined by difficulties of a similar magnitude. Site constraints, under-investment and waning political support, alongside insufficient facilities, poor transport links and inconsistent governance, sparked a steady decline in the town’s fortunes over the decades.
Fast forward to today and Thamesmead faces brighter prospects. Having taken ownership two-thirds of the land in 2014, Peabody is on a mission to improve, grow and look after the town for the long-term. Thanks to our social purpose, scale and expertise in building communities, we’re now driving forward one of the largest and most ambitious placemaking programmes in the UK – intervention which will span decades, outlasting political cycles and economic storms.
Improvements for people and place
We’re a not-for-profit housing association with a track record of generating good growth. So our unified ownership of the town puts us on a strong footing to work holistically and at scale with communities, councils and other stakeholders to achieve shared aspirations. Our long-term plan for Thamesmead will enable us to improve and maintain the homes we own and manage, enhance Thamesmead’s remarkable landscape, and bring about thousands of new jobs, new cultural and leisure facilities, and much improved transport links. Our work is underpinned by four themes which combine long-term aims and immediate action.
1/ Pride and aspiration: raising expectations of what Thamesmead is and what it can be.
Following the intentions of the original 1966 masterplan, we want today’s residents to feel a sense of belonging in the area and excitement about the future of the town. Over recent years, we’ve been working with individuals and community groups to reignite civic pride in local neighbourhoods: from helping to growing the local economy by providing access to business enterprise development, support and resources to local people; to embedding a diverse cultural programme including the community-powered Thamesmead Festival; to funding local people to launch their own community projects.
2/ Designing for people: creating spaces that people want to linger in.
True to its garden city roots Thamesmead was designed with the outside in mind. Indeed, residents here enjoy more green space than any other Londoners. And yet these spaces have not always been well used. We’re investing heavily in public realm across the town. We’re encouraging people to get out and about to improve their health and wellbeing, while also responding to the climate and biodiversity crises.
Investment in shared spaces, as with homes, is so often about getting the basics right. Nobody wants to hang out in green spaces covered in litter, so we’ve provided top of the range, fox and seagull proof bins to deal with the downside of Thamesmead’s amazing wildlife. And we’re doing away with the myriad barriers and signs which have hampered play and enjoyment of open spaces.
Launched earlier this year, our Pathways to the Thames programme aims to create a more welcoming and accessible green route from South Thamesmead to London’s great river. In other parts of the town, carefully commissioned artwork, such as the murals on Thamesmead underpasses has transformed the look and feel of previously unloved grey spaces. We’ve also breathed new life and purpose into key Thamesmead landmarks, such as the Lakeside Centre which had previously fallen into disrepair.
3/ Stewardship: looking after Thamesmead for the long-term.
Our long-term approach is carefully balanced with the immediate care of existing neighbourhoods – looking after the 5000+ homes we own and manage, enhancing our blue and green spaces, and delivering modern and responsive services to all residents. This matters as much to long term residents who previously experienced years of broken promises and inconsistent governance, as it does to newcomers in the award-winning Southmere development. By improving people’s day-to-day experience of living here right now, we’re building trust and encouraging local people to get involved in our work to shape the future of their town.
4/ Made in partnership: working together to make Thamesmead a better place
Co-design is at the heart of our work in Thamesmead, as recently completed projects such as the recently re-opened Moorings Sociable Club and the rejuvenated Claridge Way (commended in the RIBAJ) show us. Equally important is our work with myriad stakeholders, whose support ranges from low-cost, small-scale projects to larger growth and investment opportunities.
Like any properly planned town, Thamesmead has to constantly adapt to meet the challenges and opportunities of new times. London’s housing challenges are well known, and there’s no greater opportunity than the Thamesmead Waterfront, a huge riverside site at the north western end of the town. The Waterfront was master-planned in 2019 by a joint venture between Peabody and Lendlease, and has the capacity to provide up to 15,000 homes in a new urban centre – if the right transport infrastructure is there.
An extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) under the Thames is critical to support the delivery of 25,000 new homes on both sides of the river, along with thousands of jobs. We’re continuing to work with TFL, the GLA, Homes England, and other stakeholders to build the case for this. The original pioneers of the garden city movement knew how critical transport connections were: Ebenezer Howard envisioned railways and canals connecting his ‘slumless, smokeless cities’. Thamesmead and the developments over the river in Dagenham will be well on the way to delivering that vision once the DLR is in place.
Thamesmead is a prime example of levelling up (as I see the term) in practice. The positive impact of our place-based investment is already being felt across the neighbourhood – socially, economically and environmentally – and there is so much more to come. Here for the long-term, we will continue to work with our partners to deliver shared aspirations, and to look outwards for new opportunities. In doing so we’ll ensure this town can thrive, even during the most challenging of times.
John Lewis is Peabody’s Executive Director of Thamesmead and Group Lead for Placemaking
John is speaking at the TCPA Conference: Unpicking ‘levelling up’: what does it mean for place-making? on 24 November 2022