Interview: Michael Cassidy CBE, chairman of Ebbsfleet Development Corporation

When Canary Wharf developers threw down a gauntlet to the City of London Corporation, promising to take the banks east, the City’s planning chairman decided to thwart them. The skyline changed: a gherkin appeared, then a cheesegrater and a walkie-talkie. Now Michael Cassidy CBE talks to Toby Fox (managing director of 3Fox International) about the vision for a thriving garden city rising from Ebbsfleet’s wastelands.

TF: As chairman of this powerful Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, you interact with investors, local and national government, and communities on the patch. How does this differ from your experience in the City?

MC: In the late ‘80s, as planning chairman in the City, the focus was international business. Canary Wharf was a rival – Wall Street on water – they were going to take all the banks. I was determined to make sure it didn’t happen. My sole focus, with planning officer Peter Rees, was to make the City more flexible, bigger floor plates, finding new land over railways, over roads, that hadn’t been developed before, so that these much bigger financial buildings could fit in. The planning context was very different to Ebbsfleet – a very active planning committee, many of whom were against policy changes – but those changes resulted in what you see today, this great cluster of world-class buildings. Coming to similarities, the most useful pattern between the City and Ebbsfleet has been the necessity of co-operating with surrounding boroughs.

TF: That’s about finding a win-win situation?

MC: And clever use of resources, frankly, using what money you’re given to get the extra bang for your buck. I hope to augment the £310 million from the Treasury for the next five years with additional sources of funding, to enlarge our effort and our impact. It means deliberate co-operation with Gravesham and Dartford, as our neighbours. That’s terribly important, to have the two adjoining boroughs feel that we’re part of their wider community.

TF: Why is that important?

MC: You don’t want hostility 100 yards down the road, just because they’re outside the area that has suddenly got all this money. Both Jeremy Kite [leader of Dartford] and John Cubitt from Gravesham are on our board and Kent County Council is represented by Mark Dance. The local authorities are at the heart of what we’re doing. Then there’s the commercial imperative; we’re keen to balance this community, to provide jobs alongside village-based housing. We’ll develop a commercial cluster by the station and we’ve got enterprise zone status, so we can offer financial incentives.

TF: There’s a focus on supplying high quality homes in mixed tenures?

MC: We have a design code, which is indicative, we can’t insist on it, but the housebuilders are working towards it, but we’re going to have to up the game. We can rejig the Section 106 obligations if we feel inclined, to make that slightly easier. In return, they must provide higher quality units. We can help with building the infrastructure; we might shoulder utility costs, so they save an amount that they can put into the build quality. In those two direct ways, we can make an immediate impact.

TF: How are you approaching tenures?

MC: We would like to broaden the mix at Ebbsfleet. At the moment, it’s all owner occupied, there’s no rental or shared equity, no self-build – all of which we’d like.

TF: How are developers reacting to these proposals on quality?

MC: As an immediate win, we want them to speed up delivery – can they open three marketing sites, rather than one or two? And they’re responding because the market is very strong. They tend to only hold offers open for six months, mortgage companies tend to limit their promise to six months. I want to persuade them to make that 12, meaning we can nearly double the rate of building.  A longer queue of hopeful buyers gives the builder confidence to go ahead.

TF: Are you able to influence mortgage provision at all?

MC: We’re talking to the largest mortgage providers about how we can help them towards this 12-month promise. There’s no uncertainty on planning and we’re going to put hundreds of millions into utilities. In this market, it’s not a big risk for them to say, we’ll hold this promise for 12 months.

TF: And which of the developers are opening additional showrooms?

MC: Redrow are the most enthusiastic in terms of quality – we can easily see 900 units in the first 12 months or so. Land Securities are diversifying their patch, by bringing in Henley Camland and Taylor Wimpey. They’ll push ahead quickly, with this queue of people wanting to buy there. Ward Homes are under way, and Persimmon. Countryside is right on our central area and ready to go on-site for the second phase; they’re up to 290 already.

TF: There remains this general doubt – the whole scheme has been around for a long time and nothing much has happened?

MC: The biggest obstacle was the recession, which is why nothing happened after HS1, eight years ago. There’s nothing like a good market to promote development. Redrow has a queue, the money’s there, the mortgages are there, and the push out of London – because  of prices – only benefits us. A national survey showed that Dartford was the most popular new-build location outside London, because our houses are £300,000 not £700,000.

TF: What three things do you highlight as the most crucial aspects, to keep accelerating the pace of development?

MC: Collaboration is first. We’ll invest in infrastructure and provide a utility corridor. Since Bluewater was taken over by Land Sec, any question of them going away has disappeared, they’re there for the long term, so we have good co-operation with Britain’s biggest property company. We’ve been seeing people like Crest Nicholson – the sort of developer we want to attract. We’d like to see some offsite manufacturing of housing elements, to speed up the quantity of delivery. We’ll focus on promotion of Ebbsfleet through branding and advertising, seminars, a much stronger website and spreading the word more intensively within the local community.

TF: Is there anywhere else that you might emulate or that might be considered a benchmark?

MC: I tried to make the case to the House of Lords built environment committee that each site has unique features, we don’t want another Welwyn Garden City or Stevenage. AECOM has just finished our masterplan, which will illustrate possible densities, building up to a bigger cluster at the heart of it. It’s got to have a Kent element. Kings Hill, over in Tonbridge and Malling, is a very good model for a big village, it’s not really a town. The cluster of houses round the central green, the old airfield, is very clever, and the campus of offices, sprinkled in the woodland around it. For our first commercial venture, we’re in serious discussion about a medical research facility, which will train doctors and dentists. It will also have a care home attached to it – and it will be a research centre. We’ll put that in the enterprise zone, as it will attract some tax relief.

TF: Have you got a developer for that?

MC: We have a promoter, who is talking to Dartford Hospital. It will provide brand new accommodation and training, a mini college with about 100 medical students a year. I’m also looking seriously at Rod Aldridge’s [former head of Capita] academy proposal for a school for entrepreneurs. It would take about 900 students aged 11 to 19, but 20% or more of their learning will be in establishing an actual company. Around the school, we hope to get a cluster of startup IT businesses.

TF: What other initiatives are in the pipeline to contribute to economic development?

MC: For the AECOM masterplan, Cushman and Wakefield did a comparison between  Ebbsfleet and the West End commercial market. It shows where we have work to do but where we have natural advantages. This medical project will have a direct link to St Pancras and the Crick Centre, 17 minutes from Ebbsfleet. We have to make inroads in the central London market, to make agents and property people aware of our offer.

TF: At the five-year midpoint in the life of the EDC, what will success look like?

MC: We’ll see 3,000 to 4,000 new homes – in the first 18 months we will be well on the way to the thousand mark. There will be a visible identity for the garden city, as well as a primary and secondary school, the village greens will be in place, as will the green corridors.

TF: And the relationship with Paramount?

MC: We want them to be successful but we’re pretty firm about our interests, which means we’re for some things and against other things. It’s productive – I see Steve Norris regularly, David Testa keeps in touch on a monthly basis.

TF: Does anything else in your broad portfolio overlap with your vision for Ebbsfleet – I’m thinking of your work with classical music artists, at the arts management agency, Askonas Holt?

MC: It gives me windows into occupiers who might look at Ebbsfleet seriously. I quite like the idea of trying to provide rehearsal space. With HS1, such a facility here is perfectly feasible – for orchestras, choruses, dancers – to gather for long hours of practice, without taking up space at Covent Garden or the Albert Hall.

TF: Is a concert hall in your dreams?

MC: Not at the moment – I’ve got to keep within the realms of the possible and some rehearsal space is a bigger likelihood than establishing a performance space. Paramount could change that – but let’s walk before we run.