A series of deals unveiled in recent weeks coupled with the imminent publication of a development framework for the garden city have breathed new life into the project. So could we be on the cusp of genuine progress at Ebbsfleet?

Last month, Property Week revealed that Land Securities had sold land in the Eastern Quarry for 4,700 homes to joint venture Henley Camland, which intends to prepare sites for development before selling them on to housebuilders.

The deal was later confirmed and Land Securities additionally announced that it had sold a further 539 residential plots to Taylor Wimpey on the already active Castle Hill site in the Eastern Quarry.

Change of gear

In total, 1,500 homes are now committed at Castle Hill, with Ward Homes and Persimmon already on site. According to Land Securities, the raft of sales is a clear sign that development at Ebbsfleet has changed gear.

“There is real momentum now,” believes Gary Sherwin, investment director – London, at Land Securities. “We started work on the Castle Hill infrastructure several years ago and that has proved successful – it allowed us to sell the sites. It’s a combination of us reading the market, which has been strong, and starting that infrastructure work that allowed us to offer a neat plot to residential developers.”

Land Securities is being advised on its strategy for the site by Savills, and Richard Rees, the firm’s executive director, development, agrees that the recent deals mark a turning point. “By definition, once the land has been sold by your base provider to the housebuilders, the housing elements are definitely going to happen,” he says. “There is no doubt that will happen. Over the next couple of years the firms will definitely crank out the housing as set out.”

The figures speak for themselves. According to Paul Spooner, interim chief executive at the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation (EDC), the body set up last year to act as planning authority for the project and guide government investment, no homes at all were built in 2014/15. The figure rose to 60 last year and, according to Spooner, at least 420 will start on site this year, with another increase expected in 2017/18. “We’re looking at a significant change of tempo now,” he says.

Encouragement is also to be found in planning work currently being undertaken by the EDC. The organisation received some negative headlines at the end of last year when its chief executive quit after just five months, followed by its director of strategy little more than a month ago. However, an insider says that Spooner is having an impact. “He isn’t just holding the fort,” he says.

Spooner is working with consultancy Aecom to work up a new masterplan for the site on behalf of the EDC, but in reality the document is more akin to a development framework, meaning that existing permissions need not be revisited and development can continue apace.

“It’s setting down some of the strategic bits that need to be put in around the individual landowners’ sites,” says one of the team behind the new town. “The development corporation doesn’t own the land, so it’s more of a development framework than a masterplan. It’s got to sit alongside different development companies that are doing the various housebuilder projects.”

The sites that have been acquired by housebuilders are therefore likely to be built out without further hindrance from the planning system. However, while the highly political nature of Ebbsfleet means that few involved are willing to talk openly about issues surrounding the project, some are prepared to voice their concerns about the quality of housing at the chancellor’s flagship development.

Quantity challenge

“The challenge is to up the game with some of the housebuilders,” says one source close to the project.

“If they just go forward with the suburban development model that is there today, we’re not going to achieve what’s being promised. We’ve got to up the game for a series of developers who have already got planning permission. What’s there at the moment isn’t particularly great.”

The issue with the housing is not just the quality of the product but the pace of delivery. George Osborne sees Ebbsfleet as a major component in his strategy of increasing housing delivery. The problem is that political imperatives don’t always dovetail with commercial interests.

While the government may want to see as many homes built as quickly as possible, landlords can maximise profit by taking a more cautious approach.

If Ebbsfleet proves to be an attractive place to live, the sale price for homes will increase thus inflating the land value. Consequently, it is not in Henley Camland’s interests especially to sell off too much land too soon.

“What that doesn’t do is help the government’s objective, which is getting as many homes built as quickly as possible,” says another source.

The government’s recent publication of a prospectus urging developers to create new garden cities of 10,000-plus dwellings underscores its commitment to tackling the housing crisis.

But Chris Tinker, regeneration chairman at Crest Nicholson, is sceptical. He believes the risk and scale of these large investments are such that few private sector firms would be induced to take them on.

“One of the fallouts of this trend is that the government has rebranded developments such as Ebbsfleet as ‘garden cities’ in the time since planning consent was granted more than 10 years ago. In reality, the classic principles of garden cities were not necessarily incorporated in their conceptual phases,” he says.

Even if the quality and quantum of development is improved, there are still challenges to be overcome, not least the provision of infrastructure. A road link to Bluewater and improvements to its access to the M2 is sorely required. Then there is the need to invest in utilities to provide power and water to thousands of new homes.

Aside from its planning role, this is where the EDC’s function is vitally important. “Our investment plan shows how we plan to spend the £310m allocated by government over the next five years,” says Spooner.

“We’ve brought forward money to get the infrastructure in as soon as possible. We’ll be co-investing with the utilities companies to start putting them in place from 2017. We’re also proposing, subject to government approval, for road connections to the station more directly.”

Employment issue

Then there is the issue of employment. The fast train links from Ebbsfleet to London are an obvious boon to the development, but the hope is that it can be more than a glorified commuter suburb for the capital. It is here that the plans for Paramount London, a huge new theme park mooted for the land to the north of Ebbsfeet International, come into play.

The proposed development promises many thousands of jobs and is so vast that it would be the first non-infrastructure scheme to adopt the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) route through planning – effectively bypassing the local authority planning process.

The hope is still that the Paramount project will provide the jobs boost Ebbsfleet needs. “It’s a new suburb of London in effect, but it should also operate as an independent area; as a place where people live and work,” says Savills’ Rees. “There will be people working at Paramount if it comes off, people working in schools and industrial units and so on.”

However, as Property Week revealed last month, submission of plans for the project has been delayed for a third time, calling into question the feasibility of the entire venture.

Some close to the Ebbsfleet project admit that they are not counting on the Paramount project coming off. One confides that it is “very much 50-50 whether it will happen”, while yet another says they believe the commitment from the developers is there, but that a lot will depend on financial backing being available.

For its part, the EDC is moving ahead with planning on the basis that Paramount will come to fruition.

“We’re very much working closely with Paramount’s masterplan team to ensure that the way in which they propose to access their site on the peninsula is reflected in our masterplan,” says Spooner. “We’re making sure we support the Paramount development.”

Whether or not Paramount London happens, the task for EDC is clear – but also unenviable. With planning powers but without land ownership, the corporation must negotiate both the demands of central government and the commercial pressures facing Land Securities and the housebuilders that buy its land to deliver a new settlement of some 15,000 homes.

Pulling off that trick will demand the utmost in diplomacy and steely resolve from whoever gets the chief executive position. No pressure, then.