TAITMAIL Estuary speak

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“Unlovely” is how one of the PRs associated with the Thames Estuary development describes the region. “It’s hard to see Joseph Conrad”.


Actually you can. Conrad wrote in his 1906 memoir The Mirror and the Sea: “A great future lies before Tilbury Docks... free of the trammels of the tide, easy of access, magnificent and desolate, they are already there, prepared to take and keep the biggest ships that float right upon the sea. They are worthy of the oldest river port in the world”. Behind the shoreline, Tilbury is back with a £1bn recreation as a container terminus, with its £250m RO-RO facility finished and quietly opened in May. You might have missed it.
 
But the old flurry has gone, the dockyards spiking into the skies, the riverside bustle, the great freighters, the red-sailed barges, the teeming lesser boatlife, and now the bleak, misty edges of the Thames look like the very edge of the world if not quite the Heart of Darkness.
 
It was Conrad’s more positive vision that was evoked this week at the launch of the government-sponsored Thames Estuary Growth Board (TEGB) “Green Blue” – green environment, blue water - plan for the next two years and a vision of the next ten for the 50 miles or so between London’s East End and Southend on one side of the river mouth to Margate on the other. Its efforts, it expects, will eventually bring £115bn to the UK economy. 
 
It’s no coincidence - one is part of the other - that also launched on Tuesday was a series of “inaugural” public art commissions across the area by Creative Estuary (CE), set up 18 months ago with £4.3m of government funding as part of the TEGB “to use culture as a catalyst for growth in this unique part of the country” said its chair, Sarah Dance. “The Thames Estuary can offer much-needed space for expanding creative businesses and provide the scale of services, skills and infrastructure sought by both national organisations and international creative producers”. 
 
The area is seen as a kind of gold-plated portal on which art will gild the development of one of the government’s ten proposed post-Brexit freeports.  
 
The TEGB was launched by Michael Heseltine in 2016 and its multi-billion pound plan published in 2018 envisaged £195bn and 1.3m new jobs coming back by 2050 for HMG’s undisclosed investment, but with Covid, perhaps, that has had to be pared back. Although there is scant reference to creativity in the report, it’s significant that the plan was launched at the High House Production Park at Thurrock, home to the Royal Opera House’s prop-making centre and artists’ studios. 
 
It’s places like High House that will humanise the Green Blue power surge, says Dance, and the expectation is that Creative Estuary in its sub fusc way will itself generate £3.1bn a year. While there are ambitious developments associated with Green Blue, like the new Thames tunnel at Thurrock, Ebbsfleet Garden City and “locally driven town centre transformation” at places like Southend, Basildon, Canvey Island, and, yes, Holehaven Creek, for which it may or may not be worth holding your breath, there won’t be big shiny new arts buildings popping up. 
 
The CE initiative, Dance says, is to get under the skin of the region and draw out its creativity as well as giving the much-needed space to already established creatives; and it is not faltering, even with Covid’s intervention. Re:Generation 2031, for instance, is an initiative that hasn’t broken step, using apprenticeships, mentoring, financial support and other training for a new generation of creatives among young Estuarians; there’ll be Creative Labs meshing creatives, technologists and academics combining on specific projects; new creative workspaces in hubs like Margate, video makers, games inventors, fashion studios, in among the one million new houses and hotels, shopping centres. 
 
And this is how community arts work. CE links the London, Essex and Kent river shorelines and has working partnerships with 18 local authorities, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership bringing in business involvement, the universities and FE colleges, as well as artists and arts organisations all over the region, including the key ones of Metal founded by Jude Kelly and based now in Southend and Cement Fields working from the University of Kent in Canterbury. Within CE’s area there are 16,000 creative businesses employing 46,000 people, many of them having moved out of unaffordable London to constitute a potential cultural powerhouse.
 
So Creative Estuary has commissioned four projects at a modest £15,000 each that have been conceived to have a lasting and profound effect.
 
Tilbury is where the Windrush landed its human cargo 72 years ago, and Everton Wright, called Evewright professionally, is making Tilbury Bridge Walkway of Memories, 432 panes of glass with images of the pioneers and their documents, which will act as a backdrop for live performances. 
 
The LV21, in my picture (credit Jason Arthur), is a former lightship moored at Gravesend that has become a floating arts and performance space, crewed by professionals and volunteers from the local community who are going to explore the theme of silt, digging in to the mud beneath to find the components of a historic narrative of the area.
 
Across the water at Southend a collaboration between two arts organisations, the Other MA and the Old Waterworks, are working on Precarious Straits, an exploration of the eroded coastline, with an exhibition space in a high street shopping centre.
 
Outside Chatham Historic Dockyard – another CE partner – is a former bank that has been turned into an arts centre, Sun Pier House, which with Intra Arts at Rochester will be looking at local industrial history through “living memory” research and archaeology.
 
And while Covid-19 has had the same melancholy effects on estuary people as everywhere else, it has had its positive side culturally. “It gave us breathing space” Dance says, “time to check on what we’re doing”. She also made another pertinent discovery: there are 100,000 individual creatives living along the estuary half of whom normally commute into London to work but since March have been forced to stay at home. “A lot of them will be rethinking their way of working, and a lot of companies discovering that homeworking is cost-saving” Dance says, so the estuary ceases to be one of the biggest dormitories in the country. And lockdown has also meant people had time to discover some of the unsuspected delights of their own habitat.
 
Throughout the lockdown the unlocking of the Thames Estuary’s cultural potential has not stopped. These commissions, the first of several, continued their development through the spring and summer unabated and are one introduction to what Creative Estuary is doing, while the month-long Estuary Festival, postponed until next spring and put together by Metal and Cement Fields, will be its next breaking of cover. 
 
“What have we got in the Thames Estuary?” says Dance. “It’s a place just crying out with opportunity. We’ve got space, great natural beauty, interesting places, an amazingly talented creative population… and The River.”
 

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