Thamesmead first began to take shape in the early 1960s when the-then London County Council (LCC) first published its plans to build 25,000 homes on Erith & Plumstead marshes.
When the Greater London Council (GLC) took over from LCC in 1965 a team of planners, surveyors and architects was formed at County Hall with work beginning on building Thamesmead in 1967 with the construction of the architecturally exciting buildings running alongside Harrow Manor Way (Coralline Walk and Binsey Walk).
Thamesmead's first community association, Trust Thamesmead, was formed by the early residents in 1976 to support increased community provision and activities in the ‘new town' of Thamesmead.
In 1986 the GLC was dissolved by the Local Government Act and, following a referendum of local residents, the management of Thamesmead passed to Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). This decision represented the first residential estate in the country to be controlled entirely by a private company governed by a resident-elected body.
TTL not only managed the residential development but also the commercial areas, open spaces, recreational facilities and industrial estates.
Whether Thamesmead changed for the better or the worse under its direction could be hotly contended. Suffice to say that, as with the earlier period of Thamesmead's history, the conflicts and the contradictions were to continue.
The concept of a ‘community controlled housing company' so confidently launched was to evolve and change over its 13-year life.
There were no precedents upon which TTL could be based. The fact that the structure had to be formulated and the details worked out in a relatively short space of time meant that it was only in the actual operation that its shortcomings became apparent.
Equally, the scale of the undertaking was so great it was perhaps inevitable that the consequences of particular aspects of the organisation might not have been adequately thought through at the start, and these were to give rise to major and unanticipated problems in the ensuing years.
In the wider context, just as no one could have predicted the circumstances that accompanied the early history of Thamesmead and which distorted the GLC's vision for the ‘Town of the 21st Century', so too no one could have predicted the social, economic and political changes that were to take place during the period of TTL's governance.
These external factors in turn had a major impact on the operations of the company and the consequent growth of Thamesmead. The company had to respond to new demands, and to refine both its structure and its policies as the different needs emerged.
As a private company TTL had no access to public funds and no grants, relying entirely on its investments and income from property to raise the finance for its programmes. This placed enormous demands and stresses on the elected directors, given that most of them had virtually no managerial experience.
In 1990 the Boundary Commission attempted to resolve Thamesmead's longstanding problem of the division between Bexley and Greenwich by making an initial recommendation that all of Thamesmead should be in the Borough of Greenwich.
However, residents on the Bexley side were opposed to this proposal and in a referendum the vast majority voted to stay in Bexley, fearing the transfer would bring higher local taxes, higher insurance and lower property values.
When the Commission submitted its final recommendations to the Government a year later, the people of Thamesmead were stunned to discover that despite the overwhelming opposition, the proposal was still to transfer the Bexley half to Greenwich in the interests of the efficient running of local government.
The situation changed again when the response came back in the summer of 1991 when, to the delight of the community, the Government had taken account of the wishes of the local people, and the Boundary Commission's recommendations for Thamesmead were overturned and the status quo remained.
However, by 1993 TTL had trading losses totalling more than £10 million in its first five years and by the late 1990s the company's shortcomings were becoming all too apparent and in 1997 the idea of winding the company up began to be talked about, along with the suggestion of transferring its housing to the local authority sector.
In July 1998 the TTL Board decided to look at splitting the company into different parts and details of the alternative proposals were sent to every home, and residents were invited to have their say in deciding. In July 1999 there was a ballot when 4,318 Thamesmead residents voted for the restructuring of TTL, alongside 773 who voted against the proposal.
The Government Office for London approved the change in structure of TTL, to be effective from 1 May and thus the 21st century heralded a new era in the history of Thamesmead.
2000 and Beyond
Following the demise of TTL the new governance arrangement for Thamesmead centred upon three independent companies, each focused on a specific activity.
Its community affairs department was transferred to an enlarged and reformed Trust Thamesmead; its social housing and most of its parks and open spaces were transferred to a new housing association, Gallions Housing Association, and its commercial and investment property was transferred to a new private property development company called Tilfen Land Limited.
Tilfen Land was set up to invest in Gallions Housing Association and Trust Thamesmead through a 50% shareholding by each organisation, with both organisations receiving substantial dividend from the company for investment back into the community.
For the people of Thamesmead, long term benefits and the creation of a balanced community have always been paramount. Each of the three organisations created following the demise of TTL has these interests at heart.
However, producing a co-ordinated approach across Thamesmead has always been a challenge because of the split between the two local authorities (Bexley and Greenwich) although communication with and between the two boroughs has improved.
Looking to the Future
Thamesmead can anticipate many more changes, both within the community, as it continues to grow and evolve, and beyond it, with the developments coming in the Thames Gateway.
Like its past, Thamesmead's future destiny is locked into a wider economic, social and political context, beyond its control. Perhaps Thamesmead's greatest strengths are the energy, vision, dreams and hopes that people living and working in the community have brought with them and which have driven Thamesmead forward.
Without doubt, there has always been, and always will be a community that is unique to Thamesmead - ‘it's always changing, always exciting, always challenges and celebrates, it's brilliant and not like anywhere else'.
To keep in touch with what's going on in Thamesmead why not sign up for ‘Trust Talk', Trust's Thamesmead's bi-monthly newsletter which is designed to keep people in touch with what is going on at the Trust and in our community? Contact us
Sections of this article are taken from a book commissioned by Trust Thamesmead called: Thamesmead - a Social History, written by Valerie Wigfall and published in 2009. Copies priced at £15.00 (P&P free) are available from Trust Thamesmead. For more information contact us.