Published: 17:28, 23 September 2021
| Updated: 19:14, 23 September 2021
A rebel group of councillors have joined a growing opposition to the controversial redevelopment of a working port which will put the future of more than 800 jobs at risk.
Conservative leaders at Medway Council are facing a backlash from backbench members of the party over the plans for Chatham Docks.
The site, on the banks of the River Medway, which formed part of the former naval dockyard, remains a commercial dock and is currently protected from redevelopment under the existing Medway Local Plan.
But the latest version of that document – which will set out housing requirements in the Towns for the next 20 years – is expected to be published within days after months of delays and setbacks.
KentOnline understands the docks will be put forward for redevelopment following its inclusion by landowners Peel L&P for consideration in the plan for up to 3,600 apartments, retail and leisure space.
Labour councillors, Tory MP Kelly Tolhurst and independent members have voiced opposition and concern about the loss of jobs and impact on the economy.
It has now emerged, some 14 Conservative councillors, including cabinet members, are set to voice concerns over the docks' inclusion in the new draft Local Plan.
This would mean it will be more difficult for council leader Cllr Alan Jarrett to secure enough support to approve the document – which will also be put out for public consultation before it is submitted to the government.
Among the opponents to the docks' inclusion is Rochester West councillor and planning committee member, Stuart Tranter (Con).
He said: "I'm far from alone in holding this opinion and they've become more and more worried about it.
"We have a considerable number of Medway [Conservative] councillors – not speaking for Labour or independent members – feeling they cannot agree with any proposal which results in the closure of those docks.
"We are all concerned that if [new Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary] Michael Gove does not change housing targets – we've got to wait and see – and the worst case is this massive target is that more homes have to be built somewhere else.
"But still saying that doesn't mean we have to close our thriving industry to save a field or some other piece of land.
"We have plan positively for Medway to create beautiful homes we need and prove we can deliver that need, support and grow our industries."
Businesses based at the port have launched a campaign called Save Chatham Docks and say virtually every company located there will be forced to leave as the site cannot be replicated for their needs elsewhere in Kent.
The firms have a combined annual turnover of approximately £170 million, employ an estimated further 1,500 people through the supply chain and many are expanding and creating further direct employment roles.
Cllr Gary Etheridge (Con, Strood Rural) said he would "vote with his conscience" but expressed he has "grave concerns" about the loss of the docks.
"I personally have been there and seen the area and fully appreciate the concerns from businesses there.
"I'm looking at the planned ongoing business issues of materials and employment and the viability and it is viable."
Cllr Chris Buckwell said colleagues are "sympathetic to the docks in principle" and added he hoped it would be possible to "keep the docks and pass a plan which meets the requirements" for housing needs but had yet to make a final decision.
Cllr Jarrett would not be drawn on reports of growing opposition in his ranks and has not yet committed to a position when previously asked for the administration's policy about the closure plans which were confirmed in 2019.
But he said: “We are expecting to launch the consultation on the draft Local Plan next month, subject to Full Council agreement. Landowners are responsible for, and will decide, the future of their sites.
“The standard [government housing numbers] methodology when applied to Medway means we are compelled to build in excess of 28,000 new homes during the period of the next Local Plan. That was confirmed by government during the period when Kelly Tolhurst was a Housing Minister.”
Speaking in parliament last Thursday, Ms Tolhurst said she is "extremely proud" of the area's connection to the River Medway and the Towns' "great maritime history".
She said despite evidence showing business thriving at the port she disagrees with Peel L&P claims the docks are "no longer viable" and cited recent independent advice which suggested costs it had quoted to repair and replace docks gates had been inflated.
"Changing the designation from commercial to housing will be another devastating blow to the area, the local economy, businesses, supply chain and people who work there – putting an end to the future use of a strategic infrastructure asset despite being a demand and on a site that will never be replaced," she said.
"Redesignation will be an overwhelming contribution in the closure – loss of business, jobs and future opportunities for generations to come."
Her comments were made while raising the issue with Eddie Hughes, a minister in the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
He responded by saying while planning issues such as that faced at Chatham Docks were a matter for local government to address, sites should not be developed where there was a proven case it would harm the local economy.
He said: "I recognise the concern about the future of the docks. I cannot discuss the details of individual plans due to the role of the secretary of state in the planning process nor can I comment on specific sites.
"The preparation of Local Plans involves ongoing engagement and consultation with communities, businesses and interested parties.
"We have a considerable number of Medway Conservative councillors feeling they cannot agree with any proposal which results in the closure of those docks..."
"There will be further opportunities to make representations prior to its submission for examination.
"I would encourage my honourable friend and constituents to take every opportunity to shape the local plan."
Mr Hughes highlighted national planning policy which states brownfield sites should only be selected where it "does not undermine key economic sectors or sites or the vitality and viability of town centres".
"Our policy is clear. We support brownfield regeneration to meet needs for different land uses but must support a strong economy and local prosperity."
Ms Tolhurst also highlighted a raft of successful companies in reducing CO2 emissions by using shipping rather than HGV transport, securing big contracts such as Wembley Stadium and Crossrail.
She also mentioned a recent announcement that ArcellorMittal Kent Wire – the largest employer on the site – planned to invest £1m and provide 50 new jobs having secured a contract to help build the HS2 railway line.
"It is testament to those business they are continuing to deliver and grow with this uncertainty hanging over their future," Ms Tolhurst said.
"These show Chatham Docks is providing the right opportunities for local businesses to win contracts and support national projects.
"Closing the site for housing would prevent any future for this type of development and growth.
"Future investment plans would see jobs grow from more than 800 to over a 1,000 in the port and a big increase in apprenticeships.
"What is most worrying is that after much concern expressed by myself, councillors, residents, businesses, academics and industry, Medway Council feel the docks must be redesignated for housing.
"Does government really want to see thriving, growing and commercial businesses, regionally important infrastructure closed, people out of work and future lost opportunities in the pursuit of building flats to meet arbitrary targets.
"Most people find it unbelievable this is even being considered."
Housing 'needs to be justified'
Cllr Tranter said a "very strong case" had been presented by Ms Tolhurst in the parliamentary debate.
"We know this a local government decision so I understand the minister is not going to pull something out of the hat whether he wishes to or not to overrule local government.
"I felt his response was very encouraging and it was interesting he spoke about housing need which needs to be justified.
"A lot of people locally are really struggling to understand why it's believed our housing need is so high and prove we can deliver against that."
Cllr Tranter added building homes at Chatham Docks would have to take huge amounts into consideration such as flood defences, land contamination below the surface dating back to its time as a naval dockyard.
He said the lack of rail links close to the docks could also cause potential issues with adding another few thousand properties and with many people working in London leading to congestion on the Towns' roads.
"This is about the long-term future of Medway," Cllr Tranter said. "We have for hundreds of years a long and powerful maritime history here.
"Our whole heritage is built around that river and these docks represent the last remaining commercial link and provide high-value jobs.
"These are jobs which are at the heart and soul of Medway – those businesses are not struggling and want to expand and employ more people in future.
"It would be insane to take away those ship-bearing basins which provide the opportunity to maintain that.
"It's not a soft issue. It's an economic necessity for Medway and it's who we are.
"These are jobs which are at the heart and soul of Medway..."
"Other people do not have our location and our advantages and we really do need to exploit that as best we can.
"We want to build on brownfield rather than greenfield but most people think of a brownfield site being neglected and disused.
"But that doesn't apply here – it's a unique space which if it goes, it goes forever.
"Everyone has to have their eyes open. It can't be replaced in Medway anywhere."
Decision could impact on future of companies staying in area
Companies say they will be forced to leave Medway and potentially Kent entirely due to the unique qualities of the site offered at Chatham Docks.
Phil Taylor, chief executive of ArcellorMittal Kent Wire and leading the Save Chatham Docks campaign, said: "It's fantastic we've got more dedication from more Conservative councillors.
"When we started it was quite a lonely path and a feeling there wasn't much interest.
"In the last 18 months we've submitted a number of powerful documents and evidence that was independently prepared we felt had been swept under the carpet.
"To not be believed when we'd used independent people to provide the evidence was upsetting.
"That case is changing but I'm still not sure the leadership are interested in listening to the evidence.
"It's not just about my business but all the others today and for the future as well."
Mr Taylor added he had grave concerns for his company should the redesignation be confirmed and passed into the Local Plan.
He explained the current plan dedicated Chatham Docks as having industrial use protections and says he was told it would not be required for housing and so moved 500 metres from Chatham Waters – which has also been developed by Peel L&P – costing £3.5m.
"The threat to us is very real and they've said they will not pay twice to move us..."
But he said bosses at head office would not ratify another move which is estimated to cost in the region of £20m due to there not being the same facilities available elsewhere locally with the only nearest potential being Humberside.
"The threat to us is very real and they've said they will not pay twice to move us," he added.
Mr Taylor said the campaign to save the docks would be "ramped up" and lobbying to the planning inspector which will examine Medway's Local Plan proposals will be combined with a wider public fight.
He suggested a public demonstration would take place outside the full council meeting next month when the issue would be discussed and encouraged members of the public to comment on the plan in favour of keeping the docks operating.
"We will not roll over and allow this to be a fait accompli," he added.
"I would hope to see the public gallery full on October 7, car stickers and a large banner outside the meeting."