Riverside businesses threatened by closure due to redevelopment plans for the docks where they are based say they are "astonished" after a leading councillor suggested moving to a landlocked alternative.
The companies based at Chatham Docks – which is set to close in 2025 despite major opposition – have also been directed to a support package worth up to £500,000 while some firms say it will cost almost 40 times that much to move.
Planning cabinet member at Medway Council Cllr Jane Chitty this week wrote to companies based at the docks saying the authority is "aware" plans by landowners Peel L&P to shut the docks will "impact on the operation of your business".
In the letter, Cllr Chitty said she "fully appreciates" the proposals to close the docks "will create challenges especially following the disruption you have already faced over the last 19 months".
But she added: "I am convinced we have the support in place to help you turn the situation into an opportunity and that this change will be a catalyst for your business to accelerate growth."
Among the suggestions and advice offered to firms, Cllr Chitty mentioned options for businesses to relocate with help from the council's partnership with Locate in Kent – an agency working with businesses to invest, find locations and grow throughout Kent and Medway.
Cllr Chitty said the assistance would include "help with relocating to new sites in Kent when your lease expires".
She also suggested sites which are being developed for employment such as MedwayOne – an industrial estate on the site of the former Kingsnorth Power Station – and Innovation Park Medway, the council's flagship business park which is being aimed at research and development and technology businesses at Rochester Airport.
The affected businesses – which employ more than 800 people – at Chatham Docks say the alternatives and Cllr Chitty's letter show the council's "continued determination to force the businesses at Chatham Docks out of their existing premises".
Campaigners say neither site proposed – nor the package of measures proposed to help – was suitable with the jetties at MedwayOne only accessible for limited times of the day due to the tidal on the River Medway estuary and the fact the site is still awaiting planning permission.
Phil Taylor, chief executive of Kent ArcelorMittal Kent Wire based at the docks, said: “Given the importance of the River Medway to our business, it seems astonishing that the lead councillor for the Local Plan could suggest a landlocked site as an alternative location for our business.
"Cllr Chitty’s offer fails to recognise that our lease at Chatham Docks is protected under the Landlord Tenant Act 1954 and that Peel L&P cannot simply turf us out.
"There is only one route open to Peel L&P to close Chatham Docks in 2025, and that requires Medway Council to change the current Planning Policy which protects this site for employment and port operations only.
"In 2012 Medway Council granted permission to allow Chatham Waters site to go ahead, against its own planning policy for the site because 'it [would] protect the long-term future of the remaining Chatham Dock site'.
"I engaged with Medway Council at this time and was given assurances that that our current site offered my business certainty for a long-term future.
"Armed with this information I spent £3.5 million to relocate the business 500 metres and protect the local jobs reliant on this business. To relocate again would cost up to £20m just for ArcelorMittal Kent Wire alone.”
Asked about the frustrations raised by companies at the docks – the landlocked alternatives, tidal jetties and insufficient financial support – Cllr Chitty would not be drawn on the specific points.
She said: "I recently wrote to businesses at Chatham Docks that will be impacted by Peel Ports’ decision to close Chatham Docks in 2025.
“The letter referred businesses to the support that is available to them through Locate in Kent including one-to-one support, access to small grants up to £500,000, help with relocating and a business planning programme.
“The letter also included examples of other sites across Medway which are currently being developed. We understand that each business is different and that these sites may not be suitable, however, they were only mentioned as potential options.
“We are committed to supporting business as much as we possibly can and early discussions will help us establish all of their needs. I would encourage businesses to contact Locate in Kent or our Economic Development Team to discuss the support on offer, if they so wish.”