Published: 17:12, 17 September 2021
| Updated: 19:19, 17 September 2021
A government minister has hinted threats of closing a working port for redevelopment may not be approved if it is found the local ecomony will suffer.
The future of more than 800 jobs at Chatham Docks is at risk should it be allocated for redevelopment in Medway's new Local Plan.
It is widely expected to be included and is set to be published by Medway Council next week ahead of a cabinet meeting later this month.
Landowners Peel L&P has already said it wishes to close down the port when leases for the businesses based there expire in 2025.
KentOnline understands plans will be unveiled for 3,600 apartments as part of a mixed use development with the council looking to meet government housing targets.
But in a discussion in the House of Commons on Thursday brought by Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst, the government said any ambition to redevelop brownfield sites would have to show it would not harm the economy.
Eddie Hughes, parliamentary under secretary at the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said: "Our policy is clear. We support brownfield regeneration to meet needs for different land uses but must support a strong economy and local prosperity."
He highlighted national planning policy 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".
Mr Hughes was responding to an impassioned speech by Ms Tolhurst – who has clashed with her Conservative colleagues at the council several times over the issue.
She said: "Chatham Docks is a working commercial port where many businesses are benefitting from what it is a strategic, regionally significant asset.
"It is a 70-acre port and manufacturing hub home to successful and growing maritime businesses providing 800 jobs, apprenticeships and 1,500 in the supply chain or dependent on the facility.
"Businesses have a combined annual turnover of £170m and planned future investment of £60m.
"Despite this, the landowner feel the site is no longer viable and too much is required to repair lockgates and wish to close the docks and in its place build tall high rises with tall promises on the number of jobs.
"The suggestion of closing Chatham Docks has united businesses, residents and political opponents against the ideas.
"Changing the designation from commercial to housing will be another devastating blow to the area, the local economy, businesses, supply chain, people that work and 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.
"Redesignation will be an overwhelming contribution in the closure – loss of business, jobs and future opportunities for generations to come."
She said companies had been successful in reducing CO2 emissions to meet the government's green ambitions and securing big contracts such as Wembley Stadium and Crossrail.
She also highlighted the recent announcement by ArcellorMittal Kent Wire – the largest employer on the site – planning 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."
She asked government minister Mr Hughes whether discussions had been held about delivering housing targets without the need to close Chatham Docks.
Ms Tolhurst added: "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."
Responding, Mr Hughes said the strength of the industries in the Medway are "a real asset" including the "impressive number of businesses to have made their homes" in the Medway Towns.
He added: "I understand the important role the waterways play in Chatham's economy – past, present and future. From the proud shipbuilding history to the modern day aspirations to support the government's net zero ambitions.
"I'm sure links to the river will remain a huge part of Chatham's future.
"While I understand desire to protect existing businesses and industry, ultimately it's not for central government to comment on its immediate future.
"We have been encouraged by the significant regeneration and change over the last 30 years since the closure of the naval dockyard.
"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 government is clear that councils and communities are best placed to take decisions on local planning matters.
"The preparation of Local Plans involves ongoing engagement and consultation with communities, businesses and interested parties.
"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."
Reflecting on the points raised in the House of Commons, Phil Taylor, chief executive of ArcellorMittal Kent Wire and leading the Save Chatham Docks campaign, said he was interested to hear Mr Hughes' comments that housing quotas were "an aspirational target and not the absolute".
"It seems the council is taking the absolute number as the target but that's not what he (Mr Hughes) said.
"It was fantastic Kelly put a powerful case forward to save Chatham Docks."