Published: 06:00, 11 July 2020
D-Day is looming for the future of thousands of jobs and whether "short-sighted" closure proposals of Chatham Docks can move forward.
The site has been earmarked for redevelopment and is set to shut in 2025 when the leases expire with landowners Peel L&P.
Businesses, MP Kelly Tolhurst and Labour councillors have all joined forces in an attempt to convince the Medway Council not to include the site for housing in the upcoming new Medway Local Plan.
Planning officers at Medway Council are currently finalising details of the Local Plan, due to be discussed by the cabinet on August 4, causing an anxious wait for those whose livelihoods depend on the decision.
But in a new report published this week, a social policy expert says the loss of the port would cost £258 million to the Medway economy and result in 2,000 job losses both directly employed and in the supply chain. It is thought the closure will have possible similarities to the closure of Chatham's naval dockyard in 1984.
Professor Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, also notes closure would lead to a huge increase of carbon dioxide by the loss of waterside activities and onsite recycling.
He says the docks are a unique site which cannot be replicated anywhere else due it is non-tidal enclosed dock. It is also the largest single source of private sector revenue in Chatham generating 10-times more than Chatham Historic Dockyard.
The location means it is a feeder port for many trades and manufacturers in Europe which also produces steel for London's expanding infrastructure, has hi-tech specialist recycling firms and ship repairers with highly skilled workers.
The 800 jobs currently employed on the site would be lost and 1,440 more local jobs affected due to the knock-on effect of the supply chain. A further 200 planned new jobs would never be created.
In the council's initial research for the Local Plan, it has already been allocated as a site with potential for mixed use development for thousands of waterfront homes, leisure facilities and retail space to expand the Chatham Waters development.
But as Medway and the country battles to recover from the financial turmoil created by the global coronavirus pandemic, Miss Tolhurst says closing the docks would be disastrous.
The Rochester and Strood MP said: "The plans are now very short-sighted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as we begin to rebuild our finances and work towards net zero carbon emissions for which the maritime sector can play a role in their reduction.
"For this reason, I feel that it is time for Medway Council to reconsider their plans to close the docks.
"We need to understand how the council’s plan will support the local economy, create the sustainable jobs we need, where we will be able to support commercial development and more detail about the overall plan of a vision for Medway."
The council says no formal decision has been made about the closure of the docks and that the decision remains solely with Peel L&P which this week reiterated its intentions not to keep the docks open.
A spokesman for Peel L&P said: "All the leases including the operational port lease expire before or in 2025.
"The port operation is unviable post 2025 as significant investment will be required in the infrastructure for the long-term. In the past 10 years, over £8m has been invested in the infrastructure including the refurbishment of the lock gates.
"We are promoting suitable port relocation sites in the local area to all the businesses, so the jobs and economic impact will not be lost. Our vision is to find suitable relocation sites for current businesses whilst regenerating key parts of brownfield land on River Medway."
The company, which is also part of the firm which runs Sheerness Docks, says if the land is not allocated for mixed use in the Local Plan it would remain a heavy industry and manufacturing site.
In the meantime, it says plans will continue to be developed in the next five years to convert the 75-acre Chatham Waters development which "has the potential to create 2,000 jobs and 4,000 residential homes of mixed tenure".
Peel L&P says its proposals for any mixed use commercial opportunities would "support Medway’s economic growth and leisure ambitions"
"As we await further developments on site allocation in Medway, we continue to have positive conversations with partners and investors," the spokesman added.
Phil Taylor, head of the association of Chatham Docks businesses formed to campaign against the closure, said: "It’s here in black and white. The decision isn’t just bad for businesses at the docks, it’s bad for the whole of Medway.
"At a time when so many people are already struggling to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on their finances the last thing they need is to suffer another hammer-blow from their own council.
"We are nervous about the contents of the draft Local Plan but are hopeful that Medway Council will have listened to our comprehensive analysis of the impact of closing Chatham Docks would have on the Medway economy. Whatever the outcome of the cabinet meeting we will continue to fight to save Chatham Docks."
Labour opposition leader Vince Maple said: "The economic report provided further clarity to what was frankly abundantly clear - it is vital to Medway’s economy that Chatham Dock remains open as a commercial port.
"The detriment to the community is huge. I call on the administration to intervene in this situation immediately, particularly given the further uncertainty to the local economy beyond the Covid-19 crisis."
Cllr Andy Stamp, Labour's spokesman for regeneration and culture, added: “I urge Medway residents to write to the council in order to highlight the importance of our environment, skilled jobs and local economy particularly in such a pressing time of uncertainty beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The Conservative group said it was "entirely improper to express a preference" for one site or another before the plan was published.
Back in January, Labour lost a motion calling on the council to formally adopt a policy to protect jobs at the port.