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Medway Local Plan: Council leader Alan Jarrett reflects protest, Conservative party division, UK City of Culture bid loss in a big week in politics


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Having faced a rebellion from within his party, forced to pull a key vote, sacking a close ally, calls to resign and learning the City of Culture bid for Medway had failed, council leader Alan Jarrett has vowed he is not going anywhere.

They say a week in politics is a long time but Cllr Jarrett has faced a longer week than most battling opposition and criticism from several fronts.

Medway Council leader Alan Jarrett has faced a rebellion from within his party, forced to pull a key vote, sacked a close ally, been told to resign and learnt the City of Culture bid for Medway had failed this week
Medway Council leader Alan Jarrett has faced a rebellion from within his party, forced to pull a key vote, sacked a close ally, been told to resign and learnt the City of Culture bid for Medway had failed this week

"You've got to keep things in perspective – the family has good health, nobody has died this week in my family – but not being flippant either," the Conservative leader says.

"Politically it hasn't been terribly great and could have been better."

As crunch time loomed to vote whether to "agree in principle" the planning blueprint for 27,000 homes across Medway over the next 16 years, Cllr Jarrett was forced to scrap the debate as it emerged he would not carry enough support for it to pass and a public protest preceding last night's fully Medway Council meeting.

The Medway Local Plan – one of the biggest decisions the council makes – was missing a number of vital documents which led critics to describe it as "incomplete and flawed".

Councillors were asked to vote on progressing the plan to allow officers more time to work on the information before sending the plan out to public consultation.

Campaigners gathered outside Medway Council's meeting on Thursday to show their opposition to the draft Local Plan. Picture: Katie May Nelson
Campaigners gathered outside Medway Council's meeting on Thursday to show their opposition to the draft Local Plan. Picture: Katie May Nelson

While Cllr Jarrett says the public would never have been presented with an incomplete plan – which includes plans to redevelop Chatham Docks, decide how to spend the £170 million HIF (Housing Infrastructure Fund) for rail and road improvements to support 12,000 homes on the Hoo Peninsula – members held huge concerns about the missing details.

Asked why he had brought forward an incomplete Local Plan and why he pulled the vote, Cllr Jarrett said: "We have a very tight timescale presented by government and have to have one in place by the end of 2023.

"If you work back from that – the next council meeting is in January so doesn't work well with the process we're working to.

"It would go out to consultation for eight weeks after that [missing] information is finalised. We would have to review that and go back to full council again.

"Then we go to examination in public which can take up to a year to 18 months – so we will quickly run up to 2023.

"It was asking members for leeway and tolerance to agree a marginally incomplete Local Plan to start moving forward on that timescale."

The Hoo Peninsula is a key area allocated for development in Medway under the council's Local Plan document which is facing fierce opposition. It includes £170m plans for infrastructure including a new railway station
The Hoo Peninsula is a key area allocated for development in Medway under the council's Local Plan document which is facing fierce opposition. It includes £170m plans for infrastructure including a new railway station

The leader hit back saying it was "a great shame the public have been denied a say on this stage of the process".

He added: "It was plain to me we couldn't win the vote – so if you can't what is the point is having it.

"My job is to deliver services and I had a small caucus of people wanting to deny the people of Medway the opportunity to have a say and we've got to come up with another plan to deliver the Local Plan.

"It is arguably the biggest strategic document we have – it will affect all the people of Medway between now and 2037.

"It's a big disappointment and we're now going to have to find a way through that.

"Somehow I will work to build a consensus amongst those prepared to listen. I believe some aren't prepare to co-operate at all through this process."

Cllr Jarrett hit back at Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst over her position relating to inclusion of Chatham Docks and her stance on housing in Hoo. Picture: Darren Small
Cllr Jarrett hit back at Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst over her position relating to inclusion of Chatham Docks and her stance on housing in Hoo. Picture: Darren Small

Cllr Jarrett says it was "quite plain" by Tuesday he was not going to gain enough votes at the meeting on Thursday evening.

On Wednesday morning, it was announced there would be no debate or discussion about the Local Plan.

Cllr Jarrett says he fears the delays could lead to consequences for the council now out of their hands.

He said this could include a wave of developers submitting planning applications which without a plan in place, or a the ball rolling on a Local Plan in place would make it much harder for the council to defend proposals which could be detrimental or not in the best interests of communities.

"The consequences are enormous," Cllr Jarrett said before taking aim at Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst, who he said "has been firmly set on damaging the HIF and Local Plan process".

"We're all nimbys to some extent, but having supported the HIF bid she's now diametrically opposed to it.

The Hoo Peninsula has become one of the hottest debates about the future for housing in Medway. Picture: Historic England
The Hoo Peninsula has become one of the hottest debates about the future for housing in Medway. Picture: Historic England

"Part of that bid was to deliver 10,200 homes in the Hoo area but now she's saying she doesn't want the homes despite supporting the infrastructure.

"All of that puts the Local Plan into jeopardy – if you start moving an allocation for 10,000 homes out of the process, it's not a case of mix and match.

"Environmental and strategic reports take into account on a site by site basis.

"If you take Chatham Docks out and replace it with something else but don't say what you're going to replace that with, I'm afraid that leads you to planning anarchy.

"That's what's going on here, I believe. There's some irrationality here."

Asked whether the vote being pulled and opinions raised about controversial allocations – such as Chatham Docks for 3,600 when Peel L&P closes the port in 2025, the Hoo redevelopments and 650 properties at Deangate – meant extra time to reassess whether to include those in the plan when it is next presented, Cllr Jarrett said: "We're in a totally different world now.

An artist's impression of the new station proposed for the Hoo Peninsula
An artist's impression of the new station proposed for the Hoo Peninsula

"The need and urgency to bring the plan forward for consultation – in principle.

"Some people seem to forget we're a democracy beholden to the public and why wouldn't we want to consult the public.

"We didn't say we would go out to consultation until it was complete – the remaining documents would follow.

"We've been in formal agreements with developers to stay applications to allow us to agree the plan and get that in place.

"I've made them promises about timescales I've not been able to deliver on.

"So now don't be surprised if we get a whole load of applications come forward particularly for Hoo without the Local Plan process and in advance of the HIF programme under way.

"These developers are now going to lose patience with the council"

"Infrastructure will facilitate the housing but the housing is not dependent on the infrastructure because the housing will come forward anyway.

"What we wanted to do and will still try to do is facilitating infrastructure in place – to do that we need a coherent plan.

"But these developers – and you can't blame them because we've held them at bay for the thick end of two years – are now going to lose patience with the council because a draft Local Plan is not in place.

"Don't be surprised if a flood of applications come in – which is directly contrary to what the MP and accolites have been saying about not wanting housing in Hoo having been party to the council signing a legally binding agreement with the government to do that.

"People need to be careful what they wish for. We may get unregulated planning applications coming forward.

"When it will come back to council, I don't know as yet. It's not a question of finishing the outstanding work. It's now building a political consensus to allow it to pass.

"People need to be careful what they wish for"

"If we can't do that, government will intervene and do the Local Plan for us and none of us will like what we get.

"Elected members in Medway will not get a say – government will say: 'This is your housing target, stop messing around and get on it with it'.

"Decision making will rest with the planning committee but putting the Regulation 19 [draft Local Plan] gives added strength to the council's position.

"We're in a weak position because our extant Local Plan is dated 2003. So it's not up to date.

"Some say that means we don't have one at all – that's not strictly true but it's not coherent or up to date.

"It is much harder to defend against applications and until the plan is published we don't have a plan for a five-year land supply.

"If Joe Bloggs housebuilder at Hoo decides to bring a plan for 400 or 500 homes, we will say we don't like that because we don't have a Hoo development framework.

"There will be lots of huffing and puffing but if it's turned down, it will inevitably go to appeal and a 99% certain chance it will be lost because we don't have a five-year land supply and draft Local Plan."

Cllr Jarrett referred to two sites in Lordswood – Gibraltar Farm and East Hill – and the Pump Lane development in Rainham all out to appeal.

The leader said despite turning those plans down the council has "no control over that process and all we do is spend a shed-load of money on barristers" to try to defend the original decision.

"What a lot of Rochester and Strood members led by the MP are saying is why should all this housing fall here? Why can't it be in the Capstone Valley or Rainham?

"Look at a map of Medway shows the Chatham and Aylesford and Gillingham and Rainham constituencies are the most heavily developed and built over areas in Medway.

"In the rest of Medway, not only is there inadequate infrastructure but inadequate land to built it"

"Those areas are the only green areas in those parts of Medway.

"Look at Hoo and see where the green space is. We all want to see green space so where all the building potential is.

"It's not a tit for tat I don't want it in my back door, you'd better have it.

"It's where the homes can feasibly be built and crucially where the supporting infrastructure can be built.

"In the rest of Medway, not only is there inadequate infrastructure but inadequate land to built it."

Cllr Jarrett, whose ward is Lordswood and Capstone, described accusations of not allocating development in the Capstone Valley because it was his area as "a cheap shot".

"It happens to be that the Capstone Valley is the only large green space in the whole of Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham so why should that be built over?

"Especially when you have miles – not just acres – of open space on the Hoo Peninsula right out to Grain.

"That's why we want the Local Plan in place and development brought forward in a controlled way."

The proposals brought forward to redevelop Chatham Docks have proved highly controversial with businesses set to be shut down when leases expire there in 2025 at a cost of 800 jobs.

Landowners Peel L&P have stated desires to shut down the port and submitted interest for 3,600 homes there with mixed leisure facilities promising 2,000 permanent jobs.

But Cllr Jarrett said he is "ambivalent" towards the future of the Docks.

"Our job is to deliver homes and jobs and the natural environment," the leader said.

"In my discussions with James Whittaker [executive of developments at Peel L&P] I said to him how are you going to resolve the Docks.

"He said simply most of the companies are contracted out and leases will expire on or by 2025 and all those businesses will go.

"Those still in the Land and Tenant Act allows the landowner the right to terminate agreements.

"That may end up in court and that's a matter for them but he told me one way or another he will clear that site and it will come forward for mixed use homes."

Cllr Jarrett attacked those who have "peddled the lie" of businesses moving meant job losses adding there was "not a shred of evidence" to support it.

He said the issue had been used as a "political football" adding opponents to the Docks closing have been unable to provide any alternative solutions for the homes and jobs promised by Peel who said it was a matter for officers to decide.

"That shows a complete abdication of responsibility by some members," Cllr Jarrett said.

"It's a case of 'I'm going to create a problem and someone else can fix it'. So in the meantime, the Local Plan is stymied and it's happy hour for developers."

Asked whether further plans presented by Peel about its ambitions to redevelop the Docks could change minds, he replied: "No, it won't because you've got political dogma in play."

Addressing if the council could explore a compulsory purchase order to acquire Chatham Docks and potentially prevent Peel redeveloping, Cllr Jarrett denied any interest.

"Despite what people say, Peel say they are not making a significant return.

"My job as finance portfolio holder is to make sure any investment we make, we get a credible return.

"I do know from published accounts ArcelorMittal have posted £1m losses over the last two years.

"They're saying that's business cycles and it'll be alright tomorrow but why would the council spend tens of millions to say to the taxpayer we can't get a decent return and have to put your council tax up."

Failing to make the City of Culture grade

In another blow to the council's ambitions, it was confirmed Medway had failed to make the list of eight areas bidding to win the UK's City of Culture 2025 title.

Having made the first group of 20, the government announced on Friday that the Towns were no longer in the running.

But despite spending £205,000 on developing the bid and the disappointment at missing out, Cllr Jarrett said the process had been worth it.

"There are going to be many benefits from the process, Medway the place and what we've got to offer here.

"I think had we engaged on a marketing exercise it would have cost many more times that.

"We're going to capitalise on this now and help put Medway further on the map – but I can't put a figure on that because sometimes it's intangible.

"Organisations know more about us and what we have to offer.

"It's certainly going to help us for Innovation Park Medway because we have greater credibility than we had before."

Cllr Jarrett pointed towards the government's post-pandemic "levelling up" agenda for not making the list.

"There seems to be this perception in government that it's a geographic thing," he said.

"Let's level up the other side of the 'red wall' as it was referred to in the election.

"I've always said it should be based on need not geography.

"Medway has some of the richest wards and some of the poorest – like most authority areas. So my view is we need levelling up here in Medway."

'We need to rebuild consensus'

Cllr Jarrett deflected talk about whether the events of the past week had weakened the Conservatives' position in Medway.

He said it was a matter for those who were preparing to vote against the Local Plan in the planned vote on Thursday to decide "which team they are playing for and whether they should be in the Conservative group or not".

"My position is quite clear from talking with colleagues and that vote that I have the overwhelming support of the great majority," he said.

"The Messenger's headline 'Tories at war' is good journalism but I don't know what the public will think of that.

"History shows at elections, people don't like divided parties.

"So if some of these people don't get their act together and start thinking more clearly and being dragged on the coat tails of their MP, we could easily pay a heavy price at the 2023 election.

"Again, it's a case of careful what you wish for.

"It's alright playing political games, having a go at the leader and talking to the Labour group. But there are consequences."

The leader admitted he needs to "rebuild a consensus" within his group with seven Tories prepared to vote against the party on the Local Plan.

"We are fractured on the Local Plan," he admitted. "But I see no sign it's fractured on anything else.

"It's up to us all to mend that fissure.

"But there's personalities at play and one or two of that faction have egos you would need a cruise liner to carry.

"It may not be possible to [bring the group together on the Local Plan].

"If there's a rump of people going to be difficult about everything and I'm not saying there is because there's unanimity on some issues, then the group will have to decide what to do.

"There are rules about things which can be done if we have one or more members being routinely difficult about everything.

"But I don't see any sign of that.

"We've had a big disagreement on the Local Plan stirred up by the MP and she needs to look at herself. But members need to decide which team they're on – the MP's or on the team here representing 280,000 people.

"Hopefully we can get over that and those with big egos will climb down and construct a plan that most are happy with."

In light of the climbdown on presenting the vote on the Local Plan, calls were made by Labour opposition for Cllr Jarrett to "consider his position".

Backbenchers within the Tory group also said questions had to be raised about the leadership for bringing forward and "incomplete and strategically flawed" plan.

In a defiant message, Cllr Jarrett vowed he would not be going anywhere, saying: "If there's a challenge in the Conservative group [on me] it will fail. There's no question about that.

"I've been leader seven years and I enjoy undivided support of almost all my colleagues.

"There's no question in my opinion of my position in the Conservative group.

"We are delivering top class services all across Medway under my leadership with my cabinet.

"There's so much going well and I'm really proud of what we're doing to deliver life-changing and through Covid life-saving things.

"If anyone in my group wants to challenge me then the AGM is in May and as happened last time with a vote for leadership some ended up with egg on their faces."

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