Former Tory councillor Stuart Tranter is a long-time critic of plans to convert Chatham Docks into housing and leisure space.
Here the lifelong Medway resident and business development consultant makes his case why people should be concerned about losing what’s there.
We can rightly be proud of Medway’s Maritime past, but it is the future which matters most.
We are on the cusp of changing these Towns irreversibly if we stand by and allow the remaining commercial docks to be replaced by flats.
Just to avoid confusion, this is not about the Historic Dockyard, brilliantly celebrating our past and enjoyed by visitors – it is about the working commercial area.
Our river is not just the reason we are here, it is still our greatest long-term economic opportunity. By far.
We are close to Europe, the North Sea, the English Channel and, of course, London.
All accessible by river and sea from here. Our roads in the South East are horribly congested, the world is facing a climate crisis, and to thrive we need to have modern relevant industries which can compete on the world stage, exploiting our local geo-economic advantages and providing high-paid value-adding jobs for local people – careers to be proud of.
Anyone can see the opportunities in plain sight. Transport by river has 80% less carbon impact than the equivalent transport by road, and closer to zero if biofuels are used.
The huge sections of the impressive London Crossrail project were built in Chatham and transported by local firms by river to the capital.
We should be developing and maintaining maritime renewable energy opportunities in the North Sea.
We could ramp up advanced recycling, moving more by sea. We have, by far, the best ship repair facilities in the region.
We are perfectly placed to take on or support maritime engineering projects, or more large civil engineering schemes.
All this is because of the huge non-tidal docks and our location. A gift to the people of Medway.
So, what is the threat? Some years ago, the docks were quietly sold to Peel Land and Property, part of a Liverpool-based group of firms which said they would look after them.
It now calculates its profit can be increased if it closes all industry on the huge site and builds flats instead.
Just like a farmer can make more money by selling his field to a developer. Peel L&P has followed a similar strategy elsewhere in the UK.
Yes, we need housing, but some land is unique and irreplaceable.
The huge basins are not only perfect for maritime industries; they are actually a liability for residential purposes.
Historic contamination, flooding, access difficulties, and ongoing maintenance all make residential development complicated and costly. And where will people work?
There is not even a train station nearby to reach London. The developer will come cap in hand later down the road asking for subsidies and concessions, paid for by you and me, to make the development feasible.
In 2019, I and my fellow councillors were told the docks were not viable, and that Peel was going to create thousands of jobs.
We have since proven, beyond question, the docks are absolutely viable, and that Peel’s promises of jobs are pure fiction.
Over the past year or so, exciting new maritime and commercial plans have been developed for the site and at least one of the current commercial residents will pay the full-commercial price for the land and take on the liabilities.
These plans are ready to go through planning. But Peel will not sell to them at the going commercial value; they prefer a bigger profit by building flats.
Now to the legal bit. Peel can easily terminate its contract with some of the commercial residents.
As I write this, it is planning to evict more firms next year, but it has a problem, a big problem.
One firm – the biggest – ArcelorMittal cannot be forced. Its lease is different and protected, it must be renewed unless the landlord can demonstrate an alternative use for the land – for example residential development.
And that new use depends on Medway Council agreeing to the change.
Unless the people you voted into power change the legal designation of the land from commercial to include residential development, Peel cannot proceed and so ultimately the land stays as it is and our future maritime opportunity remains.
All this is included in the emerging local plan. Up until May, a majority of councillors refused to agree to the change of land use, which is why the local plan stalled.
The Labour opposition agreed with this stance, but now they are in power they are openly starting to waiver.
If we, the people of Medway, give in to commercial pressure from Peel this will change our Towns forever.
Other important maritime firms, such as GPS based in Upnor, will move out if the docks go.
Medway will gradually become just a dormitory for London, and our proud maritime future will be decimated forever.
Those basins will never be built again. In business terms we call it a pivotal investment. The long-term consequences for these proud Towns are enormous.
The council leadership is new and fearful, perhaps unsure of all the details and easily persuaded, but it really does have the legal right to protect the use of this land beyond any doubt.
Now is the time to act; it will soon be too late. They must fight for us, not just give in.
Please don’t sit back and let this happen. We must work together, regardless of any political allegiances, to protect the future of our towns for generations to come.
Please make your thoughts known to those you elected. Time is running out fast.
Yesterday KentOnline reported how Peel wishes to create an “employment and enterprise zone” on the site.
These include creative, manufacturing and technology, life sciences, IT and digital, as well as dedicated spaces for start-ups and smaller independents.