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Chatham town centre is among hardest hit by pandemic – but there are still reasons to smile

If you want to beat the January blues, a trip to Chatham high street might not seem like the best idea.

Recent figures show the already struggling town centre is among the hardest hit by the pandemic in the south east – having lost the equivalent of 28 weeks of sales since March 2020, and now having the sixth highest percentage of vacant units in the region.

On a cold Monday morning in January, the sights and sounds match the statistics – boarded-up shops can be seen all along the street, and those that remain offer a mix of options to spend or lose what cash you have, with pound-shops and betting shops mixed among convenience stores, fast food outlets and cheap clothes stores.

Homeless people are camped out at both ends of the street – with a tent near the junction of Church Street, and another sleeping outside NatWest bank at the far end.

And yet there is still some cheer and optimism to be found – not least from busker Jordan Ravenhill from Rainham, who's been singing in the area for 10 years and says he doing his best to cheer the town up.

A harsh critic might say he'd be better off steering clear of minor key tear-jerkers like 'Say Something, I'm Giving up On You', but on another level the song is an apt cry for help – echoing the sentiments of business owners who feel the high street has been forgotten as much by the council as shoppers.

Busker Jordan Ravenhill said he was trying to cheer people up in Chatham
Busker Jordan Ravenhill said he was trying to cheer people up in Chatham

"It's been very quiet," says Jordan, 25, on a break between songs. "It does get very quiet. People are obviously scared, and it doesn't help. But more people are coming out now and it's looking nice, hopefully, who knows?"

Perhaps Jordan's ground-level viewpoint offers a more up-to date picture than the statisticians can – and if so the outlook is maybe more optimistic than the new report from Centre for Cities would suggest.

So could this bleak Monday morning actually offer the first glimpse of economic green shoots in the town centre?

"I hope so because if not, we're all doomed really," adds Jordan. "Medway's not the best place I think and it doesn't help that no one really cares in that sense, but hopefully with the pandemic people are starting to give a bit more respect and are coming out now. I think it will get better if people are respectful and stick to the rules.

"I do busking because obviously it's my main job but also I do it because I like to cheer people up in the town. I feel like if you can sing, why not come down to a town where people can appreciate it more. Medway's hard to get the round of applause and all that, but you do get the odd person here and there."

Chatham High Street, January 24 2022
Chatham High Street, January 24 2022

To be fair to Jordan, his voice is good enough to deserve a better round of applause, and if the shoppers return his guitar case will undoubtedly soon fill up with cash.

But for all the optimism, store owners are facing the grim reality of economics.

At Fresh Market convenience store, owner Omar Diari takes a hard line on the situation, and fears he will have to move his business or close if things don't improve.

"Everywhere is down," he said. "The council have to answer this question. There are druggy people making their home on the High Street. They need to remove all these people. They need to bring down the business rates.

"I want to stay here, I've been here for 20 years but I might have to move."

Omar Diori of Fresh Market says he may be forced to move his business from Chatham High Street
Omar Diori of Fresh Market says he may be forced to move his business from Chatham High Street

Down the road at Fazzly Home Store, 28-year-old Ali Akbarahi agreed the council needed to take action – and said some council actions were directly hindering business.

And he said the fact Chatham was already struggling meant the pandemic was having a devastating impact.

"It's destroying it," he said. "We've got another business in Maidstone and it's not been as bad as here. I feel like on our side of the High Street there's a lot of shops that are empty. There's hardly any movement, the only movement is from Poundland and TK Maxx.

"You can see today – there's only one customer in the shop. There should be more. There needs to be more businesses in the High Street – maybe they should give businesses some units rent free.

"The other problem is most businesses don't have good access – deliveries can't come in from the back – they can only come in from the front and now they have restrictions."

Chatham High Street, January 24 2022
Chatham High Street, January 24 2022

Outside, Jordan the busker has moved on to Coldplay's Fix You, another melancholy number, with apt lyrics...

"When you try your best, but you don't succeed

When you get what you want, but not what you need

When you feel so tired, but you can't sleep

Stuck in reverse...."

But maybe it's also a tune with a glimmer of hope, and is there a message for the council in its refrain "I will try to fix you"?

As Jordan said, who knows, but the fact is it will take some work to reverse the town centre's fortunes.

The former Debenhams site in Chatham High Street
The former Debenhams site in Chatham High Street

For a long while before 2020, Chatham had been battling against a downturn in trade, and the pandemic has been bookended by major shop closures – that's if you take the optimistic view that it might be almost over – with Debenhams closing in 2020 and Argos due to shut this Wednesday.

Away from the high street, other scenes around the town centre aren't much prettier. The unfinished concrete skeleton of the Chatham Waterfront development towers over the bus station, while the entrance to the Pentagon Shopping Centre is hardly bustling with shoppers.

"We've lost a lot of shops and the Waterfront is a big eyesore," notes shopper Gemma Twitchett, 34.

"I think one of the main things we've lost is the car parks – that's driven people away. People don't want to come down here because they think there's nowhere to park."

Gemma Twitchett, 34, from Chatham, said a lack of parking had driven people away from Chatham town centre
Gemma Twitchett, 34, from Chatham, said a lack of parking had driven people away from Chatham town centre

Terry Ayre, 73, from Twydall, agrees, but he says the roots of the decline of Chatham town centre stretches back to the 1980s.

"It goes back a long way – the loss of the Dockyard, the loss of the army barracks. The high street has been going downhill a long time.

"Now it's a drug paradise – it's all up through the high street, and you guarantee people will be asking you for small change."

At least Terry's still smiling though, and if Chatham town centre is going to survive the pandemic, a dose of trench humour and cheery outlook could go a long way.

Terry Ayre, 73, from Twydall
Terry Ayre, 73, from Twydall

And there are genuine reasons to be optimistic. The Waterfront development may be a concrete skeleton now, but once finished planners hope it will form the hub of a grand new city centre for Medway.

In addition the council plans to invest millions into Chatham town centre, buying up property for more residential and commercial space, transforming the first floor of the Pentagon, creating a new "city square, civic hub and recreational space" to connect the Pentagon and Brook to the high street, and converting the old Debenham's site for commercial and residential use.

But as grand as it is, the vision for Chatham's future seems a distant one.

As I leave the High Street I'm approached by Chatham's famous beggar Billy the Quid, who's also smiling as he asks for some change and offers a fist bump.

I take him up on the fist bump but unfortunately I've spent the last of my change on parking. We can only hope the council spends that £1.70 wisely.

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