Before losing his seat on May 4 at the local elections, Rupert Turpin was a Conservative councillor for 12 years, representing Rochester South and Horsted and serving in the cabinet until he was sacked over a row involving Chatham Docks. Below, he outlines some of the challenges the incoming Labour council faces.
What is on Vince Maple’s in-tray?
After 23 years of Conservative control in Medway there is a new team in charge.
Their leader Vince Maple has experienced the euphoria of victory since polling day but what difficulties lie ahead in the in-tray and what potholes might puncture the smooth wheels of the Labour election machine?
Moving from electioneering to the daily realities of governing with no actual executive experience on board and after decades of opposition will require a whole new set of skills – has Labour got what it takes?Medway is about to find out.
In the in-tray will be unresolved issues left behind by the Conservatives which are all too real and have been grappled with more or less successfully throughout recent decades.
Inadequate children’s services
First up is the inadequate children’s services. This has been in emergency measures twice in the last decade and is still “working towards” what might be thought of as the modest target of adequacy.
Its difficulties are what currently prevent the council from receiving a “value for money” judgment from their auditors.
Few things, if any, can be more important than the future prospects of our children. The costs are eyewatering and missteps have been frequent and costly.
In recent years Medway has emphasised being a “child-friendly city” but beyond the sloganeering there are more and more flats being built at the expense of family-friendly housing.
The other perennial issue for children’s services is recruitment of skilled social workers. None of the many solutions tried by the administration has yet worked on anything other than a sticking plaster basis.
The difficulties of Medway Commerical Group, now renamed “Kyndi”, have reached headlines without conclusion.
There is a very long running police investigation into possible criminal irregularities at the council-owned company, which was initially set up to take advantage of commercial freedoms not available to council in-house services.
Will Labour be able to get to the bottom of this? Will they want to take the services back in -house?
Chatham Docks controversy
This is a controversy which first reached public consciousness in 2019 when the landowners Peel submitted plans for 3,600 flats, leaving the dock companies to go elsewhere, which the companies themselves, led by Phil Taylor at Arcelor Mittal Kent Wire, insist would mean hundreds of jobs leaving Medway for good.
This was the issue which split the Conservative party – I was sacked over it – and prevented the 2021 Local Plan Regulation 19 submission on the grounds of lack of support.
At that time, Labour fully supported the dock companies and designation of the docks as employment land, as they have been for 400 years.
Could they possibly execute the biggest U-turn in Medway’s history now they have the responsibilities themselves of getting the Local Plan through with its 27,000 homes target? If they do support the docks, where are they going to build the houses?
The HIF (Housing Infrastructure Fund)
Back in 2019 just before the general election, Medway won the £170 million HIF funding to build infrastructure.
This included road and rail infrastructure to open the peninsula to the development of more than 10,000 homes. Since then £20 million of that money has been spent with little to show for it.
Ambitious promises in the bid have been scaled right back, to the point where the rail infrastructure is now “paused” seemingly shunted into a side track with no immediate prospects of rescue.
Questions have been asked about whether the £170m funding is sufficient with recent inflation of build costs and there are contractual issues with Homes England, who themselves have skin in the game with their land around Lodge Hill.
An awful lot for the Labour administration to get their teeth into in an area where they have no seats and little support, and where the independent councillors received an overwhelming number of votes.
Innovation Park Medway
Millions have been pumped onto this scheme from SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership).
Governance has been opaque under the Conservatives and local members have not been party to some of the details.
It is, however, known to be years behind schedule and it is unknown whether any firms have yet signed on the dotted line. All eyes will be on this flagship regeneration scheme to see whether it can be resuscitated.
Medway’s city status
Medway’s corporate leadership has frequently bid for city status, each time without conspicuous success, and with little sign of community support for the proposal.
Questions remain about the viability of taking a recently formed – in historical terms – local authority and designating it as also a city, encompassing as it does deeply rural villages such as Grain, Cliffe, Cliffe Woods, Cooling, High Halstow, Halling and Cuxton.
The identity of the various parts of Medway remains an emotive issue with Rochester gaining notoriety nationally for actually losing its city charter through an administrative mix up or a contrived plot depending on who you listen to, and parts of the peninsula calling for independence from Medway and flying their own flag.
Will Labour take a decisive stand on this issue of identity? And if so, what will it be?
The Town’s struggling high streets
In common with many places in Kent, the high streets of the five Medway Towns have suffered a very noticeable decline.
The Conservatives have attempted to make Chatham the “city centre” and, via the vehicle of 100% council-owned Medway Development Company (MDC), are building 182 apartments for “city living” on former Medway Council-owned car parks at Chatham Waterfront and purchasing the white elephant of Mountbatten House to retro fit it into flats.
Four years ago the council purchased the Pentagon Centre for £34 million in a deal hailed at the time as a rescue plan for the beleaguered high street and more recently bought the old Debenhams for a much smaller sum.
The overarching idea is to increase footfall into Chatham to have a thriving High Street once again.
It sounds coherent but do the sums add up? All this is a lot to chew on with a lot of potential financial risk (and reward?) at stake for a financially-strapped council.
What do the spreadsheets look like and has the council overreached itself? Will Labour have the skills to carry this huge master plan, if that’s what it is, to successful completion?
There will be increased pressure on Vince Maple to take his inexperienced team through to effective oversight and strategy on all of Medway’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities, and their strategic plans for arms length companies such as Kyndi and MDC.
Can the small cabinet team of 10 deliver with the help of a 23 strong backbench asset? Can Vince keep all the troops on his team happy, and more importantly, will the people of Medway be impressed?