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Medway City Status

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 17 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for choosing my topic for this debate. I declare my interest as a councillor on Medway council. Since I became the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, I have, as I am sure hon. Members know, keenly spoken about my wonderful constituency and the wider area of Medway—a place that is less than 30 miles from the House. After all, it is the place where I went to school, grew up and, of course, still live. It is therefore no wonder that I am a passionate advocate for the Medway area and strongly support its bid to become a city during the Queen’s diamond jubilee year in 2012.

Anyone who visited Medway would fully understand why. It is not only a place with a fantastically rich history and heritage, but an innovative and growing area that is going places with a great future ahead of it. Medway consists of the towns of Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Rochester and Strood, as well as the internationally renowned Hoo peninsula. All those places are interwoven by one thing: the River Medway, a place that, over the centuries, has been the setting for an awe-inspiring history.

Medway has Rochester castle, which was built in the 13th century for the Archbishop of Canterbury and is one of the finest examples of a Norman keep anywhere in the country. It has Rochester cathedral, which is England’s second oldest cathedral, built in the 7th century. If we move along the river, there is Upnor castle—an Elizabethan fort built to defend naval ships from attack by the Dutch. Mind you, as they sailed past it to burn the English fleet at anchor 70 years later, it could be said that it was not exactly the finest example of public money being spent on a successful infrastructure project.

There is also, of course, the naval dockyard, a place that has provided men and arms during the ages of sail and steam and in more recent times. For example, Admiral Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was built there and the old sea dog himself lived there. The Chatham naval dockyard used to be one of three royal naval dockyards in England, with the others at Portsmouth and Plymouth—two places that already have city status. In the 1980s, Chatham dockyard closed and tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods. As I am sure the House will understand, that was a devastating and bleak time for the whole area. Many people thought Chatham and the wider Medway towns would never recover, but the people of Medway are a resourceful and resilient lot, who, after a period of shock, picked themselves back up.

Even though no one at the time would have imagined that Medway could have recovered from that awful milestone in its history, it has shown it can do more than that and has exceeded all expectations. Since the closure, Medway has been transformed. St Mary’s island and the Chatham docks have been successfully regenerated and more is to come along the Rochester riverside and in Chatham town centre, where regeneration work continues despite the recession.

We have seen major growth companies starting up in Medway over the last few decades and four universities have also come together in a unique partnership at a shared campus that caters for more than 10,000 students. The figure is set to grow. With the new high-speed rail links, its close proximity to the capital and Kent’s major ports, it also has fantastic transport connections.

We are proud of our close historic ties with the armed forces, including, of course, the fact that Chatham was at the forefront of British naval history for centuries, as well as our association with the Royal Engineers, based at Brompton barracks. That rich association led to the area being the first to host the national armed forces day in 2009.

Medway also offers a diverse range of sporting and cultural events, thanks to its new centre for sporting excellence, Medway Park, an Olympic training ground based in my constituency, and our excellent calendar of activities, which include cutting-edge art festivals and celebrations of Charles Dickens, who moved to Medway at the age of five and based part of his novel “Great Expectations” and his unfinished work “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, there. We are also home to Kent’s only league football club, the mighty Gills, which I know will get promoted this year. Who knows—one year they might be in the premiership. I am told that Medway has more days of free festivals than any other area in the south-east outside London and I think it is fair to say that Medway is a city in all but name—a place with a rich heritage that is going places and that undoubtedly has a great future.

Over the past few decades, much of our regeneration work has benefited from Government funding, but with the huge national deficit the country now has, much of that funding is no longer possible. Medway council realises that and is acting in a thoroughly pragmatic way. Not only has it just approved, through careful and concise planning, a balanced budget for the next financial year, but it has found savings while protecting all its front-line services. Recently, the council’s leader, Rodney Chambers, has spoken of the need to bring more inward investment to Medway. He said that city status would present Medway with a “golden opportunity” to up its profile and bring that about.

Businesses across Kent agree. Medway’s bid is backed by Arriva, BAE Systems, MHS Homes, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Christian Salvesen, Swain Haulage, Hochiki Europe, Peel Ports, Nordic and Ward Homes to name just a few. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that some of the hardest people to win over in any debate are our friends in the media. That is why I am particularly delighted that Medway’s bid is also backed by the Kent Messenger group, which publishes the south-east’s biggest-selling weekly regional newspaper.

Medway also plays host every July to some of the biggest names in UK music in our castle concerts. Last summer, Medway’s city status bid was backed wholeheartedly by stars from Status Quo to Will Young, The Saturdays and Diversity, but support from celebrities, businesses and the media is not enough. It is also important that people living in Medway back the bid for city status. That is why I am pleased to tell the House that I know, from the many conversations I have had with people living in Medway, that the idea of the area becoming a city in recognition of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee is definitely a popular one. A Medway council opinion poll has shown that more than two thirds of people in Medway are in favour of the bid. They recognise that being honoured with city status next year by Her Majesty would give it the greater national and international profile it deserves, putting it back on the map.

People elsewhere in the country might know about the five towns that make up Medway, but they might not realise that those towns make up the largest conurbation in the south-east outside London, or that it has great links to London and continental Europe. City status would give Medway new opportunities to present itself as a great place to do business. I know the area could attract more inward investment to increase job prospects for young people by providing them with more good, quality local jobs. I am aware that Medway has a number of competitors for city status in 2012, many of which have some of the things that make a great city but none of which has the full range of qualities of Medway. I have said it before and I will say it again: Medway is a place with a rich heritage and a great future, and I believe in recognition of that it should be honoured next year with city status.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. He follows the recent example of our hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) in securing an opportunity to debate his area’s hopes of winning the diamond jubilee city status competition. As I said in that debate, other hon. Members will note this mechanism for promoting the bid of their constituency or area for city status. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you and your team of Deputy Speakers will have the opportunity to hear about many more interesting bids over the coming year as we travel around our United Kingdom.

I understand that my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless)—the other two Members whose seats contain parts of Medway—share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, but unfortunately they could not attend the debate because of pressing constituency engagements that they had previously arranged. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford this morning, so I know that she agrees with many of the views that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham expressed.

I welcome today’s manifestation of Medway’s intention to apply for city status, which gives us an indication of the interest and enthusiasm that the diamond jubilee competition has aroused throughout the United Kingdom. Some people have tried to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a bid from a local authority area such as Medway, which contains within its borders a number of towns and rural areas. It is therefore worth saying that I can confirm that the local authority is welcome to apply, as are others like it. Medway’s entry will be fairly and impartially considered alongside all those received. The only absolute requirement, which applies everywhere but Scotland, is that an applicant local authority must want the whole of its area to be made a city. The position is different in Scotland for historical reasons and because of the way local government works there.

I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham an example of a similar area, although I hope he will forgive me for mentioning it because this area and Medway were in competition before. Brighton and Hove became a city in a previous competition, so it was not Brighton alone that became a city but the entire local authority area. Brighton and Hove is a good example for Medway to follow, given that its bid was successful. We understand that Medway council intends to bid on behalf of the entire local authority area and we welcome that intention.

Medway has something unique about it, because as well as the towns of Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood, the surrounding rural areas and the Hoo peninsula, Medway includes within its borders a former city. It is well known that Rochester had the misfortune to lose its ancient city status in 1998 following local government reorganisation. Given that Rochester does not have its own council, it would not be allowed to apply by itself for this competition, but a bid from Medway council for the entire area of Medway will be very welcome.

The Minister acknowledges the unique nature of Medway and Rochester’s former city status. Does that mean that he will look on Medway’s bid more favourably?

I am afraid that I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend. The Government will look fairly and impartially at all bids that meet the rules, and eventually we will make a recommendation to Her Majesty the Queen on the grant of city status in her diamond jubilee year.

My hon. Friend set out well the area’s claims and some of its history. He talked about its business and culture, and concluded by setting out the public support for the bid. He and other hon. Members will understand, however, that I cannot endorse or support Medway’s aspirations, exactly as I could not support those of Southend. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had to refuse to support the claims of Ballymena, even though the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) tempted him to do so. Ministers will remain impartial, as we must, to ensure that city status continues to be a real honour that is fairly bestowed, and that the diamond jubilee competition remains a real competition all the way to the end.

We know that local authorities in all parts of the United Kingdom are compiling their entries, or looking at the guidelines on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s diamond jubilee website so that they can decide whether to apply. All valid entries that reach the Cabinet Office by the closing date of 27 May will be fairly and impartially considered, and I look forward to Medway’s being among them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.