Skip to main content

Chatham Docks

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I am extremely proud of my constituency, its people and its history, particularly our great maritime history and the connection with our river, the Medway, which has been a significant contributing factor in how the five Medway towns—Rochester, Chatham, Strood, Gillingham and Rainham—have developed over the centuries. The towns have been a hive of industry and innovation, and home to talented and exceptional people who have shaped, and continue to shape, the area that I love so much.

The fact that we have the River Medway flowing through our towns means that we have a rich industrial and commercial past and present. We have had large numbers of cement works, shipbuilders, boatbuilders, brickworks, world-class engineers, manufacturers, aerospace workers, energy producers, artists, innovators and significant industries based in the Medway towns. Our geography has played a major part in the towns’ success and meant that Chatham was chosen as home to the royal dockyard, which has been in existence since 1613 and in its heyday was the most important shipbuilding and repair dockyard in the country. The dockyard was sadly decommissioned in the 1980s, after much opposition from the people of the towns and one of my predecessors, Dame Peggy Fenner. It was a devasting blow to the Medway towns and had a major impact on its people.

Since the closure of the naval dockyard, fantastic work has been carried out by successive Governments, local authorities, businesses and investors to see the old dockyard site regenerated, making it a vibrant area with housing, leisure, universities and businesses. The historic dockyard site has been separated and preserved, with our three deep-water basins built in the mid-1800s being maintained and still in use. One is now a thriving marina. The second is used by the local community and for water sports. As recently as 2019, we welcomed HMS Medway and, in 2017, HMS Richmond and the Dutch Navy frigate HNLMS Holland. The third basin, known as Chatham docks, is a working commercial port, where many businesses are benefiting from what is a strategic, regionally significant asset, a 70-acre commercial port and manufacturing hub. It is home to successful and growing maritime and construction businesses providing over 800 jobs and 16 apprenticeships, with far more—around 1,500—in the supply chain or in some way dependent on the facility. Businesses with a combined annual turnover approaching £175 million and future investment plans for more than £60 million are occupying the land, buildings and berths.

Despite all this, the landowners have said that they feel the site is no longer viable and that too much investment would be required to repair or renew the lock gates. Therefore, they wish to close the docks and in their place build high-rise flats, with tall promises on the number of jobs that will be created there. I must point out that this is in the context of the landowner already having developed over 26 acres with high-rise flats and mixed-use retail and leisure, through which the landowner has already realised significant increases in land values. As Members might imagine, the suggestion of closing Chatham docks has united residents, businesses and political opponents against the idea.

Medway Council is currently finalising its draft local plan. It has been widely suggested that the council will redesignate Chatham docks for housing and mixed use when the draft local plan is finally published. Changing the designation of Chatham docks from commercial to housing will be another devasting blow to the area, the local economy, the businesses operating within the dock, the supply chain and the people who work there, putting an end to future use of a strategic infrastructure asset, despite there still being a need and a demand, on a site that would never ever be replaced. Redesignation within the local plan by the council would be an overwhelming contribution to the closure of the docks and to the loss of businesses, jobs and opportunities for generations to come.

Independent consultants have said that

“the economic and strategic implications of terminating the port operation make no sense for the local community and for the wider region since this move is both irreversible and not required from an economic or financial perspective.”

Much has been said by the landowner and the council about the viability of the docks, which has been challenged robustly by the businesses that operate there. That is supported by evidence and independent assessments. The cost of the repairs to the lock gates has been used as one reason why the dock needs to shut. So this could be the end and the last chance of ever seeing a large naval vessel enter Chatham again. That was never the intention when the three basins were handed over to a private company in the 1980s. In fact, the intention was that basin 3 would always be accessible for large ships, as per agreements that were put in place at the time. Development would also mean establishing a fixed access road between basin 2 and basin 3, which would landlock basin 2 forever. How very sad that, when there could be so many other options, we will oversee its destruction. I hope Medway Council learns from the regrets of London at what was done to its old dock basins in the name of regeneration, and of Liverpool at the loss of its world heritage status. I wonder whether the Minister could offer an insight into how regionally important infrastructure can be protected within the planning system.

To support a narrative around the closure of the docks, the success of the businesses operating within it has been described by some as a “moot point,” so this is an opportunity to highlight their success and continued growth. Chatham docks is a thriving port that provides high-end, value-added employment ranging from semi-skilled and skilled through to highly technical work, with staff educated to degree level and beyond. This is an area of growing businesses offering high-quality jobs, with technology and investment contributing to increased productivity locally.

The docks are well used and the operations benefit directly from the good harbour and berthing facilities on the River Medway. Such facilities are unavailable anywhere else on this stretch of the coast from Essex to Kent. Located at the docks are some very large and successful businesses, including Downton, the national logistics company, and ArcelorMittal, a leading manufacturer of steel fabric reinforcement, as well as Uplands Engineering, EPAL and other businesses whose activities include waste recycling, ship repair and the importation of timber, cement and steel products.

Examples of current and recent major infrastructure projects involving the businesses based within the docks include the Olympic park, Crossrail, Wembley stadium, the Tideway tunnel and many others. There are also marine businesses within the supply chain based on the river, including GPS Marine Contractors, which operates all over Europe. The company has said it would need to pull out of the Medway if the docks were to close.

Part of the business of GPS Marine Contractors is transporting goods by barge. It transported 2.3 million tonnes of cargo by barge to and from three major projects in London, which eliminated 7.5 million heavy goods vehicle road miles and reduced CO2 emissions by 7,200 tonnes compared with using Euro 6 trucks. This year the company began using hydrogen-treated vegetable oil, which is 100% renewable and derived from waste vegetable oil, and it is now trialling a number of post-combustion technologies to reduce emissions further.

Scotline, one of the UK’s largest importers of timber, has also invested heavily in the Medway towns and in green maritime technology. Big names such as Hanson, Tarmac and Cemex all require the facilities at Chatham docks and the skills of the businesses within it to service their fleets of vessels to transport the aggregates needed to continue the huge building programmes in London, the south-east and beyond.

ArcelorMittal has recently announced that it is planning an additional £1 million investment in its site, following its successful bid to help build the High Speed 2 line. It expects to employ 50 new members of staff—newly trained, highly skilled and well-paid people—between now and the end of the year, with further opportunities on the horizon.

These are exactly the opportunities I would like to see more of in my constituency and the wider region, and it is testament to those businesses that they are continuing to deliver and grow with this uncertainty hanging over their future. These small examples show that Chatham docks are providing the right opportunities for local businesses to win contracts and support national projects. Closing down the site for housing would prevent any future for this type of development and growth. My constituency’s unemployment rate is in line with the national average at 5.2%, equating to 3,755 people looking for work, which is 1,585 more than in March last year. It is clear that greater certainty would allow even more confidence for businesses to invest, including major investment in the short term by Street Fuel Ltd in its south-east recycling operation and in expanding its current ship repair and dredger maintenance facilities. The future investment plans would seek to grow the existing employment figures from 800 to more than 1,000 people in the port and manufacturing jobs. This would also mean a big increase in apprenticeships offered.

Oxford Economics has advised that manufacturing sector workers, such as the ones at Chatham docks, enjoy significantly higher wages than the median average. Nationally, the median wage in the manufacturing sector is £27,430, which compares with a figure of £23,084 in the economy as a whole. This positions workers on the site at Chatham docks significantly above the national averages, generally and by sector.

The landowners have claimed that the docks are unsustainable. Who could blame a developer for being drawn to the attractiveness of a capital return on 3,600 flats over that of a commercial dock? A financial viability report produced by the Crossley Group of chartered accountants suggested that the return on capital employed is above the expected average; that the overall return and level of rental income should be sufficient to rectify the historical lack of maintenance and repairs of the docks; and that there is potential for further opportunities to increase returns. That is against a backdrop of the businesses within the docks being prepared to cover the costs of the replacement lock gates.

More worryingly, after much concern expressed by myself, councillors, residents, businesses, academics and industry, Medway Council still feels that the docks must be redesignated for housing in the local plan. That is because the Government’s blunt formula for housing targets in Medway is 1,662 a year, resulting in a total of 28,259 over the life of the plan. In itself, that is an undeliverable target for a such a small geographical area, which is already densely populated. Medway Council says that it must redesignate the docks for housing, lose these jobs and damage our local economy in order to meet the Government’s housing target. Has the Minister or his Department had discussions with the council on what its assessment is of the number of homes that it could deliver across Medway without closing the docks?

The council has also said that if it is unable to build those flats on the docks, it would need to build them elsewhere on another site within my constituency. Medway is made up of three constituencies, but nearly two thirds of the total target is being proposed to be built in Rochester and Strood, particularly on the Hoo peninsula. That is causing tremendous angst within the communities I represent. My constituents feel that their way of life is being destroyed in order to build for the overspill from London: to build flats that local people cannot afford without the provision of well-paid jobs such as the ones we will lose if the docks close. These homes are being marketed to buyers outside Medway and, would you believe it, are even being advertised in China. So really, what is my community gaining? Do the Government really want to see thriving, growing commercial businesses and regionally important infrastructure close, people being put out of work and future opportunities being lost, in the pursuit of building flats to meet arbitrary housing targets? Most people find it unbelievable that this is even being considered.

Medway has a thriving economy made up of a diverse range of businesses; it is second in terms of the concentration of transportation and storage facilities. Our local economy is uniquely reliant on this sector, and proposals by the landowner to move businesses to Sheerness do not offer an alternative solution. First, there are not the same facilities and the businesses would be unable to operate in the same way—that is if this offer of moving those businesses to Sheerness, which has been much talked of, ever actually materialises for these businesses. It is absurd to think that businesses that are using a unique piece of infrastructure can just be relocated anywhere.

The majority of workers are local to Medway: 20% live on the doorstep of the docks and 65% live in the Medway towns. There is also an associated supply chain that stretches across the local area and the wider region. An economic impact report has concluded that the docks generate a total economic benefit of £258 million; for comparison, that is 10 times greater than the published economic benefit generated by our much-loved and promoted Historic Dockyard Chatham part of the site, which no one would ever suggest closing to make way for flats.

Our coast and waterways are one of the United Kingdom’s greatest assets. We are blessed with the River Medway, which has shaped our towns historically and has an important role to play in our future. We have increased our focus on the Government’s ambition of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it is vital that we support resources such as Chatham docks and the work of the investing, innovating and nimble businesses that use our waterways, which are essential to our moving forward with decarbonising the economy. With our close links, we are uniquely situated to reduce the time and cost of trade between Medway and London.

The dock operations benefit directly from good harbour and berthing facilities that offer the opportunity to significantly improve the position with respect to the climate change emergency declared by Medway Council and the key outcome of achieving a clean, green environment. There is huge potential environmental cost to Medway from the closure of the docks, with a massive increase of 12,610 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year through the loss of on-site recycling, engineering and the transportation of finished goods that can currently be transported by river. We should be building a strategy and working with some of our impressive local businesses based at the docks, in the supply chain or operating on the river, creating opportunities to contribute further to our carbon reduction targets and sustainable development of our local economy for the future.

The message is loud and clear: the closure of Chatham docks would mean short-term gain for some, to the detriment of the long-term future and prosperity of the Medway towns. At the heart of the 2019 Conservative manifesto was the importance of place and community to so many people across the country. We recognised that allowing communities to make sure that their town’s future is in the hands of the people who live there is the best way to ensure that they can thrive. If we allow Chatham docks to turn into housing, we will be failing to live up to that promise. It is the last remaining and most significant facility left on the river today; if it is lost, we will lose not only jobs from Medway, but future opportunities for generations to come. Once it is lost, we will never get it back—in today’s world, the impressive docks structure would never be built because the expense would be far too great.

In my maiden speech on 25 June 2015, I quoted from my predecessor Dame Peggy Fenner:

“Does my right hon. Friend believe that the people of Rochester and Chatham elected me to support a Government that would do what has just been done to their dockyard? My right hon. Friend need not reply. I shall tell him the answer: they did not, and I will not.”—[Official Report, 25 June 1981; Vol. 7, c. 391.]

Forty years on, the similarities are extremely sad, but this time closure is avoidable.

I hope the Minister will agree that common sense will prevail and that the right decisions will be made for the people of my constituency, rather than the opportunity being taken to put cash into just another developer’s pocket, losing an asset like Chatham docks for generations to come.

I remind the Minister that at 5 pm the Whip will again move that the House adjourn; I will then propose the Question so that the Minister can continue.

We all appreciate that a reshuffle has been going on, although it seems to have been paused for the moment. I strongly suspect that the Prime Minister has tuned in to this debate; if so, and if he has a gap to fill in his ministerial appointments, I think he will have been compelled by the passion and enthusiasm shown by my hon. Friend, who already has experience as a Whip and a Minister. Should he have an opportunity to return her to government, it would be a very smooth transition. The only problem is that if the Prime Minister is watching this speech, he will see my hon. Friend’s brilliant oratory followed by my mundane contribution, which might mean that I get dropped off the list. So I hope he is quite busy and caught only the first half of this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate and raising issues that she feels passionately about—she certainly conveyed that passion. I shall address those issues in the context of the wider regeneration effort that she, Medway Council and local communities continue to pursue and to which this Government and previous Administrations have given considerable support.

First, I acknowledge the role of all Medway towns in our national heritage and economy. As my hon. Friend described, the strengths of the transportation and storage industries in this part of the Thames estuary are a real asset, as are, indeed, many of the impressive local businesses that have made their home in the Medway towns. I understand the important role that the waterways play in the Chatham economy past, present and future, from Chatham’s proud shipbuilding history to its modern-day aspirations to support the Government’s net zero ambitions. I am sure that links to the river will continue to be a huge part of Chatham’s future.

As my hon. Friend highlighted, the future of Chatham docks is currently uncertain. The docks are part of the urban waterfront, surrounded by residential, commercial and academic assets, including the Medway campus of the University of Kent. I understand the desire to protect the existing businesses and industry currently at the docks but, ultimately, it is not for central Government to comment on their immediate future. We have, though, been encouraged by the significant regeneration and change over the 30 years since the closure of the naval dockyard. I know that my hon. Friend contributed to the thinking of the Thames estuary growth commission, which reported in 2018 and to which the Government responded positively.

Chatham continues to suffer from high levels of deprivation, making it one of the most challenged parts of the Thames estuary. It consistently performs worse than the national average in key social indicators such as child poverty and financial prosperity, although we recognise the progress that has been made in recent and challenging times. My hon. Friend set out some of the exciting things that are going on in the area. The Government have continued to support efforts to regenerate the area, committing more than £50 million to projects in the area via the South East local enterprise partnership.

Aside from around £28 million committed to local transport improvements, significant investments include more than £8 million for the new Medway innovation park at Rochester airport—at the opening of which I understand my hon. Friend presided as guest of honour. The Getting Building fund that we announced last year is supporting two projects in Medway, with just under £2 million for the Britton Farm learning, skills and employment hub and £2.3 million for digitally connecting rural Kent and Medway. Each of those projects will help adults into new employment opportunities, with a focus on new and emerging digital skills.

Additionally, we are investing £9.5 million in Chatham town centre through the future high streets fund. We have already set out some of the key elements of our levelling-up strategy, including the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund, and I am not surprised to hear that Medway has bid into both. As those bids are currently being considered, I am afraid that I cannot dwell on them too much. Nevertheless, I am pleased that there is such enthusiasm, which speaks to the desire and appetite to continue to strive to do more to revitalise Medway, especially as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.

I recognise the concern about the future of Chatham docks. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend is aware, I cannot discuss the details of individual plans because of the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in the planning system. Nor can I comment on individual sites.

Medway’s last local plan was adopted in 2003, and I reiterate today that having an effective up-to-date plan in place is essential to identifying development needed in an area, deciding where it should go and dealing with planning applications. The local plan will set out the vision for Medway and a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities. It is a key tool for encouraging and directing investment in the local area, helping to secure the housing and jobs that our communities need.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

The national planning policy framework is clear that strategic policies should set out an overall strategy for the pattern, scale and design and quality of places. They should also make sufficient provision for a variety of considerations, to include housing—including affordable housing—employment, retail, leisure and other commercial development, as well as infrastructure, community facilities and a number of other considerations.

The Government are clear that councils and their communities are best placed to take decisions on local planning matters, providing certainty for communities, businesses and developers. The preparation of local plans involves ongoing engagement and consultation with local communities, businesses and other interested parties. There will be further opportunities to make representations on the local plan in a consultation prior to its submission for examination. I encourage my hon. Friend and her constituents to take every opportunity to shape the local plan for their area—that feels like an invite that I do not need to make. I think she will be very firmly involved in that.

My hon. Friend has raised concerns about the number of new homes that can be delivered across Medway. Our manifesto commits us to a target of 300,000 homes being built a year by the mid-2020s, and delivery of at least 1 million more homes, of all tenures, over this Parliament. That is why, in the national planning policy framework, we introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need to enable all communities to have a clear, transparent understanding of the minimum number of homes that they need.

However, local housing need is not a housing target. It is a standard method of measuring housing need in an area that is used by councils as a guide when they develop their local plans. Councils decide their own housing target once they have taken account of local constraints, such as green belt, that prevent it from allocating enough sites to meet need. Nor does the method dictate where homes should go. It is up to councils to decide what sort of homes can be built and where they should be located in their area. Indeed, councils can only adopt a plan that is sound. It must conform with national policy, be supported by evidence and take the views of local people into account. Each plan is subject to a public examination in front of an independent inspector, who plays an important role in examining plans impartially to ensure that they are legally compliant and sound.

Our changes last year to the standard method enable us to plan for approximately 300,000 houses a year while prioritising brownfield sites and urban areas, where homes are often least affordable. This Government strongly encourage the re-use of suitable brownfield land, especially for development to meet housing need and to regenerate our high streets and town centres. Indeed that is why the Government have made significant investment of £400 million through the brownfield housing fund and £75 million through the brownfield land release fund to unlock brownfield land across the country.

However, brownfield sites vary greatly, and local authorities are best placed to assess the suitability of each for development. It is true that paragraph 123 of the national planning policy framework sets out that where an area is

“currently developed but not allocated for a specific purpose in plans”

then local planning authorities should take a “positive approach to applications” where this would

“help meet identified development needs”.

However, it goes on to say that this should only happen

“provided this would not undermine key economic sectors or sites or the vitality and viability of town centres, and would be compatible with other policies in this Framework.”

Our policy is clear. We support brownfield regeneration to meet needs for different land uses, but this must also support a strong economy and local prosperity. I acknowledge the commitment of my hon. Friend in her efforts to deliver the best possible future for the people of Chatham, and will continue to reflect on the points that she has raised during the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.