Frindsbury Hill closure brings out the worst in everyone
Plus big cuts at the University of Kent at Medway, a legally questionable sauna for sale, and a review of Medway Little Theatre's The Weir
Roads continue to dominate the Medway news agenda. Following arguments over red routes, a new battleground opened up this week after Medway Council announced Frindsbury Hill will close for 15 weeks to allow a school to be connected to the road network. Inevitably, this brought out the worst in everyone.
Further down, we have news of significant cuts at the University of Kent at Medway, where over 50 jobs and several courses are set to be lost, including at the Centre for Journalism. We’ve also got the bizarre tale of a legally questionable sauna being sold in Chatham, and in a new one for us, we have our first theatre review after we dispatched Anne-Marie Jordan to the Medway Little Theatre to review their production of The Weir.
As always, we are only able to do this with the support of the subscribers that choose to contribute financially. Doing so ensures we can keep this weekly briefing free for everyone else, and gives us the funding support we need to tackle the big stories facing our towns. Becoming a paid supporter costs £5 per month or £50 for the year. If you are able, please consider hitting the button below today so we can keep this project going through 2024.
Frindsbury Hill closure brings out the worst in everyone
It seems certain that the defining Medway culture war of the moment revolves around cars. Following the arguments over the implementation of a red route in Rainham, local Conservatives have found their next flashpoint: The closure of Frindsbury Hill for over three months. It’s a lengthy and meandering tale and one where few seem to be acting in good faith.
Back in September 2021, plans were approved for the new Maritime Academy secondary school in Frindsbury, next to the Sans Pareil roundabout. Medway’s planning committee, which at the time was made up of a majority of Conservative councillors, weren’t necessarily happy with the plans in full but were satisfied enough to approve them. All three councillors representing Strood Rural, the ward the school would be placed in, were in attendance at the meeting.
With the school due to open in September of this year, work is nearing completion. Anyone who passes by the site regularly will now see a building that is almost complete, meaning the next phase of work is to connect the site to the road infrastructure outside.
This is where things start to kick off.
Medway Council announced this week, seemingly with no advance notice to residents or representatives, that to complete the work, Frindsbury Hill would need to be closed southbound for 15 weeks between March and June to complete the work.
While it was accepted that any transport works will cause some disruption, a closure on such a busy route will obviously cause significant problems, particularly as the road already sees extensive congestion in peak hours even without works taking place.
Somewhat understandably, local councillors and the MP for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, voiced concerns about the problems this might cause. Whether going about it with a set of signs straight out of The Thick of It is another matter.
Notable here is exactly who is featured in the campaign: Alongside Kelly Tolhurst, the three ward councillors for Strood Rural (Elizabeth Turpin, Gary Etheridge, and John Williams), who all knew about the school and the work that would be needed, but are now fighting against it. More curious is the two Independent councillors from Hoo & High Halstow, Michael Pearce and Ron Sands, and raises questions about their group position. Yesterday evening, the leader of the Independent Group and the only one of their group not to campaign above, George Crozer raised questions about the closure but was very moderated in his language and described Cllr Simon Curry, the portfolio holder overseeing the works as “the best man for the job”.
Inevitably, the Labour administration fired back with an incredibly passive-aggressive letter, which managed to both help and make the situation worse. In this letter, they announced that the closure will now be a full one in both directions. It goes on to argue that drivers can rely on “local knowledge” to get around it but does offer the olive branch of opening the current bus lane on Canal Road to relieve some of the pressure.
Quite why this wasn’t originally proposed raises questions about the long-term planning processes over significant works. Following the Medway bin crisis over New Year, this is yet another notable shambolic communications operation from Cllr Simon Curry’s department.
The letter also argues that the plans had two options when originally agreed: This version and another plan that would have taken place alongside a major upgrade of the Sans Pareil roundabout, which was due to take place with the £170m Housing Infrastructure Fund money. This would have likely resulted in more disruption in the short term but made the entire area flow far better in the long term. This funding was withdrawn by the government last year to celebrations from Kelly Tolhurst.
Kelly Tolhurst responded to the letter, describing its content as “full of falsehoods” and directing residents to email Cllr Curry and Leader of Medway Council Vince Maple their views directly. She fails to propose any alternative plan that would still allow the school to open on schedule, nor does the administration seem to have any less disruptive plan to complete the work.
We’re no experts on transport infrastructure, but it does seem strange that it would take 15 weeks to build a junction onto an existing road, even with the moving of utilities required. It would perhaps to beneficial if the administration could explain why the process would take so long, but given the nature of communications out of Cllr Curry’s department, that might be too much to ask for.
If you enjoy Local Authority, please share it with your friends, family, associates, and even enemies. We have no meaningful marketing budget, so rely on word of mouth from our readers to find new readers. You can even get some sweet, sweet rewards for sending new readers our way. Details here.
University of Cuts at Medway
The opening of the Universities at Medway campus in Chatham is often cited as one of the best things to happen to our towns in recent decades. While the campus has never integrated itself fully into the surrounding community, it has had the effect of generating good jobs locally and an influx of young people to study.
In recent years, there has been some uncertainty about the long-term prospects of the campus. While the University of Greenwich element of the campus seems to be thriving, the University of Kent part has seemingly been in decline, with fewer students and an increasingly quiet campus.
That seems to have come to a head this week with the news that the university is giving up two of its three buildings on the campus, phasing out nine courses and potentially making 58 staff members redundant.
The University of Kent has struggled recently, with a significant drop in international student numbers post-Brexit damaging the institution that branded itself as ‘Britain’s European university’.
The cuts threaten courses across a range of disciplines including health and social care, philosophy, music, and in another blow to our field, journalism. The university’s specialist Centre for Journalism is based at the Medway campus, with close collaboration with KMTV (also based on campus) providing meaningful opportunities for new journalists to hone their craft.
A consultation on the changes is running through this month, with the university deciding on how to move forward after that.
Medwayish in your inbox
Forgive us for this short plug, but we wanted to let you know about a new sister project under our Medwayish brand. Our Medwayish store currently offers an extensive range of Medway-related gifts and products from local creatives, but we’re now launching a companion newsletter. The Medwayish newsletter will publish writing, art, photography, short film, and music by local creative voices.
Please subscribe above to receive the first edition, which we’re aiming to publish at the end of the month. This project will only be viable with the support of readers subscribing, so please pop your email into the box above if this idea sounds interesting to you.
If you’ve ever wanted to buy a sauna behind Chatham High Street that doesn’t appear to have planning permission, we have quite the opportunity for you.
On the market for £230,000, the “spa” with a kitchen, bar, pool, and sauna sits in a discrete commercial unit facing Solomons Road. While the unit comes with planning permission to add an additional storey for a flat, the status of the ground floor enterprise itself seems more questionable.
There does appear to have been a previous application to convert the unit into what it is now, but that was withdrawn before receiving any approval from Medway Council. Indeed, a 2023 planning report regarding the additional storey described the ground floor as a “storage unit”.
Still, prospective buyers likely don’t need to worry about any potential problems with planning enforcement at Medway Council. A recent meeting revealed that the council only has three officers to cover all of Medway, and doesn’t seem to take a particularly proactive approach, so it’s probably fine to get your towels ready.
Theatre Review: The Weir at Medway Little Theatre
by Anne-Marie Jordan
I’ll be honest. On a dark and dreary evening in January, it was more the promise of a school night vino than the prospect of a visit to the theatre that lured me out of the house. However, on viewing the sign attached to the auditorium door – please note that this play contains strong language and occasional smoking – I knew I’d made the right decision, and I settled in for what turned out to be a captivating couple of hours set in County Leitrim.
From the start, with the atmospheric crackle of an open fire and walls covered with photos of bygone people and places, you were transported to a remote pub in rural Ireland, where locals effortlessly shared banter and booze, before the arrival of an outsider encouraged the conversation to switch to more spine-chilling stories. Yet, before your blood can run too cold, warmth and wit are deftly interwoven throughout this play, with one of the biggest laughs afforded to the tale involving a ‘Luigi’ board.
All the actors did a grand job of conveying the dynamics of countryside communities and the intimacy of the 96-seat theatre ensured you felt immersed in the action wherever you were sat. Chris Parnell as Jack, the melancholic mechanic and garage owner, stood out for me, with his final monologue reminding us that not every ghost which haunts us has a supernatural slant.
The fact that there was an almost full house on a Monday is testament to Medway Little Theatre’s reputation – and I can confirm that its production of The Weir was well worth braving the elements for.
Now in its 65th season, full details of Medway Little Theatre’s upcoming performances can be found here.
🏚️ The former North Foreland pub in Chatham failed to sell at auction last week after attracting zero bids. The property, billed as a ‘fantastic development opportunity’, was on offer at a guide price of £500,000.
🏗️ An illegally constructed scrap metal site on woodland in Hempstead has been ordered to close by the Planning Inspectorate. Owners of the site will also have to remove all buildings and re-plant trees across the land.
⛔ Medway Council will start enforcing yellow box junctions and no motor vehicle restrictions in eight locations from Mon 5 Feb. First offenders within the first six months will receive a warning, while subsequent offences will garner a fine.
✉️ Councillors in Medway have spoken about the threats and abuse they receive doing their jobs. Incidents included broken glass being put through letterboxes and multiple threats of violence.
⛽ The Co-op petrol station on Medway City Estate has been rebranded as a Shell. Confusingly, the shop itself will remain a Co-op.
🍺 The Ship pub in Gillingham has had its landlord removed following multiple licence breaches. The review was triggered by the police after multiple officers were assaulted at the premises in November.
🏭 The River Medway has been revealed as one of the most polluted in the country. The results come from a survey carried out by the Angling Trust at sites across the UK.
🍾 In the most devastating news of the week, plans for a restaurant and bar on the roof of Mountbatten House have been scrapped. Citing rising costs, the space will now be used as a roof terrace for residents instead.
Events this week
🎸 The inaugural Platform 3 Club at the Oast Community Centre in Rainham is tomorrow night (Sat 3 Feb). The club is a new bi-monthly night with bands including The Pastel Waves, These Guilty Men, and Spinner playing across two rooms at the venue. Tickets cost £8 in advance or £10 on the door.
💡 On the same night, the Luton Lights finale will take place at the Invicta Social Club on Luton Road. Featuring light projection display, live electronic music and arts activities, the family-friendly event takes place between 6pm and 8pm and is free to attend.
👨🚀 Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey has a one night only screening at Cineworld in Strood on Tues 6 Feb. Tickets cost £5.
Our paid supporters receive extra editions of Local Authority every week. This week, our music correspondent Stephen Morris looked at what’s ahead for the Medway music scene this year. Spoiler alert: Quite a lot. Elsewhere, making quite the musical double bill, Steven interviewed Stuart Turner, one of the more recognisable faces in that scene.
Putting together in-depth reporting without the clickbait and annoying adverts isn’t cheap, and becoming a paid supporter helps us cover the costs of running this thing. When joining us for a year, it costs less than £1 per week, so please consider it if you can.