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Has war been declared on Medway’s motorists?
Plus a bleak fate awaits our Wilko stores, Wagamama is coming to town, and more
Editor’s note: If certain local politicians are to be believed, we’re in the midst of a war against Medway’s motorists. This week, we’re going to take a look at how true that is. We’ve also got news on the bleak picture facing our Wilko stores, positive news for fans of Wagmama, plus a jam-packed roundup section. Thanks so much for reading Local Authority!
Has war been declared on Medway’s motorists?
The quick answer would be of course not, stop being silly. But nationally, the government seems to think they can use the issue as a way to distinguish themselves from the Labour opposition. We’ve been seeing a lot of narratives about a war on drivers lately, from Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to the ULEZ expansion to 20mph speed limits.
I don’t want to go all anti-car urbanist here, but all of this is inherently very silly. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are great for local communities, the ULEZ only impacts a minority of polluting cars, and 20mph speed limits are eminently sensible anywhere near pedestrians.
None of this has stopped the government ‘saving us’ from the ‘tyranny’ of such policies, which are largely the matter of local councils anyway. This entrenches the privileged position of us car drivers on our roads, because let’s be honest, that’s what we are. None of these policies are much more than an inconvenience for most of us, and ones we get on with because even with extra charges or having to go a bit further out of the way, driving is still inevitably easier than using public transport across much of the country.
It shouldn’t be this way, of course. Most of us use our cars for precisely this reason. I live in a place where a bus turns up four times a day if you’re lucky, and the government's £2 fare scheme aside, usually costs a fortune. My nearest train station is the best part of an hour to walk, and even then the destinations are limited. So I drive, like countless others, because it’s easier and cheaper.
All of this means many car drivers get very precious about their cars and any perceived thing that makes it more difficult to get around, making it an ideal issue for politicians to exploit. So here we are, in 2023, where local Conservatives, struggling for traction following a thumping in May’s elections, are fighting back against the war on motorists that is apparently happening in our towns.
So, is there any evidence of such a war even happening in the first place? Let’s see.
Evidence 1: The red routes are coming
We’ve discussed the imminent introduction of red routes on five Medway roads a number of times now, so we won’t rehash it fully here. However, following an initial consultation on the plans, Medway Council are proceeding with all five routes, albeit with minor changes regarding loading bays.
The interesting thing here is that the Conservative opposition decided to ‘call-in’ part of the decision this week. A call-in allows an opposition to trigger a debate on a council matter and can recommend changes for the cabinet to consider. It’s largely used for show or making a point, but it is interesting that this is the first issue the Conservatives have decided to use it on after being turfed out.
In a statement from Conservative leader Cllr Adrian Gulvin, we were told:
Our reasons are that this will cause severe harm to local businesses in Rainham, and that the consultation showed a large majority against this proposal.
While there have certainly been objections to the red route in Rainham, overall there was little difference in opposition in Rainham than anywhere else. All five schemes were opposed roughly 2-to-1, and while the Rainham scheme attracted more responses than any others, it also attracted additional support.
We asked Cllr Gulvin if that meant his group were supporting the other schemes in Chatham and Rochester, and he told us that the consultation showed a balanced position for and against, and that when his party are “back in control in four years’ time, we will need the income to support vital services”.
All of which suggests the opposition is political rather than ideological. Still, politics being politics, it’s the only route within a Conservative-controlled area, and the party evidently see an opening here.
Evidence 2: Four Elms Hill roadworks as farce
It’s fair to say there has been little discussion on the local Hoo Facebook groups about anything other than the current roadworks on Four Elms Hill.
For the past four weeks, one lane has been closed on the westbound stretch of Four Elms Hill so that Medway Council can improve the footpath and add a cycle lane next to the main carriageway. Given Four Elms Hill is a high-speed dual carriageway, this seems fairly sensible to boost active travel in the area.
Given they are spending hours queueing in traffic as a result, it is understandable that the local population don’t quite view it in the same terms. Local discussions are littered with complaints about being late for work, appointments, and school, with some users even going so far as threatening to go and take the cones away themselves, though thankfully none of them has actually done that just yet.
This had led to Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst, facing a tough re-election battle next year, to start moaning about the works on Twitter and criticising the ‘Labour Council’ for carrying out the work that was agreed by the previous Conservative administration.
This would be the same Kelly Tolhurst MP, who posted on her website two months ago a piece welcoming the removal of £170m in infrastructure funding for the Hoo Peninsula. That money was to be spent on improving road access to the peninsula including a new relief road. Tolhurst doesn’t want new roads in the area but then complains when the one existing road becomes congested.
Evidence 3: Parking charges at Dockside
Perhaps the most controversial announcement of the week has been word from the Dockside Outlet Centre in Chatham that they will begin charging for parking from September 25.
This news has seemingly gone down like a warm bowl of sick with everyone, and it’s difficult to find anyone who thinks it’s a good idea.
The centre argues that they need to introduce the charges as 200 people leave their cars there overnight. As such, you’ll now have to pay £5 to park in the middle of the day, which doesn’t quite line up. Surely solutions like just charging out of hours or, you know, a lockable gate, might have been simpler.
But the charges are coming, in a weird repeat of history. When the centre first opened two decades ago, it had charges to park, which led to not many people going there. Once the charges were scrapped, footfall significantly increased.
It’s understandable for the centre to charge for those abusing their car park, but asking customers to pay after just one hour is hardly going to encourage visitors to hang around at the restaurants, cinema, and leisure facilities at the complex.
PureGym has already made a point of offering their customers three hours of free parking, and it will be interesting to see if other locations at the complex follow suit. Given Hempstead Valley offers free parking, as does the Cineworld in Strood, it’s hard to see this providing much benefit to the businesses at Dockside.
Where this ties into the above is that local Conservatives are again jumping on the issue, implying the Labour administration is responsible even though it’s a privately operated car park. Cllr Wayne Spring of Rainham even went as far as to request a review from Medway Council on the matter, which is ignorant at best or disingenuous at worst.
No doubt we’re going to hear more on this issue in the coming months, as it does seem to resonate with a certain type of voter who is already feeling squeezed when these things hit. Whether the Conservatives can make enough hay out of it to start to rebuild their position in our towns is another matter entirely.
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It’s not looking good for Wilko stores
The entire Wilko chain fully collapsed this week, with nearly all hope of any rescue deal for the retailer evaporating. As a result, all Wilko stores will close in the next few weeks.
Some individual stores have been bought by B&M, and some by Poundland, but it’s looking increasingly like none of those are in Medway.
Poundland have purchased 71 stores, but none of the stores on the list are in Medway. While the locations of the 51 stores bought by B&M are still unknown, none of the available stores here appear to match their need.
The chain already has stores in Chatham and Strood, and they seem to prefer more out-of-town stores or at least those with parking available. Rainham is the only one which comes close to meeting this criteria, but there has been no indication of interest in the Wilko store there.
Unfortunately, Medway looks likely to have four large retail stores in our town centres sitting empty, with no obvious candidates for filling them given their size. Our town centres are already struggling, and this is another nail in the coffin of the high street as an exclusively retail destination. Medway will need to find a way to adapt to this new world and do so quickly.
Medway finally gets a Wagamama
When news broke back in June that Zizzi was opening at Chatham Dockside, we noted that the size of the unit was somewhat eyebrow-raising. At a time when mid-range chain dining is in decline, the company taking on two former restaurant units at the complex didn’t seem quite right.
This week came news that explains it all. Zizzi is taking only one of the units, while Wagamama is taking the other.
This is fairly minor news in the grand scheme of things, but given the lack of Japanese food available in Medway, and Wagamama being at the better end of the chain dining league table, this is fairly good news for Medway.
Now we just need to hope that customers aren’t put off by the new parking charges at Dockside set out above…
🏢 The former UCA building in Rochester is being marketed with the potential to be converted into 128 flats. The listing states discussions have already taken place with Medway Council, who seem amenable to the plans.
🦟 Medway County Court inside Medway Council’s headquarters had to close this week following a “bug infestation”. Gun Wharf closed due to bug infestation is a little too on the nose as a headline even for us.
🐀 McDonalds on Medway City Estate closed this week after a rat was spotted. Following an overnight closure for a deep clean, the location re-opened again the following morning.
🧒 Medway Council’s children's services have finally been rated good by Ofsted. The service had been rated inadequate since an inspection in 2019.
🏫 No one seemed to notice that Holcombe Grammar School in Chatham was one of the schools that had to close classrooms as a result of RAAC concrete being used in them.
🚒 Chatham Docks suffered a significant fire this morning. Firefighters have spent the night tackling the blaze at a recycling facility on the site.
🚑 The new emergency ambulance centre in Twydall is now fully open. The site will prepare and dispatch ambulances, as well as handle 999 and 111 calls.
🚆 Not strictly Medway, but journalist James O’Malley has made a compelling case for extending the Elizabeth Line to Ebbsfleet. He argues that this would create an economic boom for North Kent, and I would argue an alternative to paying £50 for a return to London would be lovely.
🎵 Trust Fund, one of my favourite bands, are playing in Medway tonight. Bafflingly, the gig at the Oast Community Centre in Rainham still has tickets available. They will probably not be for sale online by the time you read this, but they will be available on the door. You should definitely come along. Go on, treat yourself.
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This Sunday, we will be at the Rochester Farmer’s Market. Not just to buy lovely hummus and cheese (though that will be happening too), but we’ll also have a stall selling items from our Medwayish range (including some things not on the website yet!) and discounted Local Authority subscriptions. We’ll be there between 9am and 1pm in the Blue Boar Lane car park. Please come along and say hello if you’re in the area.