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The Local Plan rises once again
You get development! You get development! Everyone gets development!
Editor’s note: I’m not going to lie, it’s not been a great week at Local Authority Towers. I’ve come down with covid for a second time (I’m okay, mostly incredibly tired) and we ended up having to cancel our Peninsula Question Time event. Which was probably for the best lest it likely would have become a superspreader event anyway. This week, we have a special look at the coming Local Plan, and which parts of our towns might be facing future development. It’s just the one big story this week so I can go and have a nap, but we’ll be back to full strength next week. Stay safe out there.
The Local Plan rises once again
For the two years that Local Authority has existed, we’ve probably written about the Local Plan, or lack thereof, more than any other issue.
The utter dereliction of duty from the previous administration in ensuring we had an up-to-date Local Plan means that we’ve now faced years of chaotic piecemeal developments, with no adequate planning or infrastructure alongside it.
For those just joining us, a Local Plan is a document that every council is legally required to have, setting out where housing can be developed in their area to meet the local housing need. It sounds straightforward but the politics of it is anything but.
Our existing plan expired years ago, meaning there’s no framework for the future development of Medway. When that happens, developers can just apply to build wherever they have access, and even if the council refuses planning permission, the developer can usually win on appeal as there is no Local Plan setting out where development should be going instead.
Medway Council has had to grant hundreds if not thousands, of new housing starts in recent years purely because they have been unable to get things together and produce a coherent plan.
Most of this is down to politics. Every political party is splintered into factions who want to oppose everything everywhere and others who recognise reality, and never the two shall meet in the middle.
As such, we’ve had a free-for-all, with local councillors fighting all development on their patch, but having no reasonable answer for where it should go instead. Scale that up across all parts of Medway and you’ve got a recipe for paralysis.
Still, we’re at the last chance saloon for the Local Plan now, and we’re dangerously close to the government coming in and taking over the process, which will certainly please no one. It is right that these decisions are made locally of course, but that requires the decisions to actually be made.
With a new Labour administration in place, it’s now their turn to take a punt at forming a new Local Plan, and it will be politically disastrous for them if they are unable to get it done. Under their own timeline, they intend to publish a draft version of their plan early next year. Let’s see how that goes.
In the meantime, the whole thing is about to go out to public consultation again. Under current government guidelines, Medway needs to deliver 28,400 new homes by 2040. The new administration, like the old one, seems to be questioning this level of demand, but at least they seem to be working with it.
The good news is that Medway doesn’t have to come up with that amount from nothing. There are already 7,500 homes in the pipeline, so they can contribute toward the total. Slightly madly, you can also leave space for ‘windfall homes’ from unexpected sites outside of the Local Plan, which equates to 3,000 in Medway.
So when all is said and done, Medway needs to find roughly 19,000 new housing sites across Medway. Medway Council have crunched the numbers and has worked out that there is land availability for roughly 38,000 new homes in Medway. On paper, that should makes the exercise fairly straightforward. Build on half the sites, leave the others, job done.
But as ever, politics will come back to haunt us, making this far more complicated.
So let’s drill down into where the supply is, and what we’re likely to end up with.
From this chart alone, you can begin to see the problem. Green Belt loss tends to be the worst-case scenario opposition and certain demographics might be down at the mere thought of houses on fields, so we can probably scrub most of that number from the plan. Rural development, as we are all too familiar with now, tends to be grossly unpopular too. As does suburban development. Only urban regeneration seems to be broadly accepted, and that can only deliver 11,600 homes, meaning nearly 8,000 still need to be found elsewhere.
But are those urban regeneration sites even as sure as they appear? Taking a look at the map included in the report, it starts to get a bit more questionable.
It’s hard not to start with the giant orange elephant in the room, that being Chatham Docks. Chatham Docks has been a contentious development which has put both main political parties in a tough spot. Owners Peel Ports have indicated their intent to close the site in 2025 and regenerate it, which would offer capacity for about 3,000 new homes. But it’s been unpopular with both local residents and politicians who fear the significant loss of local employment.
Beyond this, urban regeneration largely centres around Chatham and Strood town centres, with some amounts in Rochester and Gillingham. Curiously, we also see potential sites on Medway City Estate, and we wish anyone choosing to live there well if they want to leave their homes between 4 and 6pm.
Most of the Chatham sites seem fairly logical, with pretty much the entire town centre facing some kind of redevelopment, including Medway Council’s own Gun Wharf building.
What is notable is how much redevelopment Strood is potentially facing. In a way, it makes sense. Strood is the closest town to London in Medway, reaping the benefits of a high-speed rail connection that takes a little over half an hour. It also has significant patches of unused or underutilised land.
Still, Chatham Docks aside, most of this likely wouldn’t be that contentious. Which certainly can’t be said of the potential suburban growth sites.
Rainham escaped lightly in the urban regeneration category. It definitely doesn’t in this one. While the sites to the northeast of the town are hardly surprising given developments of recent years, what is striking is the level of development between the west of Rainham and east of Gillingham through the Lower Twydall area. This would very much change the character of the Lower Rainham Road area, and inevitably raise questions about traffic infrastructure and the loss of agricultural land.
Elsewhere, the long-resisted development of the Capstone Valley is on the table. A political cynic might note that the surrounding areas all vote Conservative and with a new Labour administration there’s less political risk in looking closely at these areas. But that would indeed be cynical. Regardless, a good number of these sites clearly must make it through to the final plan in order to meet Medway’s housing demand, and these are as fair game as anywhere else.
Where else does that leave? Our old favourites over on the peninsula of course.
It should hardly be unexpected that any land allocation will look heavily at the peninsula as it’s where the largest amount of space exists, and as usual, the majority of that focuses around Hoo. Room for development around Hoo is significant, although the area has been blighted by haphazard piecemeal developments in recent years. Still, if even part of this is deliverable, Hoo will inevitably change in character and grow significantly, finally becoming the sixth town of Medway.
Most of the other villages are options for development too. High Halstow is facing inevitable expansion, as are Lower Stoke and Allhallows. Upnor and Grain appear to escape fairly lightly, and no doubt any of these sites coming forward in the final plan will face significant opposition.
It also remains questionable how viable a substantial level of development on the peninsula is now the government has withdrawn the £170m of infrastructure funding. While impossible for the peninsula to avoid all housing development as a result, issues like the traffic chaos caused this week by a lane closure on Four Elms Hill will only become more pronounced as more homes are built in an area with only one major access route.
To be clear, not all of these sites will be included in the coming plan, but the reality is that at least half of the sites on the three maps above will need to be for Medway to meet its housing demand in the coming years. Inevitably, there will be debate and disagreement about that, and it seems unlikely that anyone will be completely happy with the outcome.
The alternative though, if no plan can be agreed, is we either carry on as we are with no structure and developers building anywhere they can, or the government takes control of Medway’s planning process. Neither option would be good for our area.
Medway Council’s consultation on this stage of the Local Plan will begin on September 18 and run until October 31.
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🚧 Work will finally begin this month to remove the collapsed section of Rochester Pier from the River Medway. The pier was closed to the public in 2019 after being declared unsafe and was allowed to deteriorate so badly it fell into the river last year.
🏫 Plans to make three grammar schools mixed-sex have been postponed by the Department for Education. The move would have allowed Holcombe, Chatham Grammar, and Fort Pitt to increase their intake of students.
🗣️ Medway Council Leader Vince Maple has spoken to KMTV about his first 100 days in office.
🌧️ It rained a lot last Friday. The downpours led to flooding in the Walderslade area, as well as other parts of Chatham and Gillingham.
🍔 Wimpy in Chatham has closed after seven years. Somehow, the Strood Wimpy continues to go strong.
🎸 Medway band Tape Error will release their first album, ten years after the death of frontman Chris Austin. The album was recorded before his death and the songs remained stuck on an old computer until they were recovered for this release.
Paid supporters of Local Authority receive extra editions of the newsletter every week. Thanks to the editor coming down with covid, they only got one this week, but it was a bumper interview with Medway Council Leader Vince Maple. As it was the third time we’ve interviewed Vince, we crowdsourced questions to ask him, leading to a wide-ranging conversation on issues as broad as the Local Plan, public toilets, support for arts and culture, and loads more.
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Come and see us in person at the following events, where we’ll be peddling our Medwayish range and offering discounted Local Authority subscriptions:
Sep 17 - Rochester Farmer’s Market, Blue Boar Lane Car Park, Rochester
Sep 23 - Festival of Chatham Reach, Sun Pier, Chatham
Come and say hi if you’re around!
Our Medwayish store is now fully open! We’ve got all kinds of unique Medway-related gifts from Medway creatives. Prints? Loads of them. Tea towels? You know it. Books? Why not? We’ve got more Medway bits than you’ll know what to do with. Check out the full range here and maybe consider treating yourself (or someone else!) to a little something.