The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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Medway – a story of successful commuter belt regeneration

Alex Wray

Account Manager

Last week, Snapdragon at PLMR launched its brand-new event programme ‘In Conversation With’, which promises to be an exciting series where we speak with key figures in local government on planning and development in their areas. As part of the event series to date, we have sessions secured with council leaders and cabinet members for planning. If our first session was anything to go by, the event series should be informative and engaging.

Our first guest, Cllr Alan Jarrett, Leader of Medway Council, talked insightfully about town centre regeneration, the Local Plan process, the area’s City Status Bid, and shared his opinion on the Government’s controversial planning reforms with Snapdragon at PLMR Account Director, Natasha Kendall.

Cllr Jarrett provided an overview of Medway’s history, outlining that the Unitary Authority of Medway was formed from the amalgamation of Gillingham Borough Council and Rochester-on-Medway in 1997. The area has five towns: Chatham, Rochester, Strood, Gillingham, and Rainham which collectively are on a par with Brighton in terms of size and scale. The area has fantastic connectivity to both London and Europe through HS1 and residents can now be door to desk in under an hour if they work in the capital. The Council wants to take advantage of this position with an ambitious programme of regeneration.

Medway is geographically split with 50% of the land green space, and the majority of development has focussed on regenerating the town centres of Rochester and Chatham. The council has received substantial grants of over £200m which it has used to bring forward derelict sites. Cllr Jarrett highlighted how working on brownfield sites can be difficult, sharing an amusing anecdote about the discovery of an unexploded ordinance device. However, he also stressed how important it was to bring these sites back into effective use for new homes, schools, and community facilities.

The Housing Infrastructure Fund awarded Medway £170m towards environmental and transport improvements. Cllr Jarrett noted how important this placemaking is in the development process, as it can lead to additional private sector investment. This can be seen with the creation of the Innovation Park Medway at the regional airport, a scheme that will deliver highly skilled tech jobs and enhance Medway’s claim as a leading research area (the area currently boasts four universities).

Medway Council has exciting plans, and it is currently bidding to achieve city status. Cllr Jarrett believes this will have a large impact in raising the profile of Medway, with greater awareness of the area among those living inside and outside of it. The bid focuses on Medway’s rich heritage and great future and is an initiative driven top-down from the Council. On the other hand, Medway’s bid to become the next City of Culture in 2025 is driven bottom-up by the community. If successful, it would provide another opportunity to showcase the area and increase its cultural offer.

At Medway Council’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday the 28th of September, the Council’s Draft Local Plan was approved for recommendation to Full Council, who can then progress it to Regulation 19 consultation. The Full Council meeting will take place on Thursday 7 October.

Cllr Jarrett disagreed with the suggestion that local politics slows down the Local Plan process. He noted that Medway has granted 7,500 permissions that are either being built out slowly, or not at all. He also noted that the aim of the Government to reduce the Local Plan process to 30-months seems unrealistic given the amount of work and consultation necessary to progress these, adding that it has taken six years (72 months) for Medway to progress its Plan.

Cllr Jarrett also shared his thoughts on the Government’s controversial planning reforms, which provided a helpful insight, given that the reforms have not gone down well amongst local Conservative leaders in the South-East. He felt changes to Permitted Development Rights had been a backwards step, noting that Medway has seen a reduction in commercial uses which provide valuable jobs, with some units being converted into small, sub-standard housing instead.

Cllr Jarrett shared his concerns about the move towards a National Model Design Code, highlighting that one size does not fit all, and that regional and local differences will need to be taken account of. When discussing the removal of ‘Duty to Cooperate’, Cllr Jarret commented that Medway was now unable to object to substantial developments on their boundary, that stretched their road and social infrastructure.

The webinar was a highly informative session, and Cllr Jarrett engaged frankly with the audience questions. We are very grateful for his time, knowledge and personal experience in planning and development that will be of great benefit to those watching. Our next session will take place with Cllr Johnny Thalassites Lead Member for Planning, Place and Environment at London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It promises to be another informative session, and we look forward to welcoming you there.

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