Kelly Tolhurst – 2021 Speech on Chatham Docks

The speech made by Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood, in the House of Commons on 16 September 2021.

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 devastating 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 devastating 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.