Chatham Docks Basin 3 Redevelopment — [Sir Philip Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 1 May 2024.

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Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood 9:30, 1 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the redevelopment of Chatham Docks Basin 3.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Philip.

The debate over the future of Chatham docks has stirred strong emotions in our community. On one side, Peel Waters has proposed a residential-focused mixed-use development, but closer examination raises concerns about its sustainability and impact on our already thriving industries. The proposal has prompted legitimate worries about the quality of jobs, uncertainty surrounding investments and the overall environmental footprint, echoing sentiments that I have been expressing for several years.

In response to those concerns, I have been championing an alternative vision alongside the Save Chatham Docks campaign. It centres around the SPPARC Architecture masterplan, which sets out revitalisation focused on modern industrial space, emphasising job creation, economic growth and environmental sustainability—all essential for the future of the port’s activities. I appreciate the opportunity today to highlight that cause and to bring further information forward as to why saving the docks is the only sensible solution.

Chatham docks was part of the old Royal Navy Dockyard Chatham estate, which has stood proudly for 457 years.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Sir Philip, is it not normal to declare interests at the start of a debate? Is the right hon. Lady intending to make any such declarations?

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I am not too sure what the hon. Gentleman refers to.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Sir Philip, you may wish to explain the rules—but I think it is a requirement that where we have interests in a particular area, or a potential financial interest, we declare them before we comment on or speak to that issue. I again invite the right hon. Member to make any declarations that are relevant.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I would like the hon. Gentleman to elaborate on which financial interest he thinks I have.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. We can carry on this exchange, but it is for a Member to determine whether they have an interest to declare. If they decide they do not have an interest to declare, that is a matter for them. I do not know if that satisfies Neil Coyle, but it is for the Member themselves to determine that.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

Thank you, Sir Philip.

The dockyard has stood proudly for 457 years as a symbol of Medway’s economic backbone and our local heritage. On the banks of the River Medway, the docks embody the spirit of our community, connecting us to our past while paving the way to our future. Generations of families, including mine, can trace their stories alongside the history of Chatham docks. My mum’s family tells a familiar tale, with ancestors who have worked and served our country from those docks. Growing up in Medway meant always meeting people who shared similar connections—each a demonstration of the impact that the docks have had on generations across our community.

During its heyday, Chatham dockyard was the most important shipbuilding and repair dockyard in the country, contributing more than 500 ships to the Royal Navy and employing more than 10,000 skilled artisans. However, the closure of the Royal Navy Dockyard Chatham 40 years ago marked the end of an era, prompting a transformation that has been nothing short of remarkable.

The dockyard estate was split into three sections, and it has been revitalised into a mix of commercial, residential and leisure spaces. The establishment of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust has ensured that a piece of our heritage remains accessible to all, serving as a living museum that educates visitors. It has played host to the sets of some of our favourite TV dramas and films.

English Estates took over another section of the old dockyard estate at the time, which is now host to basins 1 and 2 of the complex. Those have been formed into the Chatham Maritime Marina and a water sports facility, respectively, alongside significant retail and commercial office space. The northern section of the parcel is St Mary’s Island, which hosts a development and is now home to more than 5,000 residents.

Today, our focus lies on the third section—the easternmost—which surrounds basin 3 and is designated under Medway Ports Authority. It is a bustling commercial port and manufacturing hub that drives economic growth and offers fantastic opportunities for local businesses and residents. Basin 3 at Chatham docks is unique: it is the only non-tidal enclosed dock in Kent. It is regionally significant, as it plays a critical role in facilitating the transportation of vital materials to London and other regions across the UK in an environmentally sustainable way. Currently, it hosts nearly 20 businesses, and boasts a roster of notable multinational businesses such as ArcelorMittal, Aggregate Industries and European Active Projects Ltd, all of which have established UK bases within the port premises. In turn, they provide a number of high-quality jobs, particularly for local residents; they directly employ 795 people, including 750 full-time equivalent staff, and indirectly support an additional 1,500 jobs through the supply chain network. Those figures translated into a combined turnover of nearly £175 million in 2021.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Am I right in thinking that ArcelorMittal is the only tenant in basin 3 that has not agreed to relocate?

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

My understanding is that there are other organisations operating within the port facility that want to stay where they are. Some have relocated because they unfortunately did not have another option; their leases meant that they were unable to stay.

The operations at Chatham docks span a diverse range of high-value industries. Materials and goods are brought in via water channels, undergo processing and manufacturing, and are subsequently exported.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Two of the companies that have been operating in Chatham docks for marine repairs are EAPL and Stick-Mig Welding. Does the right hon. Lady have anything to say about the relationship between Skipper Ltd and those two companies?

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to Skipper (UK) Ltd, which I am still a director of—and which has no customers or interests in Chatham docks or any of the businesses that operate in Chatham docks.

A sometimes overlooked aspect of the incumbent operations at Chatham docks is the strong commitment to nurturing talent. The array of apprenticeship programmes provides excellent avenues towards rewarding careers. In 2020 alone, 16 apprenticeship programmes offered 20 positions per 1,000 jobs, massively surpassing the Medway average of about nine apprenticeships for every 1,000 jobs. The investment in people not only benefits the individuals involved but strengthens the workforce of the entire region, offering high-quality careers that make a real difference.

Importantly, the jobs offered at Chatham docks provide above average wages, raising the median wage in Medway. The average annual earnings were £43,000 in 2023—nearly 9% higher than the Medway median wage. These positions serve as a crucial driver of economic stability, especially in an area where 13.5% of Medway’s workforce earn below two thirds of UK median pay as of 2021. It is clear that Chatham docks are absolutely essential for the local population. In 2019, it was found that 20% of its workers lived in the Chatham docks three-digit postcode—ME1—and 45% across Medway.

The economic significance of the docks extends beyond direct employment and wages: it contributes significantly to the regional economy, accounting for more than 4% of Medway’s gross value added and generating approximately £89 million in GVA annually. In addition to its economic contribution, Chatham docks also plays a vital role in generating tax revenues, which contribute essential funding for local services and infrastructure. The annual tax revenues are estimated to range between £27 million and £36 million, and the annual business rates payments are about £2 million. Those revenues also provide financial resources to support the community.

The main issue at hand, and my reason for calling this debate, is the progress of Peel Waters’ attempt to end the use of Chatham docks as a commercial port, displacing the businesses within it, with the loss of high-quality jobs. Peel Waters has a vision to implement a residential-led, mixed-use development across the site. It has been over a decade since Peel Waters first set its sights on the redevelopment of Chatham docks, and started to redevelop part of the land. Its 2013 application initially boasted that development of Chatham Waters would provide 3,549 permanent jobs once fully developed, or 2,418 net additional jobs, with an associated GVA of around £92.4 million.

The projections suggested a substantial boost to both employment and the local economy. Looking deeper into the plans as time progressed, however, all is not as it seemed. The 2013 planning statement provided a more specific breakdown of the employment that would be delivered. It showed a significant proportion of projections included employment for retail and hospitality. For the projected 764 jobs as part of phase 1, 400 to 450 would be provided at the Asda retail food store, 40 to 50 at the pub and 20 at a coffee shop. I have long championed the hospitality industry, but this would be a stark contrast to the jobs that they would replace from the manufacturing, construction and transport industries.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The right hon. Lady is being generous in giving way, which I appreciate, so that I can better understand the specifics of the case. My understanding is that the local plan has not been updated since 2003. Can she give us her view on why that is the case? Why have previous Medway Council administrations not brought that plan up to date to set out a viable and feasible dock retention policy?

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is right that Medway Council is out of a local plan. The previous local plan, which is occasionally referred to regarding planning applications, clearly designates Chatham docks as a commercial rather than residential area—hence my campaign, with others across the Medway towns, to demand and ensure that Chatham docks remains a commercial site, rather than a residential-led development.

Peel has also claimed that, on completion, 2,701 jobs will be in office space. Without the density specified, that would pose a risk of under-utilisation of the available area. Independent analysis revealed that in reality we have seen a shortfall in job creation, with around only 200 full-time jobs materialising since the plans were first introduced more than 14 years ago. That represents 26% of phase 1 jobs estimates and 6% of the total jobs promised across the whole of the Chatham Waters development—a far cry from the lofty estimates put forward.

It transpired that in 2019 Peel had desires to redevelop the Chatham docks site into primarily residential areas. The updated plan was led by 3,600 homes and claimed it would support over 2,000 jobs on site. Although the shift towards housing development appeals to Medway Council’s housing targets, it raises concern about the potential impact on existing jobs and industries at the docks.

It has been clear that Medway’s housing targets have been disproportionately affecting my constituency of Rochester and Strood. Over the past 15 years, we have seen delivery of thousands of new homes, with thousands more in the pipeline for my constituency, while sites such as Chatham docks are now at risk due to Medway’s focus on meeting targets. We require a more strategic approach to housing development, focusing on suitable locations with adequate infrastructure.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with these important sites, it is crucial to respect the character of the surrounding area in deciding what is to be built? In particular, there is a need for larger family homes, but many developments of this sort seem focused almost entirely on small flats.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

My right hon. Friend is right that one concern around developments such as this is that the focus is on number and units of flats, as opposed to delivering the type of accommodation that local people in the Medway towns desire in the locations. The numbers are a challenge, but the type of accommodation is just as important.

Rochester and Strood have spearheaded Medway’s efforts to meet housing demand, but Medway’s annual target, calculated using the standard methodology, remains at 1,667 new homes, culminating in 28,339 homes by 2040. Currently, the council has plans for 7,583 homes in the pipeline, with an additional 3,000 windfall sites predicted, which means the council faces the task of finding suitable locations for just over 19,000 additional homes. Unfortunately, Medway Council has cited the need to reach those targets as the reason why a unique, regionally important infrastructure asset such as Chatham docks is even being considered as part of the local plan process.

There is now a live application for part of the site currently occupied by ArcelorMittal that proposes to replace its operation with a different type of commercial space. This move aims to shift existing commercial activity, but signals a broader trend that could lead to the displacement of crucial industries and jobs. Sadly, in my view the application is the thin end of the wedge, threatening to pave the way for the loss of important industries, high-value jobs and the ability of the commercial port industries’ use of basin 3. The application is just the beginning, setting the stage for Peel’s larger plan to develop a large number of residential units across the site.

Following the campaign by fellow Conservative MPs urging the Government to initiate a consultation on changes to the national planning policy framework, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities responded by amending the NPPF, notably by clarifying housing targets to be an advisory starting point rather than being mandatory, thereby promising positive outcomes for communities where there was robust evidence to support a difference. The new NPPF introduces several key provisions aimed at making local planning processes more effective and responsive to community needs. First, it empowers local authorities by giving them greater flexibility to address housing requirements specific to their area. That means they can tailor solutions to fit local circumstances rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

The framework emphasises the importance of maintaining the character of a local area by preventing densities that would be “wholly out of character”. That helps to safeguard the integrity of local plans and ensures that new developments complement them rather than distract from the existing surroundings. Additionally, the NPPF introduces measures to help councils to resist speculative housing developments, giving them more control over how their communities grow. It also outlines criteria for when alternative approaches can be justified, ensuring that decisions are made with careful consideration of exceptional circumstances.

For local planning authorities, the changes mean a renewed focus on accurately assessing and meeting local housing need and on gathering robust evidence to support decisions. Although they are required to use a standard methodology for determining housing need, they have the flexibility to adjust plans according to local constraints and needs. That flexibility allows targets to be fine-tuned to reflect specific local circumstances, whether that means preserving the character of neighbourhoods or protecting green spaces. Ultimately, the reforms strike a balance between national objectives and local priorities.

In the light of the changes, Medway Council has an opportunity to produce a local plan that fits the needs of our community. Given the adjustments, Medway Council should reconsider the plans for Chatham docks. By prioritising the preservation of our commercial port and protecting jobs and an infrastructure asset that has national importance, we can sustain the local economy and its future development. The economic significance of businesses at Chatham docks should not be underestimated and destroyed. The area needs this type of industry and employment.

The lock gates, which allow access into basin 3 via the River Medway, have long been cited by Peel as a stumbling block to Chatham docks’ future economic viability, claiming that the cost of repairs or replacement is prohibitive. That assertion is refuted by surveyors and tenants who, based on studies carried out, believe that with a proper maintenance and renewal programme an ongoing commercial port operation has the capacity to flourish.

An important but often overlooked factor when considering the cost implications of repairs to the lock gates is the water management agreement, which has been in place since the initial split of the dockyard estate into the distinct areas described earlier. It governs the management of water flow through basins 1, 2 and 3, as well as access for naval vessels to basin 2 from the river. It was only back in 2019 that we welcomed the new HMS Medway to Chatham. Peel has a responsibility and the obligation remains, as outlined in the deeds, to maintain the lock gates as the custodians of the asset, whatever the future of the site.

The current closure of the gates is significantly affecting businesses within basin 3. Moreover, the blockage of salt water flow through the basin complex directly affects the water quality in basin 2, where the Chatham Maritime Trust, of which I am a trustee, operates a water sports centre. I am concerned that compromised water quality could render the basin unsuitable for such activities in future.

A clear example of one of the most successful businesses based at Chatham docks is the principal tenant, ArcelorMittal, which has called it home since 1988. Its presence at the docks speaks volumes of how it values their strategic location. The company is dedicated to the docks, and has further shown its engagement by commissioning Volterra Partners to conduct an independent socioeconomic assessment, which has evaluated whether there is a case to support ArcelorMittal’s future and the viability of investment in basin 3.

As the second largest steel producer in the world, ArcelorMittal supplies approximately 30% of the UK’s steel reinforcement and is a leading wire rod manufacturer in the UK, with influence extending far beyond Medway. Its involvement in landmark projects, ranging from Crossrail to the Shard and from Heathrow terminal 5 to the London Stadium, has marked its imprint on the iconic skyline of the UK. As London gears up for massive infrastructure investments totalling £27 billion until 2032-33, ArcelorMittal stands ready to supply the essential materials required in those ambitious projects.

ArcelorMittal relies heavily on water transport, sourcing around 85% of its steel through that method, primarily from overseas locations such as ports in Hamburg. To be clear, this is an operation that cannot simply be located to an inland site. ArcelorMittal has made it clear that should it lose its Chatham docks site, it would be forced to shift its operations entirely to continental Europe, to the detriment of the region and the national economy.

It should also be noted that shipping products produce far less emissions than transporting the equivalent via heavy goods vehicles and certainly when transported by aircraft. Maintaining and potentially expanding operations in the area would therefore be environmentally preferable to a total shutdown, given the transport emission savings. The commitment to sustainability is evident in ArcelorMittal’s production methods, with more than 98% of its steel reinforcements made from recycled scrapped steel. Its embracing of innovative technologies such as hydrogen also leads the way towards greener practices for steel production.

In recognising the importance of the location, ArcelorMittal is committed to expansion and enhancements. Currently, £5 million of inward investment is on hold, with a potential additional £20 million, pending the approval of the SPPARC masterplan. Although ArcelorMittal is the largest tenant at Chatham docks, it is just one of the many examples of successful businesses that make up the thriving commercial dockyard and manufacturing hub.

I have long been a supporter of the campaign to save Chatham docks. Back in 2021 I held an Adjournment debate on the issue, using the platform to highlight the thriving businesses already operating at the docks. Then, in summer 2022, the alternative vision from the Save Chatham Docks campaign was launched, laying out plans to ensure its long-term viability.

Key components of the SPPARC masterplan include a riverfront route, the green buffer zone and a port facility upgrade, all aimed at revitalising the area and attracting new opportunities. The anticipated impact of the masterplan is staggering, with projections suggesting the creation of up to 2,570 full-time job equivalents, while safeguarding the high-value, high-skilled jobs that exist today. That would result in a significant boost in worker expenditure, estimated at between £2.4 million and £4.2 million annually.

Furthermore, with the improvements proposed in the masterplan we could see a substantial increase in the amount of materials transported by sea freight, potentially reaching 600,000 tonnes per year, which would translate into a direct economic output of £119 million to £177 million, equivalent to 18% to 27% of Medway’s total GVA in the manufacturing sector.

The masterplan is all about unlocking the potential on the site, ushering in a new era of prosperity. The potential tax generation it could bring is also worth noting, with projected annual tax revenues estimated to rise to an amount between £36 million and £71 million, providing vital funding for essential services. Additionally, the influx of businesses could generate another £6.1 million per year in business rate payments, which would offer much-needed relief to Medway Council’s financial position.

The masterplan is not just about figures and statistics, though: it represents hopes and opportunities for people in Medway and the surrounding areas. It is a shot at creating a better tomorrow, not just for now but for future generations in my community.

Beyond the immediate concerns lie the environmental implications. As an island nation, nearly 95% of the UK’s imports and exports are transported by water, and Chatham plays a huge part in that. Approximately 85% of the materials imported into Chatham docks are transported by sea freight, contributing significantly to the reduction of carbon emissions. Analysis has shown that in 2019 the use of sea freight at the docks resulted in a saving of approximately 9,100 tonnes of CO2 emissions compared with emissions from heavy goods vehicles. That is equivalent to about 13,000 lorry trips.

If the docks were redeveloped in a way that shifted waterborne transport on to our roads, it would pose a significant environmental risk, in turn worsening air quality and potentially making Chatham one of the worst-affected areas in the UK outside central London. That would be a step in the completely wrong direction when it comes to the progress we are making on our emissions and the path to net zero.

National Highways has also raised concerns about the transport impacts stemming from the consequential increased use of heavy goods vehicles, particularly concerning the safety, reliability and operational efficiency of the M2 strategic road network. I too am concerned by that, and further concerned by the knock-on effects that it would have on local traffic and road conditions—issues that have already posed real difficulties in our area.

Local opposition to Peel Waters’ plan has been robust, with countless constituents contacting me on the topic and Medway residents and Chatham docks employees sending in over 170 letters of rejection to the current live application. I have been overwhelmed by not only the local support but the support from businesses and groups in other parts of the country. It makes no sense that such high-quality jobs, valuable industry and infrastructure assets could be lost in the pursuit of short-term profit for organisations. These industries are important now and will remain so in the future.

We cannot prioritise the short-term profits of developers over our community’s livelihoods and existing industries. The recent amendments to the NPPF that make housing targets advisory and allow more flexibility for local authorities should mean that Medway Council is under less pressure to develop a housing development at Chatham docks, and I hope that it, too, can see the importance of preserving the commercial port for our long-term local economy.

Local opposition to Peel Waters underscores the community’s strong desire to preserve the docks’ heritage, protect high-quality jobs and ensure sustainable development. We owe it to our community, the workers and the future generations as we approach these challenges and make sure that we save Chatham docks.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:59, 1 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Philip. I congratulate Kelly Tolhurst on securing this important debate. I know that a great many of her constituents value immensely the contribution that Chatham docks has made to Medway over many decades. I recognise that there is a general desire among them for greater clarity on the future of the site as a whole and the jobs linked to it, including, but not confined to, the 18-acre basin 3 plot that is the subject of this debate.

Constrained as I feel I am from delving into the fine detail of what is a live planning application, I will take a step back and place the debate in a wider context. As we all know, previously developed brownfield land is a finite resource and subject to competing demands when it comes to future use. The intense competition for such land in urban areas and the ever-present tension between economic and residential uses that results is precisely why a brownfield-first approach to development, which Government and Opposition agree on in principle, cannot mean a brownfield-only one, and it is why the current plot-by-plot approach to development will never be sufficient to meet total housing need across England. It is precisely because the Opposition recognise that the shortage of employment land is a growing concern that, although we are determined to improve on the Government’s lacklustre record when it comes to brownfield build-out rates, we intend to take a more strategic approach to planning in terms of both green-belt land release and planning for many more large-scale new communities, whether new towns or urban extensions, so that we are better able to sustain housing and employment growth across the country.

As things stand, the Government’s persistent failure to support local communities to accommodate housing growth strategically either by means of the development of major sites in their boundaries or through cross-boundary, strategic growth in co-operation with neighbouring authorities forces local planning authorities to wrestle with competing demands for employment and residential uses on the limited brownfield sites available to them.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Many of my constituents are really worried about the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that he proposes to ignore the views of local communities in determining what gets built. Will the shadow Minister distance himself from those comments?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We certainly will not ignore the views of residents when it comes to planning proposals. However, it is fair to say—this is partly why I find the yimby/nimby debate incredibly reductive—that there is a core of people in the country who do not want development—

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will answer the previous intervention, then I will happily give way.

There is a core of people in the country who do not want development of any kind near them under any circumstances, and we have to take those people on and do so with conviction. There is a much wider group of people who oppose bad development in their constituencies, and we must change the offer of what development means, but that cannot mean that development does not take place. I will address the point on housing targets if it comes up later in the debate.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood

I am grateful to the shadow Minister. However, I would like to pull him up on the point he made about the nimby debate. I want to be clear that this is about the future and jobs. The hon. Gentleman may remember that he wrote to me representing his constituents, who were also concerned about the operations at Chatham docks, because I believe that he has constituents who work there.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the right hon. Lady for that point. I did indeed write to her; it is a small number, but I have a few constituents who work at Chatham docks. As I said in opening my remarks, I very much recognise the existing concerns about the future of the sites and the jobs linked to them. To clarify what I said, I did not condemn nimbys in the debate: I said that we need to move beyond the incredibly reductive debate between yimbys and nimbys. There is a far more nuanced position out there. As I said, there are people who oppose development under any circumstances, and we are clear that we will take them on. There is a wider group of people who oppose bad development, and we must change the offer to them.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

May I respond to one final point?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he acknowledge that the vast majority of people expressing views about development proposals accept that we need new housing, but we just need the right homes in the right places?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I take issue with the right hon. Lady on the idea—I think that phrase is used too often to obscure what I think is her real position, to be fair to her—that her local authority should be able to plan for less housing than the standard method that the target implies. We take the opposite view; we have a very legitimate difference of opinion here. We do not think that local authorities should be able to plan for under-housing need targets, and that is where the difference comes on the NPPF changes. It is not a question of whether there should be good development. Yes, we must change what the offer of development means, but it cannot be the case, as the right hon. Lady so often advocates, that no development takes place because of the characteristics of a local area or many other attributes that local authorities can now use as a result of the NPPF to come in under target. That is a clear difference of opinion between the Government and the Opposition.

I will return to the argument I was making. Like many other councils across England, Medway Council now confronts a dilemma with this brownfield site as a result of the nature of the housing and planning system over which the Government preside. First, through changes to national planning policy, Ministers have ensured that there is no effective mechanism for sub-regional strategic planning that might enable what is a relatively small unitary authority in Medway to meet housing need in a co-ordinated manner. That could have been done through a joint plan with neighbouring two-tier authorities in north Kent, as the historic south-east regional spatial strategy did with the Kent Thames Gateway.

Secondly, because central Government support has not been forthcoming, the number of viable potential sites within Medway Council’s own boundaries has narrowed. The most pertinent example is the Government’s decision to withdraw from the authority £170 million in housing infrastructure grant funding that would have facilitated the construction of 10,000 homes over 30 years on the Hoo peninsula, despite the Department seemingly not having spent £2.9 billion of the £4.2 billion allocated by the Treasury to that fund. As a result, Medway Council now must determine alone how it meets its housing targets across the sites that remain available and viable. As I said, we take the view that they must meet those targets.

The challenge I put to the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood, leaving aside the considerations of investment required in the docks to bring it up to a viable operation in the future, is for those who take the position that it should remain a working port to identify the collection of sites across Medway that will ensure the authority can build 29,844 homes—the numbers have been slightly updated since the ones she cited were published—between now and 2040, because that is what it will take to meet housing need in that particular authority.

Medway Council proposes—quite rightly, in our view—to make that determination in a considered manner through the local plan development process. I very much welcome the fact that the present leadership of the authority have restarted the process and are working at pace to complete it. The pattern of indecision and delay that characterised the approach of previous Conservative administrations to planning and development in Medway over two decades was lamentable as, it must be said, is the Government’s record on boosting local plan coverage across England more generally. It is frankly laughable that, despite the extensive range of powers to intervene that Ministers enjoy, the Government are presiding over a local plan-led planning system in which only a third of authorities—and falling—have a plan that is less than five years old, with the number of plans published, submitted and adopted last year the lowest for a decade.

The local plan-making process in Medway is now firmly underway, and I do not think it is for Members in this place to pre-empt its outcome, but it is worth remarking that Medway Council obviously cannot prohibit Peel Waters from submitting a proposal for mixed-use development on the wider Chatham docks site as part of the local plan preparation process, in the same way that the authority cannot force that developer to make the necessary investment that might sustain the docks as a working commercial port. Just as the contents of the developing draft local plan are ultimately a decision for Medway Council itself, considering not only how to meet housing need but how other economic, social and environmental priorities can be addressed, so is the determination of the basin 3 application submitted for the present industrial state to be redeveloped for employment facilities.

As such, while I certainly appreciate that concerns exist about the employment opportunities changing on the site in question, and whether all the sitting tenants will agree to be relocated or compensated, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the application, just as I know the Minister will not be able to discuss details of the proposal, given the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State in the planning system.

To conclude, the case of Chatham docks reinforces our strong belief that we need to make changes to the planning system to ensure that the Government take a more strategic approach to development across the country, thereby enabling local planning authorities to better balance competing priorities regarding brownfield regeneration. It also highlights the pressing need to do more to boost local plan coverage. An up-to-date local plan is the most effective means of influencing where and how development takes place in any given authority area for both the housing and jobs that communities need.

The situation is lamentable, and many of the problems we are discussing stem from the fact that the authority has not updated its plan since 2003. Much of the uncertainty that the constituents of the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood are feeling about the future of Chatham docks would be significantly abated had previous Medway Council administrations prepared and adopted an up-to-date local plan with a robust and viable proposal for the site—the present administration finally doing so is to be commended. It is the elected members of that authority who are best placed through engagement and consultation with the local community to take decisions on local planning matters, including in due course the basin 3 application.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing) 10:10, 1 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Philip. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst on securing this debate. I thank her for the opportunity to be able to talk—in the limited way that I am able to—about the importance of the Medway towns, and getting planning right in them and in her constituency of Rochester and Strood over the years ahead.

My right hon. Friend is a huge advocate for her constituency. We have spoken on a regular basis since I have taken this portfolio, so I know how strongly she rightly feels about ensuring planning is as right as it can be in the area. She strongly advocates for her constituents and for how important it is to get planning right. As Matthew Pennycook indicated, it is now Labour members who have the opportunity to make progress with those specific local plans. Given their variation of views in the last few months alone, that does not bode well. However, we wish them well, because we all want them to get it right, and we hope that they will do so, even if their current record does not indicate that this is very likely.

The speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood highlighted not only what a strong advocate she is for her constituency but the huge importance of this issue from a historical perspective. She talked about her background and those of many of her constituents in the area. As someone who shares that link with my constituency, I know how important it is that representation is brought to this place, and my right hon. Friend did that in this debate, as well as in others before.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood appreciates, and as the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich indicated, there are limits to what I can say. There are some things that I can say and some I cannot. The Secretary of State and Ministers in the Department have a quasi-judicial role within the planning system, which means there is the potential for all planning applications to come to us for final decision, so it is both inappropriate and incorrect for us to talk about individual planning applications. Thus, I am unable to talk about the specifics of the planning application today. I know that my right hon. Friend knows that and appreciates the point I am making.

When I have had debates like this in my constituency, I used to be frustrated by that answer, but it is a necessary one and one that we must honour to ensure that we do not prejudice anything that may come in the future. None the less, I hope I can say a few things about the general position and about planning. In order to enter them into the record, I will say a few things about the national planning policy framework, and the overall framework, not least because the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich has made a number of assertions, which I will come on to in a moment.

The Government set the legislative and policy framework, including the NPPF, within which the planning system operates. Local planning authorities, as has been outlined today, are responsible for preparing a plan, then for making decisions that align with that plan. In doing that, they interpret the national policy and guidance, which is primarily generated through the NPPF, within the legislation and then according to local circumstances.

The stated and avowed purpose of the planning system in this country is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development that considers economic, societal, social and environmental objectives. Planning policies and decisions should play an active role in guiding developments towards sustainable solutions, but they must and should take into account local circumstances and reflect the local character, needs and opportunities of each area. We recognise that Rochester and Strood is very different from North East Derbyshire, as it is from Chipping Barnet and from Greenwich and Woolwich, which is why it is correct that local politicians lead planning within a broad national framework that the Government of the day set out.

We have talked in much of this debate about the importance of economic development and about protecting commercial activity. The NPPF also sets out the importance of planning for economic development. Planning policies and decisions should help to create the conditions in which businesses can invest, expand and adapt. That is why the NPPF states that significant weight should be placed on the need to support growth and productivity, taking account of both business needs and wider opportunities for development. As hon. Members have outlined, the NPPF was last revised in December 2023 following a consultation process. The changes that we made try to support our objectives of creating a planning system that delivers the new homes we need while taking into account the important areas, assets or local characteristics that should be protected or respected.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

One of the important changes in the new NPPF is the affirmation that councils should not be forced to build at densities that are significantly out of character with the surrounding area. Can the Minister tell the House how that is operating in practice and what difference it is making to developments such as the one we are debating today and others around the country?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. As she rightly outlines, we made a number of changes to the NPPF, including one to indicate that the character of an area is important to consider within any future local planning. As she will appreciate, local plans often take several years to come through, so we revised the framework a number of months ago. We have been clear that councils should seek to move quicker when they need to. We have asked a number of councils to provide timetables for getting to the endpoint, and we will closely monitor what is happening in the months ahead not just on the point about character, which is important, but on the other changes that we made. We made changes about the potential for local councils to look at alternative methods to assess their needs, the importance of beauty within a system, support for small sites and community-led developments, and greater protections for agricultural land. One of the reasons for the debate today is that, as we all know, the planning system is not perfect, but trying to balance all those individual areas is important.

As a constituency MP who went through an extremely difficult time with local planning a number of years ago—down to the Labour party, which failed our area for many years because it was too unwilling, unable and incompetent to ever put a local plan in place, creating over 1,000 more houses than was necessary—I have seen the pain caused by not doing local plans in a timely manner. I know how important it is to think through the implications that plans have for the local community and the consequences of not making decisions. I appreciate the points made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and for Rochester and Strood.

Before concluding, I will turn to a number of points made during the debate. My right hon. Friend for Rochester and Strood has made a clear case for the position that she and many of her constituents have adopted. I know that she made that case over a number of parliamentary debates before I came into post, and she will continue to make it. We have spoken about the importance of getting planning in Medway into a better place that works for people. As we have just mentioned, the Labour party is now in charge. It owns the situation and it has the choices. It made a series of cases to the electorate a number of months ago, and now it has to work through that.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

For the purposes of clarity for anyone watching, will the Minister confirm that when Medway submits its draft local plan, even under the revised NPPF, the standard method is the starting point, and the authority cannot just move away from the standard method number because it feels it is too high? It has to reason why it is moving away from it, and if it does not reason that appropriately and robustly, the plan will fail upon challenge at the examination stage of the process, will it not? So if the authority is going to move away from it, it has to reason how it will meet housing need, even though it is an advisory starting point, and any move away has to be robustly justified. It cannot be because the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood feels that the targets are too high, as she seems to suggest.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am currently in discussion with Medway. We have sent correspondence to indicate that the authority needs to move, so I will not prejudice the outcome of that. The Labour party in Medway, as it does elsewhere in the country, stood on a particular perspective last year. It won legitimately and it now has to deliver. I hope that it can deliver the commitments and promises that it made to the people of Medway and of Rochester and Strood, knowing full well the frameworks within which the planning system operates, because that is what it promised and should endeavour to do.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, for whom I have the greatest respect, and we talk on a regular basis about the many elements of planning—

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

Far too many, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. In doing so, we are definitely aware of each other’s differing positions, and he is right to highlight those. In that spirit, I want to tease out a number of those differing positions, because they demonstrate how, for a party that is so keen to indicate that it is ready for Government, when we look under the bonnet at the actual detail, it is not there, and the plans are not where they need to be for the general election later this year.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the need to make changes to the planning system. He is right; that is why we made changes to the planning system back in December. That is why we have tried to strike that balance and ensure that there is greater control for local authorities, but recognising that we still have to build houses in the right places across the country to support our increasing population. He is right that we need development, but if we look at examples of where Labour is in power, rather than Labour talking, it consistently underdelivers on housing. The Mayor of London has consistently under- delivered on his own targets for a number of years, primarily because of the 500-plus page London plan that furs up, screws up and messes around with people being about to deliver housing in London. That is a great example of where Labour talks the talk but does not walk the walk in ensuring not only that people are protected, but that we build the houses people need. I hope that when people look closely at the planning policies of the major two parties, they will recognise that Labour, when it actually has the opportunity to do things, consistently fails to do what it talks about.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about a difference of opinion between ourselves, and he is correct about the sometimes reductive nature of the discussion. I absolutely agree with him and share that view. Where we disagree and differ is that the nuance needs to go over into individual policies, including the NPPF. The NPPF issued in December seeks to inject that nuance, strike that balance and recognise that we have to build more houses, but we have to build them in the right places. It seeks to do the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet indicated, such as to talk about the local character of an area and to ensure that alternative processes can be considered for defining housing need or explicitly talking about beauty. Next time the boss of the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich gets the copy and paste out when taking some of our policies and passing them off as their own, but providing no further detail about how they would change them, I hope he will consider that.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I will give way after one more gentle point, if I may. Finally, on the hon. Gentleman’s statement around the approach of the Government on brownfield building, we have been clear over the past few months about the importance of focusing on brownfield. He is right that it is impossible for it to be brownfield only all of the time, forever more with no changes, but what he fails in his otherwise useful remarks to accept is that brownfield often comes with costs. If he is talking about moving even more into wholesale on brownfield than we are doing, encouraging and pushing, the question is, where are his cheques coming from? I am keen to hear from him.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

What I would say to the Minister is to first spend the money that is allocated to the Department by the Treasury, which it is failing to do. Leaving aside the point about brownfield, I put to him that he is trying to have it both ways. He says on the one hand that we have to build the houses; on the other, they have to be in the right places and right locations. What is actually happening on the ground in terms of the immediate outcome of the NPPF changes that this Government have driven through is that scores of local planning authorities across the country are revising local plans and revising down housing targets. Just a few weeks ago, South Staffordshire Council reduced its housing numbers by 46% off the back of the revised local plans. The outcome of what the Government have driven through—for all the rhetoric—is policies that will see the numbers of consents and houses built reduced, moving the Government even further away from that target of 300,000 a year that they have not once managed to achieve in 14 years in office.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. I have shown a huge amount of latitude to both Front Benchers about this. I appreciate that it is the local elections tomorrow in many places and that we may well be in a general election year. However, I just remind everybody that this is a debate specifically about Chatham docks basin 3 rather than a ding-dong about who has the best planning policies per se. I think it is appropriate for me to say that. As I say, I think I have given quite enough latitude for discussion of other issues, but if we could get back to the subject of the debate, I would appreciate it.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful for the clear steer from the Chair and I appreciate the point that you are making, Sir Philip, so I will seek to take greater care with my excitement and interest in talking about housing policy more generally.

It is probably important that I sum up and come back to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood has made. This has been a useful debate. Although I am obviously limited in what I can say regarding individual cases and individual planning applications, I think the debate has demonstrated the strength of commitment to trying to get planning right across the country, including in specific areas such as the Medway towns, and the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood to her constituency, both in trying to make planning on progress and more broadly.

The Government have a long-term plan for housing that seeks to build more houses, but we also seek to build houses in the right places. I know that my right hon. Friend, in securing this debate today, in the speech that she gave and in highlighting the importance of getting planning right for her constituents, is working exactly within that spirit of building more homes and building them in the right places.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood 10:25, 1 May 2024

Thank you, Sir Philip, for calling me to wind up. I thank the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, for the time he has spared to talk to me prior to this debate. He has been very generous with his time when I have brought to his attention issues that particularly affect my constituency. I also totally understand his unique position in relation to what he was able to say in this debate today. I am sure that he has heard what I have said in this debate and understood the principles that I have tried to outline, and I am grateful for his continued interest in the planning and development of the Medway towns.

I will just pick up on a point made by the shadow Minister, Matthew Pennycook. It was disappointing to hear from him today that Labour has decided not to be as robust as before in its support of Chatham docks. That has been borne out locally with the local council and my hon. Friend the Minister highlighted the definite change in position by Labour that has been expressed.

It is not my view that the housing targets are not correct; actually, the standard methodology can be calculated in a number of different ways. My argument has always been that I do not agree with the displacement of a major, regionally significant piece of infrastructure, and with it jobs—high-skilled jobs—in industries that can contribute importantly to a local area, and for it to be wiped out in the pursuit of profit for landowners who want to build flats, which I have to say will be used to accommodate London’s failure to deliver on its housing supply, because most of the new developments within my constituency are not being taken up by local residents.

I also want to mention the importance of robust evidence. For me and I think for my local community, robust evidence in plan-making or in any planning application is key. We hope that Medway Council will actually deliver such robust evidence, rather than worrying about how many houses it will build in my constituency, which I reiterate has absolutely been playing its part in reducing the burden that exists and delivering on housing numbers, with the amount of new development that is going on within it. I would like to see such robust evidence being used to support the process of deciding where development sites across my constituency will be located. And I believe that there is robust evidence to support Chatham docks remaining as a commercial entity rather than being used to build flats.

Finally—I want to be clear about this—the businesses operating in Chatham docks are there because it is a non-tidal basin. The River Medway has a 6 metre fall and rise, and therefore a non-tidal basin is massively important for any kind of water-based activity. If certain businesses cannot operate in the docks in the future, they will not be relocated down the river or to an inland facility; they will be displaced and will not operate in the Medway towns any longer. That would have a direct impact on the number of people who are employed.

I am supporting the workers in my constituency, but unfortunately I have yet to see the leader of Medway Council honour the commitment he made when he stood outside with me waving a banner saying, “Save Chatham Docks”. He said that Labour is the party of workers.

I thank my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers for her support in planning matters. She made some great contributions and understands fully some of the challenges that I experience in my constituency. I very much welcome her support and her contributions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the redevelopment of Chatham Docks Basin 3.

Sitting suspended.