Kent’s Medway Towns are hoping to become a city – with Chatham at its heart

Rochester Castle. Image: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The thing you need to know about Medway is: it’s not really a city.

Actually, part of it was, once upon a time. Rochester was a cathedral city for nearly eight centuries, with an official charter and everything. But in 2002, news emerged that city status had lapsed four years earlier when, it had merged with four other neighbouring towns to form the Medway unitary authority – and its city status winked out of existence. “Rochester loses city status by mistake,” read a typical headline. And despite several bids to national government to create the City of Medway, a collection of towns it remains. Rochester is the only place in Britain ever to lose the right to call itself a city.

Official city status is pretty silly of course – I mean, St Asaph? Really? – but there’s another way in which Medway isn’t a city. It’s formed of five separate towns – from west to east, Strood, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham – lined up along the rivers of industrial north Kent, blending into each other so seamlessly that outsiders can move from one to the next without even noticing. Although Rochester and Chatham are bigger, better known and more historic than their neighbours, neither really qualifies for the title as the conurbation’s centre.

And so, there is no city of Medway: there are merely the Medway towns, a roughly city-sized blob of over 275,000 people, many of whom don’t think they live in a single place at all.

Productivity in the cities of the London commuter belt. Note that Medway is listed as “Chatham”: this is relevant. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The other thing to know about Medway is that, for somewhere so close to London, it’s not doing so well. As with a lot of places in the Thames estuary, its economy was historically industrial – the Royal Naval dockyards at Chatham once employed over 10,000 people.

But that industry is long gone. And for a city, of sorts, in the London commuter belt, the area has relatively low wages and productivity.

Wages in the cities of the London commuter belt. Medway is listed as “Chatham”. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The decline of the industry has left a lot of land up for redevelopment, too – first at Chatham Dockyard, and now at Rochester Riverside, too, a vast new development immediately behind the newly re-sited station.

So, it has surprisingly cheap housing, too. And it’s just 34 minutes on a high speed train from central London.

House prices in Medway (listed, again, as “Chatham”). Image: Centre for Cities. 

Now the unitary borough has come up with a plan intended to address both those problems, and attract both businesses and people to the area. “We want Chatham to be the city centre of Medway,” says Alan Jarrett, the conservative council leader.

The problem, he explains, is that “Medway not a place as we would know it: it’s just an administrative area”. Turning Chatham into the central business district – with all the commercial space, retail and night life that implies – should turn it into, well, a city, and boost the economy to boot. “We’re not doing this for egotistical reasons: it’s about how we take the area forward.”

The case for making Chatham, rather than the tourist centre of Rochester, the centre of Medway is two-fold. Firstly, it’s the most central of the five towns: two lie east, two to the west.

On the map: the Medway towns. Image: Google.

Secondly, there’s ample space for development and regeneration, and the council owns a significant chunk of land. That makes it easier for the borough to make the interventions required to create its dream city centre: improving the station, building more housing, that sort of thing.

It’s already taking active steps to make this a reality: improving public and cycling facilities, to make the town centre more welcoming; regenerating one public space, Military Square, with new trees and benches, and creating a new one at St John’s Square from scratch. Just this week, the council announced plans to take over the lease of the Pentagon Centre, a shopping centre, to generate income and “mitigate against the kinds of development that would not enhance the area”.

All this, lofty statements from the council say, will “contribute towards turning Chatham into Medway’s leading waterfront university city centre by 2035”. Lofty goals indeed. Jarrett’s explanation is more comprehensible: “We’re trying to create more of a shopping and leisure offer, and stop everything closing at 5.30”.


The council’s “active approach” to development has even seen it set up its own housing company. “If we flog it off, developers would make a big pile of profit. Why shouldn’t we be the developer ourselves?”

The merger of five distinct towns into a single unitary authority has helped bring money and attention to the area, the council leader argues: Rochester or Gillingham would not have attracted the government investment that Medway has. Creating a coherent city centre with Chatham at its heart will, he hopes, take things to the next level.

“We’ve twice applied for city status, and twice failed. The feedback we got was that we don’t have a coherent city status. Chelmsford” – the county town of Essex, officially named a city in 2012, the last time Medway’s bid failed – “is much smaller, but does have that coherent city status”. The obvious conclusion is, “We’ll never be a city until we’ve got a coherent city centre – so let’s build one.”

Does it really matter, I ask? After all, as noted official city status is a bit silly, isn’t it?

Jarrett frowns for a second, then replies, with admirable honesty: “It may not. But it will enhance civic pride I think. It’s just a feeling I’ve got.” Perhaps, one day, Medway will be a city at last.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.