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.