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

Rochester Castle. Image: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.