by David Jones
There's a master plan for Chatham. I know this because I have just read it on Medway Council’s website and this newspaper has been writing about it for years.
It all looked rather wonderful – or at least the computer-generated impressions did. Sadly, the 'real’ Chatham looks somewhat different right now.
It’s a traffic-clogged eyesore, now more-down-at-heel than a year ago when I last had to pay the town an unavoidable visit. But that’s progress for you...
Stuck in a traffic jam at the junction of The Brook and Dock Road last month and trying to work out how to get to the Staples store in Medway Street, I was reminded of a sentence from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, Notes From A Small Island: “Bradford’s role in life is to make every place in the world look better in comparison and it does this very well.”
Delete “Bradford” and insert “Chatham” and you know exactly how I felt trying to negotiate the ugly maze that is now Chatham town centre.
You needed to stop and park to understand the road signs and I probably broke half-a-dozen traffic regulations trying to reach Staples.
Confusing doesn’t begin to describe it. Other drivers were equally baffled, not least by the ambiguous 'dead end’ sign at the start of Globe Lane.
Meanwhile, Chatham High Street must take the prize for the most unwelcoming, and at times intimidating, pedestrianised shopping area in Kent. None but the brave – and those who want to visit Debenhams – venture there.
Sorry if this all sounds harsh and I know I’ll be accused of being 'negative’ or unsupportive of the council’s efforts to regenerate Medway and Chatham in particular, but it has to be said.
The team of 19 which comprises Medway Renaissance, the grandly-titled organisation tasked with the regeneration of Medway, is being made redundant.
It’s all down to the private sector now, we are told. Great news but, er, who’s going to pay?
The Renaissance team has been given the chop because of the government’s public spending cut-backs and Medway Council has to save £50 million over the next four years.
So, somebody please tell me: when is Chatham going to end up as the city centre for Medway?
Wait a minute, the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership can answer that: “Medway is undergoing major regeneration and aims to be a city of Culture, Learning, Tourism and Enterprise. Chatham will be the cultural and civic heart of this new city, a city of 300,000 people by 2026.”
That’s in 16 years’ time. The regeneration of Chatham has been under discussion for about the last 10. It won’t be much of an exaggeration, given the inevitable delays, to say that the transformation will have taken near enough 30 years. Am I alone in thinking that, to put it kindly, it will have been rather a long wait?
Strangely enough, 30 years is the same time it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
As the Renaissance team had previously declared its intention of making Medway 'a world-class city’ we must hope its aspirations did not stretch to turning Chatham into the Eighth Wonder of the World, a laudable aim though that might be.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse at Alexandria… the Waterfront at Chatham. You must admit it’s got a nice ring to it.
On a more serious note, I can only say this: last month, if I had been an out-of-area visitor to Chatham, about half-an-hour in all that mayhem would have been enough to convince me never to return, no matter what the computer-generated images look like on the council website.
No doubt Messrs Chambers, Jarrett & Co will be doing their best to persuade us that better days are coming in Chatham.
I know that Chatham has some great assets, notably the Waterfront area and that the River Medway is the key to making the town come alive again.
No one can doubt that some progress has been made but Chatham needs more than a demolished flyover and a new bus station. The town’s beating heart has died. It needs a serious injection of the character it once had.
But when? I want a straight answer to a simple question: When will Chatham stop looking like a depressing bomb site and start to have the warm, inviting feel of a place worth visiting?
Will it be in 16 years or 40? Or is that question now impossible to answer because of the Spending Review?