Historically, the Renaissance of the 15th-17th centuries was followed by the philosophical advances of the Age of Enlightenment. Now that the council’s troubled Medway Renaissance regeneration board has been dissolved, what can be learnt from the failure to deliver its ambitious aims for Medway?
The Medway Renaissance set out a masterplan to transform the area over a period of twenty years, with new homes, new jobs, new public spaces and improvements to the local transport infrastructure and retail culture.
The plans spread from Strood to Gillingham, centring on the flagship Rochester Riverside development site and the regeneration of Chatham. Public infrastructures aside, the plans for Medway were broadly market-driven, tailored to create attractive and profitable conditions for housing developers, retailers and businesses.
The process of masterplanning, that is creating detailed, large–scale, deterministic plans for the regeneration of an area, is intimately linked to this market-driven approach. Embedded within the idea of market-friendly regeneration is the notion of ‘trickle-down’ free market economics, the belief that by attracting private capital and investment, some of this money will ‘trickle down’ to poorer and more deprived elements of the community.
The building of monumental, flagship developments also applies this logic, in the belief that the creation of iconic buildings and newly created retail and social spaces will re-energise the more depressed areas surrounding them.
The market fails
But what happens when the market fails? The global financial crisis, with its roots in the credit crunch of 2007, has, perhaps inevitably, had a stymieing effect on the regeneration of Medway.
Economic conditions are no longer as favourable for developers as they were at the inception of Medway Renaissance in 2006, which has led to a lack of takers for key sites, as well as a breakdown in negotiations between the board for Rochester Riverside and the site’s developer, Crest. Cuts in local government funding and uncertainty over grants from the government and local development agencies add to the obstacles for regeneration in Medway.
You could call it bad luck, or bad timing, but by their very nature, Medway Renaissance’s plans were vulnerable to market conditions. In order to return value on the money invested in redevelopment, there had to be demand from developers for land and from businesses and house buyers for property. In the meantime, the lack of interest from buyers and investors has thrown many of the flawed and much-criticised aspects of Medway’s regeneration into stark relief.
The Aveling and Porter building, the last physical reminder of Strood’s former status as a major producer of then-revolutionary traction and steam engines, was demolished in March 2009, as part of the clearance of the former Medway Council Civic Centre.
The cost to the tax payer of the demolition was estimated at £700,000. The justification for demolishing one of Strood’s last remaining historical buildings of note, in the face of fierce public opposition, was that the Aveling and Porter building would reduce the value of its associated site and consequently, its attractiveness to developers.
This was a decision taken by the council in late 2009, in the middle of a serious and well documented collapse in the housing market. A year down the line and Medway Council has yet to find a developer for the Strood riverside site. In the Aveling and Porter building’s stead, there now stands a carpark.
Public consternation over the Aveling and Porter building’s demolition was mirrored in the lead-up to the construction of Chatham’s new bus station. A lack of proper public consultation on plans for the bus station, a running theme in the activities of the Medway Renaissance board, was cited, as an outcry went up over the destruction of trees in the Paddock, one of Chatham’s best loved public spaces.
The rushing through of plans by the council’s cabinet was criticised, as they struggled to meet a government deadline for funding for the new station. Bus operators questioned its design and placement.
Now Chatham’s new bus station is in trouble with deadlines again. Construction has progressed sufficiently slowly to be in danger of missing a government deadline for completion, with Medway’s Council tax payers at risk of footing the bill if the bus station is not finished by March this year. The same deadline has led to a speed-up in the program of roadworks linked to Medway Renaissance’s plans.
The negative impact on Chatham’s high-street traders has been well documented, as poor access to their shops caused a slump in sales over Christmas.
Medway’s regeneration is suffering at the hands of a huge economic downturn. Some of the smaller scale decisions which attracted criticism and dissent in the preceding years are beginning to look even more questionable. But the fact remains that a commitment was made by Medway Council and its regeneration partners to redevelop the area, to bring new prosperity and pride to the Medway Towns. Each town had its own masterplan, documenting the changes and improvements to be made over a period of fifteen to twenty years.
One of the major criticisms of development masterplans, their top-down market-driven nature notwithstanding, is their inherent inflexibility. Masterplans only work if they are followed through to their conclusion. In this respect, they thrive on certainty, and flounder when circumstances change, whether they be practical, economic or political.
There are a variety of ways to respond to these challenges. One is to cut back regeneration projects and to sit and wait until the market recovers. In some instances, this seems to have been the path that Medway Council have followed.
The advice from The Credit Crunch and Regeneration: Impact and Implications, a government-commissioned independent report, is that ‘Regeneration is a long haul business. There is every reason and need to continue with it. The motto for all partners, especially government, must be ‘maintain the commitment’.’
It would seem then, that the expert advice is for local authorities to continue their commitment to regeneration, in spite of the difficult circumstances. This was not the line taken by the Rochester Riverside board when negotiating with their development partner Crest. No agreement was reached and Crest is no longer involved in plans for the site.
Crest’s group board director, Chris Tinker explains: “Despite the economics of the development, Crest was prepared to commence development of both the open market and affordable housing components of the project in the spring and to share the associated risks with the Council. Whilst the commercial returns were sub optimum for all parties, it is to be regretted that this strategy was not ultimately acceptable to the Rochester Riverside Board.”
It appears then, that the hatches are being battened down and that important parts of the Medway Renaissance plan for regeneration are either on hold, compromised, or will not come to fruition. The Renaissance has bombed. We have gained two glossy tower blocks, a multiplex and a shopping mall at Chatham Dockside. We will, one day, and possibly at some personal cost, see the completion of Chatham bus station. But what have we lost?
The Aveling and Porter building. A huge part of the Paddock and its trees. Time, money and patience with the chaotic state of road improvements. Faith in our views being heard, or counted, in the council’s plans for Medway.
Despite these traumas, though, regeneration is necessary for Medway. In an area still recovering from the lingering effects of the closure of Chatham docks as a working dockyard, energy and investment will need to be injected in order to progress, both through the current tough economic times, and then beyond them. But market-led, masterplan-driven regeneration needn’t be the way to do it.
One different approach, with significance to Medway’s array of historic buildings, 19th century housing and social deprivation, is heritage-led regeneration; that is ‘improvement of disadvantaged people or places through the delivery of a heritage focused project’. Although less directly profitable than market-led regeneration, the heritage approach does have the distinct advantage of creating positive changes in social conditions and local pride, without resorting to the hope that such benefits will ‘trickle down’ from high-status developments.
As the Architectural Heritage Fund’s report puts it: ‘These projects tend to be more active in creating links with a community, and therefore go a long way towards boosting civic pride and changing the way people feel about the place they live or work in, and therefore their own lives and aspirations’.
More generally, the Sustainable Cities Research Institute calls for a move away from masterplan-led regeneration in cities to a more organic, ongoing process of renewal, with community engagement at its heart. The Institute calls for a move away from one-off, high impact interventions, in favour of ‘flexible structure plans that include economic and social qualities and deal with a process rather than rigid and static products of masterplans’.
The regeneration of Medway has reached an impasse, one which will provide a tough challenge to the council and its development partners in the years to come. With luck, lessons will be learned from Medway Renaissance’s fall. After all, if the renaissance is over, it seems only reasonable to hope that an age of enlightenment will follow it.