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Councillor on Medway Council: The Issues

Rochester Airport

John Ward

Latest News: The Newly-elected Council Administration Protects the Airport

Yes, at last Rochester Airport will be protected from closure and being replaced by concrete and built development. Medway Council's Cabinet, backed up by the Conservative members of the full Council, has acted to ensure that all activity towards proceeding with the policy in the Medway Local Plan ceased later the same day that the election results were announced—Friday 2nd May 2003.

As one of the very first actions taken by the Conservative leader as his group took overall control of the Council, Cllr Rodney Chambers instructed Council officers to stop work on this issue altogether, as part of a range of initiatives worked out in advance, in anticipation of gaining an overall majority in the local elections. In keeping this promise to the people of Medway, he has also put in train the other measures needed to ensure the Airport's future, primarily in the form of drafting a long-term lease for the airport's operators, to supersede the current short-term lease when it expires several months from now.

Despite forthcoming changes in planning methodology, it now appears that the airport's future should be assured.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the future regeneration of Medway depends hugely on the existence of the airport, for a number of sound reasons that are well understood by business executives but not, apparently, by opposition members of Medway Council.


Now some background to this long-running issue:

As soon as I and my colleagues in the now-defunct Davis Estate Residents Association, Chatham (DERAC) became aware that Rochester Airport was being threatened with closure by the then Labour-run Medway Council, we consulted all the residents of the Davis Estate. We then had just two weeks for objections to be lodged.

So, we first produced a letter to all residents on the estate with a simple two tick-box reply method for up to six members of each household (that should be enough, we thought; but could supply extra reply slips on request). There was an almost unanimous vote to keep the airport. The next stage was to prepare a letter of objection to be signed by residents and lodged at Medway Council's offices by the deadline, which was only a couple of weeks away! With help from other interested organisations—particularly the Popular Flying Association—we were able to lodge well over 1,000 objections in time to meet the deadline. This was by far the largest objection to any of the proposals in the deposit Local Plan 1999.

Both John and Ron have continued to keep a close eye on what is going on regarding all aspects of the airport and its future, and John is Medway Council's representative on the statutory Rochester Airport Consultative Committee (RACC) and was even seen on Meridian Television in early March 2002 when the then newly-formed Action on Davis Estate (ADE) gave their response to the Inspector's proposal.

Some months before this John met and spoke briefly to the Inspector of the Public Enquiry when he visited the airport early in October 2001, and also attended the RACC meeting on 26th October 2001—the first of many such meetings. John also keeps in regular contact with the Pilots And Friends of Rochester Airport (PAFRA).

The Inspector's Report from the Local Plan Public Inquiry arrived at Medway Council back in February 2002—more than two months before the Inspector's target date of 26th April!

The Inspector's conclusion on Rochester Airfield (sic) is summarised as follows:

"The most contentious aspect of the Deposit Plan is undoubtedly the proposals in Policy S11 which involve the closure of Rochester Airfield and its redevelopment for a Science and Technology Park, along with housing, open space, and associated areas. This proposal attracted by far the majority of the objections, totalling over 3,300 objections from over 1,600 individuals and organisations. In principle, I have concluded that this is a soundly-based proposal which would accord with many key elements of national, regional and strategic planning policy. However, I consider the Plan gives insufficient weight to the importance of the existing Rochester Airport, and recommend a redevelopment option which allows the development of a smaller Science & Technology Park, but with the retention of a general aviation facility and omission of the housing element."
This is, in effect, a solution very much like the compromise Options C and C1 proposed in the WS Atkins study. It is not an ideal outcome—indeed it is a political fudge, satisfying no-one fully—but is a lot better than the airport closure and full development of the site that the other political groups—and one of the two independent members—voted for last year. The Conservative group would still prefer no development at all, and have identified a number of residential and employment sites that have come to light after the Inspector's report, thus overcoming most of the pressure to develop on even part of the airport site. Incidentally, the Inspector separately proposes that the Woolmans Wood Caravan Park should be covered by the airfield policy.

Of course, the Council was not obliged to go along with the Inspector's recommendation and could have voted to ignore it, provided that its decision could stand up in a court of law.

Battlebus

To no-one's surprise, it didn't vote that way: the then 38 Conservative Councillors voted to keep the airport site green, but the combined votes of the other members (totalling 42) voted to close the irport and build on the site—another green space lost to concrete.

Pictured at the right is the Conservative Party's Save our Green Fields Battlebus on its visit to Rochester Airport during the 2001 General Election campaign.