Rochester & Strood: it's not about UKIP

 Rochester High Street. The shop that has become UKIP's campaign HQ is (appropriately) on the far right-hand side. Photo: Mabbs

This is not my usual sort of post. It is overtly political, completely biased and very angry. I can no longer simply comment dispassionately upon dysfunctional UK political parties and rapacious sensation-seeking media. They have come to my home town and are intent on destroying it. 

The decision by UKIP to set up their campaign in a quaint building on Rochester High Street was calculated to attract the maximum media attention. Surrounded by Dickensian shops and olde-worlde buildings, and within walking distance of a picturesque ruined castle and a lovely Norman cathedral, it was photographers' heaven. And the BBC fell for it. Every report so far on the Rochester & Strood by-election campaign has used either Rochester High Street or Rochester Castle as a backdrop. Well, the Castle is beautiful:

Rochester Castle. Photo: Survation

The result is that the media are giving the impression that Rochester & Strood is a an affluent upper-middle-class area similar to Windsor. And indeed, central Rochester, with its big houses, its expensive restaurants and its private schools, is exactly that. But the rest of the Rochester & Strood constituency is very different. Strood, on the other side of the Medway, is far poorer, as is evident from these pictures of Strood that I took today.

This picture is looking towards Rochester Bridge from Angel Corner. If you are wondering why "Angel", it is because there used to be a pub on the corner called the Angel. It is now an estate agent.

This picture is looking from Angel Corner east towards Frindsbury. On the right is the entrance to the new Aldi superstore. On the left is the entrance to Asda's car park. A quarter of a mile away is the largest Morrison's superstore in the South East, plus a sizeable Tesco. On the high street is an Iceland and a Wilkinson. Strood is, to be frank, Supermarket City.  Or Closed Pub City. Yes, that is a closed pub - one of many in this area. Supermarkets selling cheap booze have crowded out pubs. 

You can't see them in these photographs, but Strood also has a very good Asian supermarket, several Asian restaurants of various kinds and a lovely sari shop. It is, you see, ethnically diverse. I wonder if Mr Farage knows this?

But Strood itself is no more typical of the Rochester & Strood constituency than Rochester. By far the largest part of the Rochester & Strood constituency looks like this:

This is farmland on the Hoo Peninsula. The Rochester & Strood constituency is really very rural. Admittedly, the rural areas of this constituency have far fewer voters than the towns. But they extend a very long way. Rochester & Strood constituency covers a large area.

The villages are very different from the towns. Here's the centre of Hoo St. Werbergh, one of the larger villages:

And this is the little village of All Hallows, that would have disappeared under one of the runways of either the Cliffe or the Grain airport proposals:

You can just about see the weather vane on top of the little church. Some of these village churches have been converted into dwellings, like this one at St. Mary Hoo, just visible in the distance across the farmland in this picture:

Village churches aren't all Church of England, either. This, in Lower Stoke, is a Methodist chapel:

Nonconformist chapels can also be found in Strood and Frindsbury.

But although the area is very rural, it has an industrial dimension. This is the Isle of Grain:

More oil and gas than grain production these days. And the surrounding area is marshland. The northern tips of the Isle of Grain and the Hoo peninsula border the Thames estuary and are home  to thousands of wading birds. There are several nature reserves and bird sanctuaries in this area. How anyone ever thought building a major airport here was a good idea is beyond me. Birds are fatal to jet engines.

There is still a working power station at Grain - it's the building with the high chimney in the picture above. But until recently there was also a working power station at Kingsnorth, near Hoo St. Werburgh. You can see it at the right hand side of this photograph, taken from Grain:

Kingsnorth was a dirty coal-fired power station which was closed down in 2012 and is now being demolished. Nigel Farage complained today that it was closed down "by EU edict". Indeed it was. But he only tells part of the story. Plans by Kingsnorth's owners E.ON to extend it met with opposition from environmental campaigners, wildlife campaigners and even from Christian Aid and the World Development Movement. It was environmentally unsound. The Hoo peninsula may need jobs, but not that badly. Anyway, where were Mr. Farage's objections when first the Cliffe then the Grain airport proposals were ruled out, at least partly on environmental grounds? They would have brought far more jobs to the area - but the EU was not involved in the decision. Hmm. Special pleading by Mr. Farage, it seems.

If he really wants to complain about something, he could do worse than complain about the behaviour of the Army. This is the former Army village of Chattenden:

And this is what the Army left behind:

They also left this - the Lodge Hill Camp. It is part of a large area of former Defence estates enveloping Chattenden. The whole area is earmarked for 5000 dwellings, which will engulf and swamp Chattenden - a massive distortion to a tiny village in a very rural area. It amounts to a new town on the Hoo Peninsula. This is possible because 1) the area is not greenbelt 2) as these are ex-Defence lands they are brownfield, not greenfield.

I suspect the reason why this area is scheduled for so many dwellings is the fact that it is within easy commuting reach of London (since HS1 now goes through Strood station, cutting the journey time to London to 35 minutes from over an hour) AND is not greenbelt. Just about everywhere else that is both undeveloped and less than an hour from London is greenbelt. It's obvious, really. Just cover the entire Strood area and most of the Hoo Peninsula with houses. Instantly relieve London housing pressure without encroaching on greenbelt. Now the airport proposal has been dropped (again), there is no further obstacle to this - is there?

Well, there is. The same people who opposed the Grain and Cliffe airports and the extension of Kingsnorth also oppose carpet housebuilding. The Lodge Hill development, in particular, encompasses several environmentally sensitive areas. I would argue that its rural nature is also socially important, at least to the people who live there. Do they really want this turned into another commuter suburb of London?

I don't know what UKIP think they can offer the people of Strood and the Hoo peninsula. Most of the issues that affect us have more to do with London than the EU. When the Conservatives rang me the other day, they asked me what I thought were the three biggest local issues. My answers were:
  • The NHS. Medway Hospital is in special measures, and well deserved. It's a disaster. Among other things, it nearly killed my mother with a morphine overdose last year.
  • Overdevelopment. I have no objection to a reasonable number of houses being built locally. But it is not ok to relieve London housing pressure by dumping people here in their thousands, placing strain on local services and destroying the character of the area, simply to preserve those areas that have been designated as greenbelt. Apart from anything else, such a strategy will push up house prices here (historically they have been well below the South East average) pricing our young people out.
  • Local jobs. This area has a tradition of agriculture and small business. If it is to avoid becoming simply a large commuter ghost town, we need local jobs. We need to encourage businesses to take root and grow here.
So I challenge ALL the parties in this by-election. What can you offer the people of Strood and the Hoo Peninsula? How will you address our concerns?

And I challenge the media, too. This by-election is not about UKIP versus the Conservatives. It is about the people of Rochester & Strood. It is about our lives and our future. Do some proper journalism, for goodness sake, rather than feeding UKIP the publicity they crave. Find out what this place is really like. Talk to real people, not just the well-heeled folk of Rochester but the Asian community of Strood, the small businesspeople, the farmers out in the rural areas. Find out what people are really concerned about - and talk about that, not about Nigel Farage's hopes of world domination or David Cameron's worries about re-election. They don't matter. We do.


  1. Funnily enough Farage knows the Hoo peninsular well.

    On Saturday, after the jamboree on the High Street, he and Reckless went to Strood market and to Al Hallows later in the afternoon.

    Farage publicly opposed the idea of an airport, (He was arguing for he maintenance of Manston). I know that Reckless is firm in his opposition to the huge housing development on the peninsular and has been very staunch in his support of local NHS services. The backing of Dr Juneja from the Marlow Park surgery rather underlines this. And this is not new

    You are of course right though, this is about you and the other residents of Rochester and Strood (and the peninsular), hat's rather the point. Reckless changed his stripes and it is only right that you, his constituents get the chance either reject his change, or support it.

    I am not an expert in the area, but I know that Reckless is assiduous, he failed to win the seat in two general elections, before finally winning it, and didn't rush of to an easier berth, but stuck it out because he loves the place.

    1. Yes, I know they went to Strood market and All Hallows. But the media didn't follow them there, did they?

      I singled out UKIP in this post because of the media circus around them. But my challenge is to all the parties. And above all, to the media.

      I really don't like the way this is being portrayed by the media.The media are intent on portraying this as a fight to the death between Cameron and Farage. If they get away with that, the local issues will simply disappear and this will become simply a dress rehearsal for the general election. Reckless's support of local issues is not coming across because of the media's Westminster slant. If Reckless and Farage really care about this area, they should stop courting media attention in the way that they are.

  2. This seems like a typical 'I'm alright jack' post. Some people complain about UKIP highlighting population growth but then complain that they do not want the construction and building to cater for it. It's alright for boomers, who have had it relatively easy when buying housing and now want to pull away the ladder from the young.

    More supply will not increase prices - that's madness. It's people with that attitude across the UK that play a part in pushing up prices and greatly harming the life chances of the young.

    I'm not a UKIP supporter by any stretch. Farage is an opportunist. And I don't think this type of area should be the priority for housing. But it is near to a major piece of new infrastructure that reaches London quickly. It needs to be built on in the reasonably near future. The population went up over 3 million the past 10 years and 400k last year alone. It's not going down any time soon. The alternative to not building is lower living standards for many and the young who will be rent slaves for decades and those who are older hoarding their wealth.

    1. Jim,

      I am writing about the concerns of people who live here - young and old. The extent of the proposed development is far greater than needed to meet local population growth. It is clearly aimed at taking in overspill from London, which as I said is particularly caused by the gross distortion caused by the greenbelt. At present everything is being channelled into this area because no-one can touch greenbelt. I want to see the greenbelt eliminated, so that London overspill is more evenly distributed. I would add that like many you seem to think that London is all that matters. My point is that London is not all that matters - that the concerns of the people who live here are equally important.

      Your view of supply/demand is simplistic. Under certain circumstances, demand can outstrip supply even when supply is increasing - have a look at the US housing bubble in the mid-2000s if you would like to see an example of this phenomenon. In the case of R&S, because house prices here are substantially below London prices, the London overspill itself will drive up prices. Increasing supply attracts people from London and therefore encourages prices to rise.

  3. Your best ever post ! You should run in the by - election yourself as the local candidate

  4. I have some sympathy - as I live in Thanet South - and the media circus around Farage's candidacy has already started. It is hideous, but worst really is the way that Thanetian voters are represented as toothless, Nigel loving simpletons. The BBC does not seem to want to hear alternative views. I am glad to say that the organisers of the Broadstairs Food Festival told Farage to go away and would not allow the BBC to film him there.

  5. I can imagine few places less overdeveloped than your constituency, and sadly (for you) that probably means you're going to see lots of homes built.

    Sorry to say it Frances, but homebuilding and all the development that comes with it bring local jobs.

    1. Yes and no. I don't think Frances' point about overspill from London is really a good one - a new home is likely to be for "overspill" from somewhere, even if it's the next village. I also think talking about places being "protected" from development is not really right - it makes it sound like there's something intrinsically bad about development.

      But she's right about the greenbelt. If people actually want to live/work in London, you might as well build homes as close to London as you can, not 40 miles outside on a rather isolated peninsular. Green belt stops you doing that. It's really daft round Cambridge.

    2. Left Outside,

      I think you've missed the point. What I am objecting to is not development or house building per se. I don't actually live on the Hoo peninsula. I live in the Temple area, on the other side of Strood, which is also scheduled for massive redevelopment. But I'm not opposing that. I think developing the waterfront would be excellent, not only for people coming to live here but also for those who already do. What I am objecting to is the assumption that because in the past, for reasons we do not know, someone decided that green belt should stop closer to London in North Kent than anywhere else, therefore North Kent is fair game. The Lodge Hill development is a really bad idea for all sorts of reasons, but because it is not greenbelt and is technically a brownfield development, anyone who opposes it is automatically classed as a NIMBY - as you have just (wrongly) done. The Hoo peninsula is no less developed than many greenbelt areas, but no-one is suggesting carpeting them with houses. Oh dear me no. "We must protect our green spaces" - except in North Kent, apparently.

      I want to see two major changes:

      - complete elimination of the "greenbelt"
      - ending of the a priori assumption that brownfield developments are always preferable to greenfield. Back gardens, school playing fields, public parks and former Defence lands are all "brownfield". Why should developing them be preferable to developing agricultural land that is only marginally viable?

      We should evaluate development proposals on their merits, taking into account local considerations as well as national ones, without arbitrary classifications and distortionary protections for particular areas. Saying "we have to build here because everywhere else is greenbelt" is an argument for getting rid of greenbelt, not for building here.

    3. You make very good points, but not hugely practical ones.

      I agree that we need to drastically change the way we regulate the greenbelt. North Kent being brownfield is a bizarre way to run a planning system. But while we need to change it we're already kinda too late to do that.

      We need to start building now (or yesterday), and changing the planning system so it's less ludicrous will take a lot of time. Sadly places like North Kent will get developments they maybe shouldn't.

      It still won't be nearly enough to get most people on the housing ladder in the south east, but it would help a little. Building in North Kent probably isn't second best, or third, but it's still better than not building and hoping planning laws catch up with sanity. I want your two major changes too, but until they happen I want building wherever it'll get approved and funded.

    4. Not sure that building houses in an area where demand for said housing isn't there is all that much better than not building the houses at all — especially in order to "get most people on the housing ladder". (The key here is to think in terms of the ladder aspect.)

    5. Not worth it if there's no demand, but I'd be surprised if they couldn't create a profitable development there. It's not that it's a good idea, but that it's a good idea given the institutional constraints that exist.

    6. The principal beneficiaries of green belt policies are the people who are rich enough to afford to buy houses there. It was always a way of preventing the urban poor from encroaching on the territories of the rich. I never thought I would see you of all people support policies that entrench the privileges of the rich. The green belt is socially divisive. It should be eliminated.

  6. I suppose an equitable answer would be to extend the Green Belt evenly by say 5 miles everywhere - around all cities. Then prevent councils and developers gaming the zoning. Few want mass housing on their doorstep but if Virginia Waters gets the same share as Bexley we can fall back on the 'everyone needs housing, now everyone has a fair chance' argument. I doubt the original Green Belt was expected to last for eternity and it seems to have become a political albatross. Who dare shoot the albatross, who dare prevent the gaming?

    1. Roger,

      As the Green Belt is already inequitable, extending it evenly would not solve the problem. It needs to be eliminated, not extended.

    2. Curious as to how you might allocate land to housing?

    3. It should be the responsibility of the local authority based on the needs of the area.

  7. The average voter has endured 5 years of austerity with static wages and increasing pressure on all local public services. If there is no chance of improving or expanding public services and all the 3 Westminster parties are promising more of the same, why wouldn't you vote for a party that promises to reduce the demand for services by cutting back on Immigration and denying access to foreigners? Unless a party can put forward a positive message of growth with a focus on education, health and housing, then I feel UKIP will only get stronger.
    It is, of course, too late for Labour to ditch Balls and taking a cue from the IMF, commit to major infrastructure programmes focusing on housing,education, transport and renewable energy. They could also have promised to make it legally binding for all companies working in the public sector to pay a living wage. But with all the parties and media fixated on deficit reduction, nothing will change and Strood will have Mr Reckless and another 5 years of stagnation.
    Mind you, looking at the comments above, it looks like even if we had a commitment for a major house building programme, we would spend 5 years debating where to build them!

  8. There isn't much of a link between supermarkets and pub closures. There's been a slow and gradual decline in pubs over the decades because of various social changes - choices in wine over beer, drinking and driving laws, more villages replaced with commuters than locals, but supermarket booze has been considerably cheaper for decades. The data supporting a link to the smoking ban is far stronger than the data pointing to a link with the recession, supermarket booze or government taxes.

    One observation I've noticed with retailing is that there's a certain amount of "clustering" of large amounts of shops in fewer locations. There's more retail space today in Reading or Bath than there was 10 years ago, but you go to somewhere like Cirencester and there's less. This has benefits - you want a new suit, you'd rather have a huge choice and come home with something, even if you need an hour's drive, than to go to the local town and waste your time with a small choice. Rochester looks like it's not too far from Bluewater, so I imagine the same effect is happening there.

    1. Rochester is a tourist town, full of quaint Dickensian shops and visitor centres. It doesn't have ordinary shops apart from the occasional greengrocer (though they had those in Dickens's time, so that's ok). People who live in Rochester go to Strood for their ordinary shopping.

      You ignore the class divisions in this area. Well-heeled locals who can afford expensive clothes go to Bluewater. People who want cheap ones go to Strood. There isn't a Matalan at Bluewater, but there is in Strood. And there's a market which sells cheap clothing, too.

  9. The eurozone mercantile production zone can only give you more cars and destitute people of various stripes..
    I remain awestruck by the implosion of the entire basic production distribution and consumption chain in Europe (i.e the industrial system) all so that the money can remain concentrated in the financial houses.
    For example the real irish national income and expenditure declines (both in current and constant prices) are off all known scales.

    All I say is that yee are the guys who made a pact with London all those centuries ago.
    What do you expect ?
    It started with us Irish (make a ranch and import these surplus people into satanic mills)
    The extraction of basic purchasing power will continue until it cannot.
    Capitalism will continue to eat itself - eventually feasting on its dark heart in England.
    Only then will it stop beating.
    But then of course we will be all dead.

  10. Irish alcohol consumption peaked in 2001 (the year before physical euro introduction)
    It has now seen a more then 25 % decline.
    As far as I am aware it is below the northern european average now.
    The consumption no longer takes place in public houses (expenditure taxes)
    Much of the remaining rump consumption takes place on a atomic estate house level.

    Health fascists of various guises disguise the real loss of purchasing power inherent in the current British / euro commonpoverty experiment.
    The rentier areas of the shires will be the last to go but they will implode regardless.

    These desperate fights to hold on to Tithes during banking induced implosions of the money system is a common theme of history going back to at least the 1820s.

  11. Overdevelopment in the Medway Towns has been a problem since the 60s, when large swathes of land between Chatham, Gillingham and the motorway started to be in-filled, with little in the way of infrastructure to support it. It was no coincidence that, was it Medway council, was boasting of the lowest council tax in the country. Much of this was commuter belt to London with, IIRC, several coaches a day leaving the large Lords Wood estate for there every day by the time I left in the 70s.

    As such it's promoted a "rugged individualist" car-dominated culture and, with the demise of the Dockyard and the decay of the town centres, seems to me to be prime territory for UKIP types. Rochester and Chatham was traditionally a Labour stronghold, so is full of older left-behind-Labour voters.

  12. I'm afraid that UKIP was damned whatever they did as regards a campaign HQ. Let's assume that they rented a warehouse out on an industrial estate. The result would surely be snide claims that they were "hiding themselves away from prying eyes" and "afraid to face the voters". But as regards publicity...well, really? Isn't that the name of the game. Tory and Labour have £10 for every UKIP £, it's hardly even a fair fight. Are you denying David ANY breaks against Goliath? (probably so....) PS Why should Mr Farage be worried about Asians in the constituency. UKIP is not anti-Asian, it is anti uncontrolled immigration, which is not the same thing at all. You must be confusing UKIP with the BNP


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