PROJECT: Rochester Riverside
ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Medway Council, bptw partnership, Countryside, Hyde Group, Homes England, HTA Design
Rochester Riverside is planned to be the largest development to take place in Medway for many years. Occupying 21 hectares of vacant brownfield land on the town’s waterfront, the site is jointly owned by Medway Council and government agency Homes England, and has been earmarked for regeneration for more than 20 years. In 2016, developers Countryside and housing provider the Hyde Group were appointed as development partners and began preparing plans for up to 1,400 homes, of which 25 per cent are due to be affordable, 1,200 square metres of commercial space, a hotel, a primary school and a nursery. As well as helping to meet Medway’s housing needs, the applicants estimate that the project will create 3,000 jobs over the next ten years.
Countryside and Hyde, and their planning consultant bptw partnership, knew close collaboration with the council would be essential to gaining permission. Gerry Cassidy, planning director at bptw partnership, says both "were adamant there had to be a close partnership early doors". The application process was guided by a planning performance agreement (PPA) and bolstered by pre-application meetings every three weeks involving the development team, Homes England and council officers. As part of the PPA, the applicants agreed to 11 pre-submission meetings with various council departments, while the council promised to determine the application within the 16-week statutory timeframe.
Rochester Riverside is on the waterfront and is close to the town’s new train station served by a high-speed rail link to London. It is not the first time a regeneration scheme had been attempted here. The site was identified for development back in 2004 and outline permission was granted in 2006 for a mixed-use scheme including up to 2,000 homes. Construction began in 2010 and 73 homes were delivered before the scheme stalled, a casualty of ongoing economic uncertainty. "This site’s had some false starts in the past," says Cassidy. "And key to the council’s aspirations for this was a scheme that would be deliverable."
Because the council lacked an up-to-date local plan and a five-year housing land supply, it applied the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development in approving the scheme. However, policy support was provided from the council’s 2014 detailed supplementary planning document for Rochester Riverside, earmarking it for a major mixed-use scheme.
Nevertheless, councillors still had to be won over. To this end, the applicants held briefing sessions with members to receive feedback on and inform the emerging design. Among the key messages was for the design to reflect Rochester’s historic architecture. As a result, the team organised a walk around the town with councillors to highlight and photograph the design features they valued most.
Variation in building type, roof lines and construction materials were flagged up as aspirations. "In the first phase, we’ve got 17 or 18 different building typologies, which is quite extraordinary for a volume scheme like this," says Cassidy. Integrating the scheme with the existing townscape was another priority. "One of the things we talked about was creating linear views linking historic Rochester with the river," says Alan Jarrett, leader of Medway Council. "That part of the design was very well received by members."
When the plans were shown to the public and local community groups, increased traffic was voiced as a concern. The applicants’ response involved modelling to assess the scheme’s impact, as well as highways improvements that are due to be introduced in stages as the scheme grows.
Public exhibitions featured virtual reality goggles and a video fly-through, offering an immersive visualisation of the scheme. Across the five groups or individuals that submitted representations on the application, the only two objections came from the City of Rochester Society. "That, for a scheme of this size, was extraordinary," says Cassidy. The investment in the engagement process meant "there was an extraordinary lack of objections" he says.
Plans were formally submitted in July 2017. In October, Medway Council granted outline permission for the whole site and detailed permission for the first three phases, including 489 homes, an 81-bed hotel and 885 square metres of commercial floorspace. Construction is expected to start in the next few weeks, according to Cassidy.
The whole process, from the appointment of development partners to the granting of permission, took just 14 months. Cassidy says the council’s commitment to the project was crucial – and not just in terms of providing the land. "The amount of officer resources needed to sustain steering groups and PPA meetings is extraordinary, and also the response times. There were peaks and troughs but, on the whole, it was a fantastic show from the council in the way that they resourced it."
"It’s a question of priorities," says Jarrett. "Resources are scarce but we pulled out all the stops to make things happen." The result is an approved scheme that the council is confident will create a forward-looking urban quarter for Rochester while remaining sympathetic to its past.