By Brian Pain
A locked harbour basin at the head of a tidal creek in the centre of a mediaeval town, whose past wealth, commercial development, architecture and history was hugely dependent on that waterway which connected the town to the rest of the country and beyond to the world.
View from the bridge - silt, mud and dumped rubbish block the lock gates and clog up the basin
In most towns and cities in Europe, the local municipality would have grabbed the opportunity to restore and enjoy the social and economic benefits such an asset would bring to the local community. Not in good old Faversham though, where the technical difficulties in maintaining an opening bridge required to span the vast distance of nearly 24 feet has proved to be insurmountable since the original was last used in 1987.
This is despite hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on consultants commissioned by our councils and untold hours of voluntary work undertaken by local people and groups, notably the Faversham Creek Trust, passionately committed to saving the creek and basin from dereliction. In fact, the creek bridge has cost more per metre not to build than the construction costs per metre of the QE Bridge crossing Thames (even allowing for inflation).
Readers may well have seen stories in the press and triumphant council announcements over the past two decades declaring the start of yet another scheme to revitalise the creek. While not wishing to depress our readers by recounting the whole sad story, the following notable failures deserve mentioning.
THE SWALE STAB
In 1998/9 Swale made an application for a Millennium Grant for Faversham Creek regeneration. The bid was put together in a last-minute rush and was at best muddled and poorly presented. The cover illustration, comically, displayed a picture of Sittingbourne’s Milton Creek rather than Faversham Creek. Apparently, a suitable illustration of the right waterway was unavailable. The application was inexplicably rejected.
THE CREEK CONSORTIUM
Possibly the biggest previous failure to achieve any positive result for the Creek, basin and bridge was that of the Faversham Creek Consortium led by the then councillor Mike Cosgrove and assisted amongst others by ex-town mayor Andrew Osbourne. This was set up at a packed public meeting in 2006, to genuine acclaim. The protracted process undertaken by the consortium over the next ten years to produce a feasible plan for the regeneration of the creek and basin, including the expensive commissioning of a frankly inadequate, simplistic and expensive report by consultants Urban Initiatives sapped the enthusiasm of many in the town.
This was followed by the introduction of a Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan whose production was under the control of a town council steering group again led by Cosgrove and Osbourne plus others including Nigel Kay (see earlier editions of Fav Eye online). The final version largely ignored the preferences of most of those consulted, made little reference to the actual creek and recommended flats and houses on nearly all remaining Creekside sites in the plan’s area. Sites reserved for traditional marine activity were barely mentioned.
When this draft plan went out to referendum Mr Cosgrove warned the residents of Faversham that failure to approve its recommendations would result in Swale Borough Council withholding its £200,000 contribution to the bridge fund. This was particularly ironic given that the creek bridge was explicitly omitted from the proposed neighbourhood plan.
THE KCC INITIATIVE
Hope was raised again four years ago when the KCC took the initiative. Exactly 3 years ago we wrote in Faversham Eye the following:
CREEK UPDATE OCTOBER 2019
Faversham’s creek bridge will be lifted out by crane before Christmas for inspection by engineers. “Our plan is to carry out a detailed inspection in the next six to eight weeks which will involve a weekend road closure to enable the existing bridge to be lifted off,” says Kent County Leader Paul Carter. The 40-ton bridge will be removed to check the condition of its deck, supporting structures and moving parts. “When this information is to hand we will be able to assess whether restoration is the best option or commissioning a new bridge,” says Carter. The existing bridge was built to support trucks towing half-built ships to the former Pollock’s shipyard on the Front Brents and is massively over-engineered for ordinary road traffic. But restoring it might be simpler and quicker than obtaining consents required for an all-new structure.
On the other hand, a new, lighter, modern Dutch-style bridge would be more efficient and possibly more reliable and KCC is pursuing both options. “I am pleased to report that we now have soil analysis information available to us and will start the design and supplier engagement phases,” reports Carter who says the project ‘is continuing to build momentum’.
The whole project – including the cost of sluice gates and dredging- is likely to cost between £2.5 and £3 million according to latest estimates. A total of £1.54 million has been pledged already (see column on the right) and KCC will pursue Peel Ports, the company responsible for keeping the creek navigable, for a substantial contribution.
As for the creek basin, “wharf-side regeneration will be delivered by others, subject to satisfying all the necessary planning requirements”, says Carter, who adds: “negotiations are progressing with adjoining landowners.”
This is hugely positive news for the many Faversham people demanding urgent action on the bridge. Almost a year ago, Carter told Faversham he was “on a mission” to solve the problem of its swing bridge. “By hook or by crook I’m going to do my very, very best to make it happen while I remain leader of Kent County Council,” he told 500 people at a public meeting in St Mary’s church, adding “Hopefully I won’t go anywhere until we’ve found a solution.”
So the recent news that Carter was stepping down as KCC leader on October 17 was met with dismay by many of those fighting to restore the creek as a functioning waterway. And yet it does appear that, at long last, real progress is being made, albeit slightly behind schedule. Paul Carter will remain a county councillor and, as former leader, is likely to retain considerable clout within Conservative-controlled KCC.
Although he is optimistic, some serious problems need tackling. “It is clear that if we are to achieve our objective of seeing vessels navigating the creek and mooring in the basin, there are many more obstacles to overcome than just providing a bridge that opens and closes,” he says.
Those challenges include:
Accumulated silt in the creek at the bridge has buried the ‘cill’ – the ledge in front of the lock gates- under 5 feet of mud. This must be removed before the gates can be repaired or replaced. Unfortunately, this means dredging the creek for nearly two miles downstream to prevent the mud returning.
If silting problems are not dealt with urgently, the upper reaches of the creek will soon no longer be navigable by vessels of any reasonable size, making a working creek pointless. Making the creek welcoming and useable for visiting boats will bring obvious economic benefits.
THE BRIDGE AND LOCK GATES
The existing bridge needs to be either repaired and improved to provide a safe pedestrian walkway or replaced completely. The new or repaired lock gates will need an effective sluicing mechanism to keep the dredged creek navigable.
The lock gates partly submerged in silt and debris
Not only does the basin need dredging but substantial moorings and boat repair facilities must be provided for visiting craft. This will generate substantial income and become a lively public attraction. Space should also be made available for small boat activities.
The cooperation of the two major landowners around the basin, BMM Weston and Shepherd Neame, will be necessary but with the imaginative use of the planning system, it should be possible to optimise both public and private benefit.
With substantial funding now in place, it should not be impossible to raise the £1 million financial shortfall, Peel Ports, which is responsible for keeping the creek navigable and the gates operable, should be pressed to provide funds. The long term economic and social gains to the town of creating a major visitor attraction, new employment opportunities, training and water-based youth facilities, will make the short-term cost seem insignificant. We will also have returned our Creek to its former prominence, retaining Faversham’s historic links and unique character for the foreseeable future. Local people have demonstrated their strong desire to achieve these aims and we hope all our representative get behind councillor Carter to make sure we succeed.
THERE ALMOST CERTAINLY WON’T BE A BETTER - OR EVEN ANOTHER- CHANCE IN THE FUTURE.
At the time of writing the above the pledged money was:
Swale Borough Council £200,000
Faversham Town Council £170,000
Faversham Creek Trust through the community £125,000
Philanthropic donation £200,000
Total £1.54 million
Over two metres of mud in the creek basin
The narrow channel of water flowing from Davington Ponds alongside Ordnance Wharf
The £50,000 a year bridge
Three years on the situation is even worse after yet again no progress. We have:
A heavily silted creek which is inevitably at its worst in the basin which is at the top end of the tidal flow, where an estimated average of over 2 metres of mud has built up.
In its present state, even with an opening bridge, the basin can only be used by dinghies and then only for limited periods of time around high water.
Lock gates which are no longer operable and stuck open, allowing an ever increasing amount of silt to build up.
A ‘temporary’ fixed replacement road and foot bridge which is being leased at around £50,000 a year has already cost the cash-strapped KCC over £350,000 to install.
Extremely unpleasant smelling wastewater runoff from the Shepherd Neame brewery. Local residents, shoppers and businesses will be well aware of the stink as it regularly permeates the surrounding area.
What little water we now get in the creek is often polluted with partially treated, or even worse, raw sewage. (Swimming in the Faversham waters is not recommended).
At the Ordnance Wharf site in the basin and Swan Quay just below the bridge, the owner/developers have fenced off their sites from any use as they hold out for permission to build more expensive houses and flats. In the case of Swan Quay, the inability to moor alongside has severely limited the space available for the annual Creek Festival on the adjacent Town Quay to accommodate visiting boats and sailing barges. Withholding permission to allow temporary use of the quayside by the owners of Swan Quay could be seen as a petty act of spite for their failing to secure permission for a change of use from commercial to residential use.
Of equal importance is the huge sense of disappointment and frustration felt by thousands of local people to see nothing positive come of all their efforts to help revitalise the creek. It was an extraordinary effort by the townspeople to raise over £125,000 in a few months to help fund a working opening bridge.
The fence alongside the creek at Swan Quay
A NEW INITIATIVE BY FAVERSHAM TOWN COUNCIL
Our relatively recently elected Faversham Town Council has finally taken the initiative to act. Initially with an attempt to tackle Peel Ports and get them to realise their legal responsibilities for the need to keep the creek in a “commodious condition” and maintain the bridge, lock gates and sluices or reach some kind of financial settlement and allow others to take control and subsequently to move forward with a revitalisation project.
The Faversham Eye wholeheartedly supports the Town Council in their endeavours and hopes they can avoid the pitfalls that have bedevilled previous efforts. Probably it really is the last chance.
Where's Our Bridge poster, and we are still waiting
We also emphasise that all the comments we made three years ago still apply, along with the inevitable increase in construction costs and even more silt removal required
We have little hope that our local MP Helen Whately’s involvement will result in anything more than a photo opportunity for her.
In 1994 when our late Conservative MP Sir Roger Moate (who genuinely cared for Faversham) headed an ad hoc committee formed to try to address the deterioration of the creek, the then Medway Ports Harbour Master, Captain White, said that, in his view, the best way forward for the basin would be to fill it in and turn it into a car park.
Perhaps if the latest initiative fails, we should take his advice. It could be called the OSCO MEMORIAL CAR PARK in honour of the heroic failure our ex-councillors notably A Osbourne and M Cosgrove to achieve any concrete success, despite their many years of dictating the progress and direction of plans to revitalise our waterway.
Perhaps it could include a monumental headstone of a similar design to that in Stone Street which was largely funded by the local Bensted Charities (trustees include a Mr Osbourne and Cosgrove).