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Councillor Spooner, Bearsted: Article

Please see below for an interesting article by Councillor Spooner from Bearsted, who spent all his professional life in town planning, shared with us by Patrik Garten.

His article will give you some more background -in a nutshell- what the current Local Plan Review is all about.

For the past  weeks my inbox has been swamped with emails from people from all over the Borough lobbying about the Maidstone Borough Local Plan Review (LPR)

I have every sympathy with your heartfelt feelings about the proposed allocation of land at Lidsing and Lenham for 2,000 / 5000 dwellings but, there are far wider planning and development issues involved which I will explain.

1. Planning permission for residential development at Gibraltar Farm was granted on Appeal by the Secretary of State (SoS) several years ago against the wishes of both Medway City Council and Maidstone Borough Council (MBC). The vast majority of the site lies within Medway. A revised application for this development has recently been submitted and is currently being processed. The principle of residential development on Gibraltar Farm has, however, been established by the SoS and cannot be revisited.

2. Planning permission for residential development on land off Gleamingwood Drive, east of Reed Croft Wood and west of Sindals Lane was also granted on Appeal to the SoS against the wishes of MBC. This site is entirely within Maidstone. The East Hill site is entirely within Medway and I think that the Darland View site is as well. I have no knowledge of the current state of play of any development proposals for either of these two sites.

3. Last month’s evening MBC did not grant planning permission for 2,000 new houses at Lidsing. It resolved to approve for further public consultation and for onward submission to the SoS, the LPR.

4. The LPR proposes that 17,355 new dwellings be built in Maidstone Borough between 2022 and 2037. This global housing figure includes the 2000 homes at a proposed Lidsing Garden Community as well as 5,000 new dwellings at a proposed Heathlands Garden Settlement at Lenham Heath; 1,300 new dwellings at the Invicta Barracks site in Maidstone (after it has been vacated by The Army in 2027) and new housing development on many other sites throughout the Borough.

5. There is an acknowledged national shortage of housing. For 40 years, the country has not been building enough new homes to keep up with a growing population and a dramatically increasing number of smaller households comprising single people and one-parent families, etc.

6. Successive governments; Labour, Coalition and Conservative have sought to increase housebuilding across the country. The present Government would like to see 300,000 new dwellings built each year to deal with the demand for new homes that has been increasing cumulatively because not enough new homes have been built for so many years.

7. It is a government requirement that MBC plans for 17,355 new dwellings in its LPR. If it did not do this, the LPR would not satisfy the SoS; he might refuse to accept it or modify it in ways unacceptable to MBC in order to increase its proposals for new housing. The practical implications of this would be that without an up-to-date LPR approved by the SoS, developers would submit planning applications for housing on any site in the Borough and, despite any objections from MBC, would be almost certain to obtain planning permission on Appeal.

8. It is the onerous responsibility of MBC to find the land where the 17,355 new homes required in the Borough should be located. After 4 years of meticulously painstaking work and research by MBC Planning Officers in consultation with KCC (Highways), other KCC Departments, the NHS, environmental bodies and utility providers, etc – and with the constant involvement of Borough Councillors and with previous rounds of public consultation – the LPR was produced and was considered by MBC last Wednesday evening.

9.  The LPR is not perfect. No local council has ever produced a ‘perfect’ local plan and never will do. There will always be winners and losers. I am unhappy with some aspects of the LPR and so are many other Borough Councillors. Lidsing falls within the MBC Ward of Boxley and, at the MBC meeting on Wednesday, the Borough Councillors that represent Boxley Ward, Bob Hinder, Anne Brindle and Heidi Bryant, all spoke passionately against the proposed Lidsing Garden Community.

10. At the end of the day, however, Borough Councillors have to consider the greater good of the greater number and give priority to the wider interests of the 170,000 people who live in Maidstone Borough. For these reasons, other Borough Councillors, including me and my fellow Bearsted Ward Councillors, Val Springett and Mike Cuming, reluctantly voted to take the LPR forward. If the LPR were not to be taken forward, there would be planning chaos throughout the Borough.

11. In summary, the LPR must provide for 17,355 new dwellings whether MBC likes it or not. With an up to date LPR in place, MBC has control over where these houses will be built. Without the LPR, MBC will have little or no control over where the housing goes. Developers will be able to submit planning applications everywhere and anywhere in the Borough with the strong likelihood of being granted planning permission by the SoS on Appeal against the wishes of MBC and of local people.

12. The LPR will now go out to a further round of public consultation. This will last for 6 weeks from 29 October until the 12 December. You will be able to inspect a copy of the LPR on the MBC website and in hard copy at the MBC offices at Maidstone House, at public libraries and at some parish council offices. Do please comment or object to the LPR as you wish.

13. All objections to the LPR will be considered by MBC and some amendments may be made to it before it is submitted to the SoS. Unresolved objections – of which I am sure there will be many – will be considered at a Public Hearing to be held next summer and conducted by an independent Planning Inspector appointed by the SoS. The Hearing is likely to last several weeks. The Inspector has power to approve or reject the LPR or to make recommendations to MBC on amendments that he considers are necessary to make it acceptable. All proposed new developments set out in the LPR will all need to the subject of separate, individual planning applications and the public will be able to comment on them when they are submitted.

14. Finally, I need to explain that the Boxley councillors and I are all very concerned about the extreme pressure that government is putting on MBC and other councils in the southeast to allocate more and more land for housing. MBC and individual councillors have, therefore, been putting a great deal of pressure on our local MPs, Helen Whately for Faversham and Mid Kent and Helen Grant for Maidstone and the Weald, to work with other southeast MPs to persuade Ministers to reduce their demands for housebuilding in the southeast and redirect it to less populated areas in the north. I do not know how successful we will be in our endeavours but, it will take months, probably many months, for any significant changes to be made to government policy. In the meantime, I am afraid we have no option but to progress with the LPR.

Denis Spooner

Maidstone Borough Councillor Ward Member for Bearsted
Chairman, MBC Planning Committee
Member, MBC Strategic Planning and Infrastructure Committee