The Society’s Report
MBC Planning Committee meeting Thursday 25th April 2019 considered the proposals for two schools on Pope’s Field, and relocation of the nature reserve –
The short story –
Both applications, slightly amended, were approved – the former 7 for and 5 against, the latter 9 for, 1 against and 2 abstentions.
The long story –
The standard of debate was beyond dismal. Bald statements were made but members did not appear to listen to or follow up on what either their colleagues or officers actually said.
As you may be aware we did not expect the items to be heard at all last night but the chairman seemed very determined, suggesting that great attention had been paid to the detail offered and, based on case law, his personal view was that they should proceed as he trusted the committee to consider the items objectively. Another member criticised residents’ objections saying it was the quality not the quantity which should be taken into account so he didn’t agree with the legal advice to withdraw the items from the agenda. Although he did add it was disappointing that the legal advice had been in the public domain resulting in fewer local residents being present than might have been expected.
All speakers against the proposal spoke with passion and local knowledge:- a local resident, Boxley Parish Council, two Boxley ward councillors, Bearsted Parish Council, and Cllr Mike Cuming speaking also on behalf of Cllr Val Springett and Cllr Nick de Wiggondene-Sheppard. There was also a speaker for the applicant.
Cllr Tony Harwood began by highlighting a consultant’s report commissioned to look at issues in his ward, North Ward, which identified this as being a community with very low car ownership. This meant that children from this area (west of the site) would have no choice but to walk: this therefore was a genuine social injustice. However, he went on to say that with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) presumption in favour of certain developments, including schools, this proposal if rejected would almost certainly be lost at appeal. In addition, a government Planning Inspector would almost certainly not add sufficiently robust, or any, conditions which MBC would be able to include if members approved the application now. Yet another example of borough councillors giving in to ‘fear of a government Planning Inspector’ – remember Woodcut Farm at J8 which was also approved to save the costs of an appeal? Interestingly, the Planning Committee went against officer recommendation for the Waterside Park proposal and won both the developer’s quest at the Planning Appeal and subsequently in the High Court.
So, it can be done!!
Later on, though, when discussing whether or not it was necessary for the Bearsted Road ‘improvements’ east of the KIMS roundabout to take place (meaning the loss of several trees) the KCC Highways officer present, said that “most of the children would be coming from Bearsted and Weavering… it is likely that the majority of pupils residing here will walk to the primary school”. He was quoting from the superseded Transport Assessment. Once the Bearsted Road entrance was removed in the revised documents, this was no longer mentioned, so not even the applicant believes that parents will walk along that road. In fact, condition 19 (requiring these works) was deleted. No-one questioned the discrepancy in where these prospective primary pupils would be coming from.
Cllr Tony Harwood mentioned that prior to the adoption of the Local Plan in 2017 this site formed part of the Special Landscape Area (SLA) in the setting of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) but was zoned for industrial development in the Local Plan. He could have added that this site was currently a nature reserve as a condition of the Kent Medical Campus approval, and also questioned why this item was taken BEFORE the item regarding the relocation of the nature reserve, but he failed to do so. He did, however, suggest that the landscape and ecology management plan needed to be changed to include a legal requirement ensuring that the landscape buffer zone was not encroached upon in the future. This was because the current plans left no room at all for any future expansion on this site.
The Chairman wondered how it might be feasible to protect a relocated nature reserve, perhaps bringing it into public ownership, or the landowner signing over the freehold to MBC for eg. 300 years.
Things became a little less pessimistic when Councillor Boughton said he wanted to drill down into the actual need for the primary school. He asked for a description of the Primary Planning areas and their boundaries, as he did not recognise them. However, no-one was present from KCC, the local Education Authority. The Chairman asked Richard Timms, Case Officer, if it might be possible to tell KCC they had got it wrong but surprise, surprise Mr Timms said that would be unreasonable. Rob Jarman, MBC’s Head of Planning and Development, pointed out that MBC had received consistent pre-application advice from KCC for over a year, and that if MBC questioned this advice now a Planning Inspector at an Appeal would surely wonder why. The Chairman added that the committee had a duty to determine the planning application in front of them and would need solid evidence to start asking questions now.
This is another example of MBC failing to question evidence in a timely fashion.
Cllr Denis Spooner said it was a sad state of affairs, the proposal was grossly inadequate and an insult to the people of Maidstone.
Although it was quite clear that none of the committee spoke in favour of the application, Cllr Parfitt-Reid expressing her objection to hearing the phrase “we have no choice”, and Cllr Kimmance saying “it wouldn’t work” due to the number of children being transported often on their own for good reasons to the secondary school, the general consensus was that this was the least worst option.
The constitution of a delivery committee was discussed.
If councillors’ questions lie unanswered, and local residents’ comments are ignored then many would surely argue that this points to the application being pre-determined!! It does beg the question “why hold any public consultation and why hold a planning committee meeting at all?“
It goes without saying that your committee is beyond disappointed with the outcome of the meeting, for the wider area including Grove Green and Weavering but particularly for Bearsted and Thurnham residents who will have to live with the consequences.