The public inquiry into the plans to develop nearly 17 hectares of land between Hollingbourne and Bearstead is drawing near to its end, and once again I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of public engagement and commitment that the local community has shown.
A planning inquiry is an unusual experience for most people. Rather like a court of law, it is an opportunity for those on opposite sides of the case in dispute to make their case either in favour of, or against, a planning decision, in front of an independent and impartial adjudicator – the inspector. The inspector’s role is to weigh all the evidence presented and come to a conclusion which will be presented to the Secretary of State, who will make the final decision for or against.
It is a highly formal process, with the presentation of evidence by expert witnesses, either for or against the proposed development, followed by cross-examination by those who disagree with their case and seek to discredit their evidence in front of the inspector.
The very formality of the process can seem at odds with the notion of public engagement. It is sad that the local community has once again had to come together in opposition to plans for major development at this site – they have the long experience of the public inquiry into the proposed Kent International Gateway, very close to the proposed site for Waterside Park, which took place in the final months of 2009. But the important thing to remember is that this is a public inquiry, set up so that those local people who will be most affected if it goes ahead have the opportunity to have their concerns heard. The legal and technical experts who have been making their cases so ably will pack up their boxes of evidence and move on to the next case, but it is the people whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by the outcome of the inquiry who will have to live with the consequences. Let’s all wish the good folk of Bearsted, Hollingbourne and beyond the outcome that they want.
Dr Hilary Newport
Director, CPRE Kent
May 20th 2015