A scheme for 440 homes in Otham has been backed at appeal by a planning inspector. The greenfield site had been allocated in Maidstone Borough Council’s 2017 Local Plan “as a strategic development location for housing growth with supporting infrastructure”. However, in July the local authority’s policy and resources committee voted to reject the project, west of Church Road next to St Nicholas Church, after it had already twice been rejected by the planning committee. Council officers had recommended the development be approved, fearing that, with the site included in the Local Plan, developer Bellway would win an appeal. And last week the Planning Inspectorate announced that inspector Stephen Normington had allowed Bellway’s two appeals, which he had considered jointly. The first related to non-determination of an outline planning application for 440 homes, with the second coming after MBC had refused an application for a revised project of 421 units. Mr Normington’s report concluded there was “no demonstrable evidence” supporting one of the council’s reasons for refusal on highways grounds. The council had cited the impact of the development on traffic congestion in Willington Street and highway safety at Church Road. The county council had also raised highways objections. Although he said there was “no doubt in my mind that the appeal proposals will contribute to the congestion already experienced on Willington Street to a degree”, the inspector continued: “Whilst this would undoubtedly cause driver inconvenience, I have no substantive evidence to suggest that this would cause a highway safety problem.” Further, he did “not consider that the proposed developments would demonstrably cause worsening safety issues on Church Road to the south of the site to the extent that both these appeals should be dismissed”. He also added “significant weight” to the fact the development would “include affordable housing to meet a demonstrable housing need on an allocated housing site”. Mr Normington made a partial costs award against MBC, concluding it had “behaved unreasonably” in reaching its decision on its first reason for refusal. CPRE Kent was represented at the appeal, arguing that Bellway had failed to demonstrate how Church Road could be modified safely and that the impact of the proposed development on the Grade I-listed church and nearby Grade II-listed buildings was unacceptable.
The developer behind plans to build the country’s largest theme park in north Kent has applied to the government for consent to proceed. London Resort Company Holdings submitted its application for a Development Consent Order to the Planning Inspectorate on New Year’s Eve (Thursday, January 31, 2020). The scheme has been designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), the first ‘business or commercial project’ to be accepted as such by the government under the Planning Act 2008. The theme park is targeted for the Swanscombe peninsula, between Greenhithe and Northfleet, with opening anticipated for 2024 after a 2022 start date. It would cover more than 1,160 acres and LRCH says it would create “48,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs” by 2038. The project website states: “Sustainability is at the core of our vision. We are exploring new and innovative ways of integrating sustainable and low-carbon principles into every area of design and operation of the London Resort. Our aim is to create one of the most sustainable theme park destinations in the world.” It adds: “Our designs will integrate local public rights of way and a green network, with improved access to the river for visitors and local communities. The London Resort will showcase the natural features of the site, seamlessly integrating them into our designs. A large proportion of the peninsula landscape will remain undeveloped and will be enhanced.” However, there are widespread concerns both for people employed on the peninsula who might see their workplaces lost and for the area’s wildlife. Buglife has joined with other environmental campaigners to set up the Save Swanscombe Marshes campaign. To understand why the peninsula is so special, we will indeed turn to Buglife, which states: “The Swanscombe peninsula in north Kent is home to a remarkable mosaic of grasslands, coastal habitats, brownfield features, scrub and intricate wetlands. However, the proposed London Resort theme park threatens the future of this urban wilderness. “Known as Swanscombe Marshes, this urban wilderness is home to thousands of invertebrate species, including over 250 species of conservation concern. This outstanding assemblage is of national importance, ranking with our best invertebrate brownfield sites. “It is one of just two places in the UK for the Critically Endangered distinguished jumping spider (Attulus distinguendus), among the host of rare bees, beetles, moths and other invertebrates recorded there… the mixture of natural coastal features and human interference has created a brownfield of the highest quality for wildlife, as well as a valued community space for walking, birdwatching, angling and escaping the hustle and bustle of north Kent.” CPRE Kent intends to take part in the examination should it happen. It is too early to comment extensively, but an initial observation relates to the proposed Lower Thames Crossing, which does not appear to have been factored into plans – how would the two dovetail? The Planning Inspectorate now has until Thursday, January 28, to determine if the application is satisfactory and the project can proceed to examination. Should it get that far, the Secretary of State would then decide whether London Resort should be built.
We reported last week that Highways England had withdrawn its application for a Development Consent Order to build the Lower Thames Crossing. Now we have been updated by HE on the issues relating to the Planning Inspectorate and the likely way forward. A message to stakeholders said: “… we’ve now had further dialogue with the Planning Inspectorate about their expectations around our application. “The fundamentals of the Lower Thames Crossing, including its objectives and location, will remain the same but we will further develop some technical information related to some elements of the scheme before we resubmit our application next year. “The feedback from the Planning Inspectorate includes requests for: “Further information on the impact of the project on traffic during the construction phase. We recognise that stakeholders are keen to find out more information about our construction traffic appraisals and will be engaging with them on these issues. “Further assessments about how an existing jetty on the River Thames near the northern tunnel entrance construction site could potentially be used during the construction phase. The operation of the jetty could, if used, impact river traffic. We will be developing Navigational Impact Assessment and engaging with stakeholders on this topic. “More details on our approach for managing materials and waste, including how the different contractors will coordinate the reusing, recycling or disposal of waste. “An enhanced Habitats Regulations Assessment to provide a more detailed explanation of our approach to assessment of potential effects on European designated sites where we have indicated there would be no likely significant effects as a result of the construction and operation of the new road alone, or in combination with other projects. “More detail on our approach to the long-term management of the project’s proposed environmental mitigation. “The Planning Inspectorate has also shared some feedback from Local Authorities on our approach to consultation. We will consider this feedback carefully as we refine key areas of our submission ahead of resubmitting our application for a Development Consent Order. “For a project of the size and complexity of the Lower Thames Crossing, it is reasonable for the Planning Inspectorate to ask for further information, and we are doing everything we can to resubmit our application at the earliest opportunity.”
Sevenoaks District Council has taken its challenge of the Planning Inspectorate to the next level by beginning judicial review proceedings. The move comes in response to a government-appointed inspector’s refusal to endorse the council’s new Local Plan. The inspector, Karen Baker, wrote her final report on the examination of the Plan on March 2, concluding it was not legally compliant in respect of the council’s duty to cooperate. She had advised the council of her view in a letter to the local authority in October in which she wrote: “I have significant concerns about a number of aspects of the Plan, both in terms of legal compliance and soundness. “My main concern relates to the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of strategic cross-boundary planning to examine how the identified needs could be accommodated.” However, not only did the council, which is being told its Plan should include the building of 11,312 homes, refuse to withdraw it but its leader, Peter Fleming, gave a fierce response to the inspector’s letter: “It is clear to me the way this has been handled calls into question the integrity of the whole Plan-making system in this country… “To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the inspector. If we are not to follow the evidence to make our Plan then the government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites, we need to put an end to the thinly veiled charade that Local Plans are in any way locally led.” Cllr Fleming is now making good on his warning that the council would not back down: “I will be writing to the Secretary of State on this matter and urgently asking him to intervene,” he said in October. “It appears something is very wrong with the system if a council with its communities works hard for four years to produce an evidence-based Plan that delivers housing, jobs and infrastructure investment, whilst protecting the environment, only to be halted by a single individual. “We will not be withdrawing our Local Plan and the inspector will produce her report in due course. We will then take the strongest action open to us.” The council says its Plan submission included more than 800 pages of evidence detailing how it had worked with neighbouring authorities during its production of the Plan. It adds that those councils and other organisations involved in its development supported the council’s evidence and approach. And on Friday last week (April 17) Cllr Fleming said: “Taking legal action is not something we would undertake lightly and demonstrates we are serious about standing up for our residents and our cherished environment, against what we believe is a fundamental failure by the Planning Inspectorate to take account of the weight of evidence in front of them. “Working with landowners, communities and developers, our new Local Plan put forward innovative solutions to deliver almost 10,000 homes and improved infrastructure while protecting nearly all of our Green Belt. It’s a huge frustration that, after so much work, we cannot take our Plan forward at this time. “In our view, concluding we failed to cooperate with neighbouring councils was the only way to halt the examination. We reject this. We gave the planning inspector detailed evidence of our work with our neighbours and, from the start, they said they couldn’t accommodate the homes we could not deliver.” Julia Thornton, cabinet member for development & conservation, added: “Our Local Plan is the first in the country to be assessed under a new planning framework. We believe, whilst this is not the reason the inspector has given, failing to meet the government’s housing figure would potentially impact on subsequent Local Plans across the country. “If the inspector did have significant concerns over our duty to cooperate, these should have been raised soon after we had submitted our Plan, not months later. We fundamentally disagree with the inspector’s conclusions and firmly believe key parts of the Local Plan requirements have been incorrectly interpreted. “We feel have no choice but to take this course of action.” Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for the Planning Inspectorate, will have the chance to respond before a judge decides if the case should proceed.
Sevenoaks District Council has responded fiercely to the recommendation from a government inspector that it should withdraw its Local Plan from examination. Inspector Karen Baker wrote to the local authority on Thursday, October 17, saying: “I have significant concerns about a number of aspects of the Plan, both in terms of legal compliance and soundness. “My main concern relates to the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of strategic cross-boundary planning to examine how the identified needs could be accommodated… “Furthermore, I have significant concerns about the soundness of the Plan in respect of a number of areas including the approach to sustainability appraisal, the chosen strategy for growth, the assessment of the Green Belt and housing supply and distribution… “I am currently preparing a short letter setting out my concerns which will be with you shortly. I will not reach any final conclusions on the way forward for the examination until I have had the opportunity to consider your response to that letter… “… I consider it is necessary for me to advise you that, at this point, I consider the most appropriate way forward for the Sevenoaks District Local Plan would be for the council to withdraw it from examination.” Unsurprisingly, the missive has not been met with unbridled joy by the local authority. A stinging statement on its website from council leader Peter Fleming says: “It is clear to me the way this has been handled calls into question the integrity of the whole plan-making system in this country. “The inspector had our submission for six months and asked over 500 questions. What’s more, the draft Plan was independently verified and found sound by three external parties including the government’s own Planning Advisory Service. “Had there been a fundamental problem, I would have expected the examination not to have gone ahead from the start. “As a council we decided early on that we would follow an evidence-led approach, not prejudging any site and going where our Plan-making policy and the evidence took us. “To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the inspector. If we are not to follow the evidence to make our Plan then the government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites, we need to put an end to the thinly veiled charade that Local Plans are in any way locally led. “But the most damning comment has to be left for the inspector’s approach to publish her brief note before allowing the council to either see her full reasoning or have a chance to respond. This suggests her mind is far from open and she and her masters have made their minds up. “Sevenoaks District Council will stand up for its residents and the district’s environment against what we believe is a huge abuse of the process by the Planning Inspectorate and the government department responsible. “We will not allow them to run roughshod over the huge weight of evidence we have amassed, community views we have collated and the few powers we have left as a planning authority.”