We have objected to a vast housing scheme – effectively a new town – of more than 9,000 properties south-east of Sittingbourne. Quinn Estates has submitted two outline planning applications for what is collectively being referred to as Highsted Park. One comprises a scheme for 1,250 homes and other uses, including completion of the Sittingbourne Northern Relief Road, while the other is for 8,000 homes and other uses, including a new M2 junction south of the A2. The application conflicts with the adopted Local Plan and we believe there are no material or exceptional considerations why the Plan should not be followed. Among a range of issues, the site lies in countryside and within a designated Local Countryside Gap, while the proposed development would have a detrimental impact on the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an Area of High Landscape Value and ancient woodlands and Local Wildlife Sites.
The UK government reaffirmed its commitment to the ‘net-zero by 2050’ emissions target within the Queen’s Speech on May 11. While to many, the net-zero by 2050 target does not go far enough, to achieve even this clearly requires action now. It certainly requires action by 2028. Especially in a borough where there is a local net-zero emissions target of 2030. Therefore, CPRE Kent was extremely disappointed by the decision by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to remove measures intended to reduce carbon emissions when approving the Quinn Estates proposal for 675 houses at Wises Lane, Sittingbourne – a development that had already sparked a ‘Cash for favours’ headline. This is even more disappointing when you consider that in doing so he has overridden the planning judgment of both Swale Borough Council and the Planning Inspectorate, both of whom had the benefit of actually hearing the evidence at the inquiry. This is compounded further by the fact the full net-zero carbon emissions measures were not even being sought until 2028 at the earliest. While the proposed development at Wise Lanes has a long and complicated background, the facts regarding the carbon emissions point are as follows:
Swale Borough Council took the position that if the Wises Lane development was to be approved, it wanted to see planning conditions imposed that reduced carbon emissions. This was to be on a tapered basis, culminating in a zero-carbon requirement on any new houses where details were to be agreed after 2028. This was deemed necessary to meet the Swale 2030 carbon-neutrality target locally and the national target of 2050.
Although the Planning Inspectorate allowed the appeal, it agreed the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission should be applied. Specifically, it reasoned: “The planning regime has a role to play and cannot leave climate change to other regimes to deal with, particularly when those regimes have not kept pace with the requirement to take urgent and material action. “The scale and urgency of the climate change emergency is such that it would constitute a material consideration of significant weight to support the imposition of conditions to mitigate the impact of the development.”
As this was a ‘called-in’ appeal, Mr Jenrick had the last say on the matter. In very simple terms, this meant he got to review the written evidence, including the planning inspector’s report and then issue a final decision on the matter.
While Mr Jenrick agreed with the planning inspector on most issues, he directed that the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission be removed. The stated reasoning was as follows: “Notwithstanding the high-level national commitment to carbon neutrality, and the significant weight attaching to tackling climate change, these conditions also go beyond current and emerging national policy. He therefore considers that the proposed conditions cannot be said to be either reasonable or necessary.”
While the ins and the outs of such a position in technical planning law could be debated, ultimately this was a matter of planning judgment on which the Secretary of State had a clear choice. He could have accepted Swale Borough Council’s and the planning inspector’s position and let the conditions stand. These might not have been perfect, though at least would have provided a hook within the decision which could have been amended in the future by way of a variation of condition application should national policy change. Or he could have accepted the applicant’s position that, as we cannot predict which policies might apply in the future, the only option is to do nothing now. By taking the latter position, he is likely to have handed the developer huge cost savings, though without reviewing the viability evidence up-front. This is on a scheme where a much lower than policy-compliant affordable-housing provision had been agreed. While the legal agreement does allow for this to be reviewed once 400 houses have been built, the need for affordable housing in Swale is now. There is, however, no option to review the net-zero-emission conditions. There were a number of seemingly positive climate and environment soundbites within the Queen’s Speech. However, the position taken by the Secretary of State at Wises Lane raises serious questions as to just how genuine the government is about tackling these issues and indeed where priorities actually lie. Saying is the easy part, it is the doing that matters!
Plans for a combined heat and power near Sittingbourne have been approved despite its visual impact on the Saxon Shore Way. Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, announced in a letter that he would issue a development consent order for the Kemsley Mill K4 Combined Heat and Power Generating Station. He concluded that its benefits would outweigh any potential negative visual impacts. The order grants development consent for the construction and operation of a gas-fired combined heat and power generating station with a gross electricity-generating capacity of up to 73MW; it will be built within the boundary of Kemsley Paper Mill. The letter said that a planning inspector had examined the application and concluded that “the potential adverse visual and landscape impacts of the proposed development when viewed from certain vantage points along the Saxon Shore Way… cannot be entirely mitigated”. The applicant had apparently “assessed that while there would be no significant adverse visual or landscape impacts from individual locations in the vicinity of the development, a person walking along the Saxon Shore Way designated footpath would encounter a much greater degree of impact”. The applicant “did not offer any mitigation as it felt that it would not be possible to achieve a meaningful reduction in impact”. The letter added that Mr Clark had noted that a report from Swale Borough Council concluded that the development “would not add any adverse visual or landscape effects to the existing industrial cluster of buildings”. “The [inspector] also notes that the design features of the development – including the colour scheme – would be subject to approval by Swale Borough Council and that the final agreed design might lead to mitigation of the impacts,” the letter continued, adding that Mr Clark agreed with the inspector that the visual and cumulative effects would not outweigh the benefits of the project. Those benefits included “meeting national need for additional electricity generation capacity”.