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LENHAM HEATH: Council suggests back seat role to limit financial hit - report

Wednesday 9th December 2020

THE massive Lenham Heath housing project proposed by Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) appeared to be in some confusion today as the authority suggested it takes a back seat in the scheme.
MBC, the self-styled "master developer" in the project, is now proposing it could step aside "to limit our financial exposure".
The council recently announced its partnership with Government quango Homes England in delivering 4,000 houses on a number of plots.
Now, in papers ready for next week's policy and resources committee, officers are floating the option of ceasing "further investment prior to delivery phase".
The papers add: "In this scenario, the council would simply co-fund the circa £3m required to secure planning consent and secure the land options but limit our financial exposure to this, and recover our investment through one of two variants depending on our risk appetite..."
MBC would hope to recoup the £1.5m (of which £305,000 has already been spent) but without profits but leaving a way back in.
The project has been dogged with controversy since MBC's plans were first revealed by Daily Downs Mail.
Now MBC, hit hard by falling revenues during the pandemic, needs to find £2m in cuts to balance the budget.
Critics say the principal landowners are not signed up and many of the benefits of such a large scale project, such as transport links and a school, have "disappeared".
MBC management prefer the option which  caps spending at £1.5m "in what are challenging financial times but allows for an attractive return upon this investment over the longer term, which should be reinvested in the new community itself in alignment with the council’s strategic objectives.
"The Council would have a seat at the negotiating table, both officer and member, in terms of delivery phase strategic / steering board or similar, and also carve out a key role in terms of the long term governance and stewardship of the new community once established.
Conservative borough councillor Jonathan Purle said: "I have beeen questioning the council's competence here from day one. Since MBC started this grandiose scheme, the high speed rail link, the motorway junction and the secondary school have all disappeared from the plans. Now we see they're being squeezed out by Homes England.
"There is a serious danger that all this will eventually deliver another unloved housing estate, where nobody wants it and little to compensate us infrastructure-wise, other than a new bus stop."
Camapign group Save Our Heath Lands (SOHL) issued a statement which reads: "The sudden about-turn to try and hand this project over to the Government’s housing quango, Homes England, demonstrates the complete mismanagement by MBC in a project of this complexity. 
"SOHL remains deeply concerned that Homes England have not been fully appraised of the full constraints of the site, including the transport limitations, the lack of healthcare and education provision, the minerals safeguarding, and the complicated landownership arrangements."
Eighteen landowners who asked their plots be removed from the council's 'master plan' six weeks ago have received no response, claims SOHL.
The statement adds: "MBC appear to be procrastinating and using underhand delay tactics whilst playing roulette with residents’ homes and livelihoods. At the same time, there is still no further evidential progress with the large landowners and negotiations do not appear to have moved forward any further than this time last year."
The campaigners called for the project to be "put out of its misery" after spening hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax-payers' cash on "this misadventure". 
MBC was approached for a comment.