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LENHAM HEATH: MBC top brass face public anger over 5,000 homes scheme - details

Saturday 25th January 2020

MP HELEN Whately laid into the Liberal Democrat leadership and top executives of Maidstone Borough Council at a public meeting held last night over the authority's plans for 5,000 houses on Lenham Heath.

Mrs Whately, the member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, told 300 angry residents that she was cut out of the loop in the early stages of the scheme's development.

It would normally be a courtesy to keep all affected members of parliament informed.

Instead, the MP learnt about MBC's decision to become a self-styled "master developer" through the Downs Mail and other local media.

Mrs Whately was on stage at Lenham community centre with Lib Dem MBC leader Cllr Martin Cox, his deputy Cllr Fay Gooch and MBC director, William Cornall, who has now been appointed to oversee the Lenham project.

Mr Cornall spoke at length about the authority having to meet the housing targets set down by central government and why Lenham had become a focus.

But Mrs Whately said "The MP is usually involved in consultation, but the first time I saw this was in the local media - that's not the way the process should work."

She claimed it was "relatively easy to blame someone else", adding: "The council has choices it can make about where housing goes, about how it builds it, about arguing the case for infrastructure."

She later told Downs Mail she is 100% opposed to the development which "feels like it's gone on behind closed doors".

MBC leader Cllr Martin Cox and the top officers have been accused of secrecy in its attempts to secure land - using agents Barton Willmore - from the owners and using non-disclosure agreements to keep their silence.

The council plans 5,000 houses on the heath with a new motorway junction and high-speed railway stop included.

MBC's plans were revealed as part of the "call for sites" last year where landowners put forward areas they believe could be suitable for development, as part of a review of the 2017 Local Plan.

Mr Cornall said government was demanding the council increases its annual delivery from 883 to 1,236 and that "garden community" projects were identified by the council's executive as an effective means of hitting trargets and protecting land supply arrangements.

The meeting heard there are eight principal landowners but Mr Cornall admitted there are are no agreements yet in place to secure the land needed for the development.

Downs Mail understands there are actually more than 25 property owners within the footprint of the proposed site, which borders Charing Heath on the outer edge of Ashford Borough Council. These have relatively small but significant holdings and there may be up to 150 householders, too.

Landowners have been offered ten times the agricultural value of the land which is around one-tenth of the commercial value to a developer.

One landowner, John Arthur-Boyd, who has a 50% stake in a land holding of around 20 acres, told the meeting that he and the other owners were merely "custodians". He is opposed to selling his plot.

We have also learnt that up to six of the key landowners may also be unwilling to sell, raising the spectre once again of the land being taken through compulsory purchase (CP). MBC claims is CP not being considered but has not explicitly been excluded, either.

Another landowner told us that has no intention of selling up and invited MBC to try and use the CP route.

But Cllr Cox told the meeting that if deals could not have been secured, the council would have "backed off".

Over accusations of secrecy, Mr Cornall responded: "We needed to get a degree of comfort that landowners were willing to explore the proposal with us. We needed to respect their position.

"As soon as we got comfort that we were in a positive dialogue, the decision was communicated. I'm sorry it has not been possible to involve you all earlier."

Cllr Cox said: "Not everybody is behind this but we have very few options. When we look at the potential for garden communities, there are areas we cannot build on such as areas of outstanding natural beauty, or those on floodplains."

He added: "We didn't pick (Lenham Heath) and say 'That's where we are going to cause havoc'."

His deputy Cllr Gooch said she wished she could send the housing to areas where there is much more space, such as Norfolk, but Kent is attractive due to its proximity to the M25 and the Channel ports.

She said the government targets MBC has been set are "almost unachievable".

Lenham Heath resident Mark Street said that the local people are shareholders in the council's business and public money cannot be spent in this way.

Cllr John Perry, leader of the Conservative opposition, last month garnered cross-party support at MBC to lobby the housing minister to rethink the methodology of how housing targets are set.

Urging a government rethink, independent borough councillor Eddie Powell said: "There are good solid facts why this village - more like a town - should not be built on our doorsteps."

The meeting was organised by the campaign group, Save Our Heath Lands (SOHL), backed by independent lenham borough councillors Tom and Janetta Sams.