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Otterpool Park reports kept secret by Shepway District Council

By Matt Leclere

Council chiefs have refused to publish details ahead of a meeting behind closed doors about the proposed Otterpool Park garden town.

Solicitors for the council cite “commercial confidentiality” as the reason for keeping details of the report secret. It is being presented to Shepway District Council’s cabinet this evening.

Campaigners and this newspaper have challenged the council over its grounds for withholding the information.

Hundreds of residents have turned out in protest against the Otterpool Park proposals

Hundreds of residents have turned out in protest against the Otterpool Park proposals

The council posted an exemption notice stating the information could not be disclosed as it relates to financial or business affairs.

Councillors are due to vote on the officer’s recommendation to keep the discussion private at the cabinet meeting at 5pm.

The report contains details of the “significant level of activities undertaken by the council as joint landowner and promoter for Otterpool Park”.

Parts of the debate of which no details at all have been released include: a development agreement, land assembly, masterplanning and financial position.

The council did not provide a full explanation as to what is covered by these.

The government has backed Shepway council's Garden Town proposals around Folkestone Racecourse. Picture Gary Browne

The government has backed Shepway council's Garden Town proposals around Folkestone Racecourse. Picture: Gary Browne

But it did say updates would be given on the agreement signed between Shepway District Council and Cozumel Estates – the other landowners working on preparing the masterplan for the Otterpool development which was granted government backing last year.

Further updates are expected on the next in the series of public engagement events and “study tours” of other garden developments in Kent and Cambridge.

Council lawyers said the information is exempt if “the public interest in maintaining the information outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information” under the Local Government Act (LGA).

But it will be up to councillors to make the final decision on whether to exclude the press and public and discuss the item in a private session.

However, the council’s own exemption notice refers to rules under the Town & Country Planning General Regulations stating the information is not exempt if “it relates to proposed development for which the local planning authority may grant itself planning permission”.

A protest march was held in December over the Otterpool Park plans and other developments in the district

A protest march was held in December over the Otterpool Park plans and other developments in the district

SDC, as the local planning authority, is the body which will decide whether planning permission is granted for the development which could include up to 12,000 houses.

Opponents have criticised the council for a lack of transparency over the issue.

This newspaper has contested there is greater public interest to disclose at least some of the information with the more sensitive information redacted.

But the council has remained firm on its position and continued to refuse to publish the information ahead of the meeting.

Protester Ian Medgett challenged the council over Article 6 of the Human Rights Act outlining a “fairness to process” and the LGA disclosure.

He said: “Shepway District Council seems to have a problematic relationship with transparency. It is my contention that SDC are in breach of both and once again ask that the meeting go ahead in public.”

Fellow campaigner David Plumstead said: “Given the continuing intense widespread public demonstrations of concern at the council’s pursuit of the Otterpool Newtown development, I fail to see how the public interest is served by holding the meeting behind closed doors.”

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