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Developers in Kent say the general election has stalled house building

By Chris Price

Get a group of developers in a room and ask them what they think about planning – the atmosphere soon turns sour.

“If you took the politics out of planning you would deliver more homes,” said Martin Hart, managing director of Folkestone-based house builder Pentland Homes.

“The shutters have come down on planning appeals,” added David Huggett, regional director of strategic land at FTSE 100 developer Persimmon Homes.

Greenbelt in the Gravesend area could be under threat
Greenbelt in the Gravesend area could be under threat

“It is difficult for us to be that positive because it is all quietening down as we come to the electioneering.”

The developers argue many planning applications for houses have screeched to a halt since the turn of the year because councillors and MPs have become concerned about public opinion ahead of local and general elections.

Housebuilders say it stops them making money, but is also to the detriment of the county. The Kent and Medway Economic Partnership – a body which has been given £80 million of government cash to invest in the county – aims to build 49,000 homes over the next six years. That target will be missed unless councils start approving more schemes, according to developers like Mr Hart.

Under the National Planning Policy Framework – a set of rules laid out by the government – councils are required to keep a buffer of 5% of their housing target readily available for development. However, few of Kent’s 13 planning authorities have a local plan in place, which sets out housing strategy.

Pentland Homes managing director Martin Hart
Pentland Homes managing director Martin Hart

Mr Hart said: “It took the government four years to realise that handing this power to local people doesn’t work.

“They are still relying on local governments to deliver these targets, but they are not enforced.”

Jason Towell, a partner at Tunbridge Wells law firm Cripps, and an expert in planning, said: “We are seeing a large degree of electioneering, with a lot of appeal decisions and housing schemes being refused contrary to a council’s policy.

“Coming up to a general election, a lot of schemes are being thrown out under the localism banner, which is defeating a lot of neighbourhood housing schemes, particularly on appeal.

“In the last six months, politicians have thought ‘there’s a general election’ and schemes are falling down.

“When I advise my clients I ask them when they want their appeal being heard because you wouldn’t want it now.”

Cripps partner Jason Towell
Cripps partner Jason Towell

Councillors deny politicians are allowing their concerns about re-election to creep into their decision-making.

Cllr Joe Howes, portfolio holder for housing at Canterbury City Council, who is standing for re-election on May 7, said: “Although people will object to different schemes, to my knowledge, I have never come across a scheme which was turned down because of public opposition.

“Although people will object to different schemes, to my knowledge, I have never come across a scheme which was turned down because of public opposition..." - Cllr Joe Howes

“In planning it can’t happen. Officers look at all the planning applications and make recommendations which are discussed by councillors in the planning committee.

“If they overturn something the application can be sent to appeal. That can be taken all the way to a tribunal.”

Cllr Martin Cox, who sits on the planning committee at Maidstone Borough Council, who is not up for election this year, said: “We can only work within planning law. Any planning committee should be non-political.

“I can safely say we don’t meet and discuss planning ourselves before the meeting. We visit the site, look at lobby information, consider legal reasons for objections and then vote.

“I can safely say we are not whipped.”

Even affordable housing can suffer politically, according to bosses at Maidstone-based developer Chartway Group. The company builds about 85% affordable housing.

Director Stuart Mitchell, pictured, said: “Once you get approval from the planning officer, you don’t know what the agenda is when you go to committee.

Chartway Group director Stuart Mitchell
Chartway Group director Stuart Mitchell

“We were gobsmacked at the lack of political support we got for affordable housing.

“On several occasions the housing association was seen as a money-hungry developer and I was staggered at that.

“You think political support would be there already because we were building a 100% affordable housing scheme.”

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