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Put eight of Kent’s top commercial property figures in one room and it is not long before they try to put the world to rights – starting with how the public need to change their attitude towards development.
Sitting in their sharp suits and occasionally checking their smartphones, there are no illusions among Kent’s development community about how they are perceived by the public.
“Developers are inherently evil,” jokes Caroline Binns, associate director of Liberty Property Trust, the company which has invested more than £500m in creating and expanding Kings Hill, near West Malling, over the last 25 years.
“That is what the population feels but if you can show them what you are doing is quality and can leave a legacy, then it’s OK.”
The remark prompts a hearty but slightly nervous bout of laughter from the figures gathered at this roundtable discussion of the county’s commercial property market, exclusively for Kent Business.
Each has come with plenty of ammunition to tackle the problems they think are affecting their industry, which ultimately will fund Kent’s housing targets, as well as building the business communities of the future.
This has been brought into greater public focus following the Chancellor's high-profile announcement of plans to invest £200m on building 15,000 houses in a new garden city at Ebbsfleet, near Gravesend.
The government is now looking to appoint an urban development corporation to push the plans forward and bypass often lengthy local council planning processes.
Among the developers assembled, local planning authorities come in for a bit of stick but public perception is also a major gripe.
“Not all the fault lies with politicians. We have got to look at the general public putting pressure on them..." - Quinn Estates director Mark Quinn
“We have got people being swayed by views at a local level,” said Quinn Estates director Mark Quinn, whose company is behind several residential and commercial developments in east Kent, including the Kingsbridge apartments in Canterbury High Street and Foundry Business Park in Faversham.
“Local authorities are processing the decision but those decisions are not based on facts – they are based on emotion and how someone is perceived. We need to take that out of the equation.
“Not all the fault lies with politicians. We have got to look at the general public putting pressure on them.
“People cannot have the attitude that they will be all right but their children will suffer. People have to look into the future.
“If they wanted to buy a house 20 years ago they shouldn’t object to people building houses that their children can live in.
“Politicians only represent the views of people who vote them in. If people want their kids to benefit from economic prosperity, they have to take a more practical and pragmatic view to development.”
Caroline Binns added: “Not all development and developers are bad. Not all development is bad development. Quality provides value.
“We are controlled by the planning authority. There is a balance between getting value and visual quality.
“We have invested more than £500m in Kings Hill. Why would we do something that would impact on the quality?”
Of course, concern from the public is often justified.
One contentious project up for planning at present is an £85m retail development by Land Securities at Newnham Court, near Maidstone, where there are concerns about traffic levels and its impact on the town centre.
DHA Planning has just been given permission to build a medical campus next door.
Managing director David Hicken said: “The big question at planning meetings is often ‘will this development later be watered down and not do what it says on the tin?’
“But if you fulfil your promises, your street cred goes up enormously.”
Quinn Estates are themselves poised to submit a planning application for their own multi-million pound development on the former Herne Bay golf club.
It puts forward plans for 500 homes, a sports hub and retail units but has already suffered problems after originally including a major Tesco, which was scrapped when the two sides could not agree terms.
Mr Quinn claims his openness with the local community about the situation means the overall plans will still be received with good faith.
He added: “If you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, you only get to do it once.
“There is a real commitment from developers on the whole to make something to be proud of. We are aware of our responsibilities.”
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