Published: 13:00, 23 June 2015
A furious row has broken out over proposals being put before Maidstone councillors tomorrow.
The policy and resources committee is being asked to approve a new Economic Development Strategy which includes allocating land for employment uses at Junction 8 of the M20.
The CPRE, the Joint Parishes Group, the Bearsted and Thurnham Society and indeed the borough council itself have only just finished opposing such a planning application at an appeal inquiry.
Susannah Richter, campaigns manager for the CPRE, said: “We are astounded.
“Maidstone councillors are being recommended to approve the principle of development at Junction 8 just weeks after spending hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting a planning appeal at the site and before the inspector’s decision is even known.”
A proposal from Gallagher Properties to build a large warehouse and business complex at Waterside Park had been opposed by CPRE Kent, 16 parish councils, Kent County Council, Natural England, Leeds Castle and the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Unit, because they feared it would harm the North Down AONB and the setting of Leeds Castle.
But an officer’s report to tomorrow’s meeting states: “The strategic case for a new employment site at Junction 8 has been established and its development is critical to ensuring that the principle aim of the strategy is achieved, the creation of 14,400 jobs by 2031.”
Richard Knox-Johnston, vice president of CPRE Kent, said: “Councillors are now being asked to ignore all the borough’s own arguments against development, as well as everyone else’s concerns, and promote development there. It is baffling!”
The council’s development manager’s report does not refer to the three-week planning inquiry held in May.
Former Mayor of Maidstone, John Horne, said: “The inquiry is still active and it hasn’t been concluded. Anything appertaining to it is in effect sub judice.
“This report quite simply pre-empts the decision that the inspector is going to make. It is wholly inappropriate and can only be called an abuse of discretion.
“For the authority to try to set itself above the government inspector. This is anarchy.
“The report to Wednesday’s meeting should exclude any mention of Junction 8.
“The report says it is because we need jobs, but there is so much more to consider. The whole of that was canvassed and set out in detail at the public inquiry; QCs spent days arguing about all those things.
“For instance, Leeds Castle is close by and nearly 500,000 people come there every year. Will they want to with an industrial site next to it?
“This is not the way a responsible local authority should be run.”
Bill Lash, the chief executive of Leeds Castle, said: “This report shows a total disregard for the concerns of a significant number of agencies, organisations, representative bodies and individuals.”
The Inspector’s decision on the Waterside Park site is expected by the end of July.
A Maidstone council spokesman said: “We consulted widely on the economic development strategy and commissioned fully independent market research to get a balanced view of opinion across the borough.
"Local jobs and skills are of prime importance to our residents. More than half of the residents surveyed supported an employment site at Junction 8.
“The council wants to create jobs for all residents of different backgrounds and skill levels without sacrificing the environmental qualities that make Maidstone a special place.
“A Qualitative Employment Site Assessment found there is a need for additional employment land within the borough. Junction 8 is the only location that could deliver the borough’s employment needs over the life of the strategy.
“The council’s Economic and Commercial Development and its Planning, Transport and Development overview and scrutiny committees both resolved to support development for employment at Junction 8 of the M20 subject to a planning policy to protect and enhance the environment.
“The Economic Development strategy does not identify specific sites for future employment growth across the Borough, that is the role of the Local Plan. The detail of a new planning policy, setting out the criteria in which development at Junction 8 will be acceptable, will be considered by Maidstone Borough Council’s Spatial Planning, Sustainability and Transport Committee in August 2015.”
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