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CPRE begins legal action over Maidstone council's inclusion of Woodcut Farm in the Local Plan

By Alan Smith

It’s not over yet.

Opponents of commercial development at Woodcut Farm near Junction 8 of the M20 were disappointed when Maidstone’s council’s planning committee voted by seven votes to five to approve an application for a mixed, office, industrial and warehouse scheme from Roxhill Developments last Thursday.

The committee took the decision after the council’s legal officer Russell Fitzpatrick told them there was no need to take account of a pre-action warning letter from the Campaign To Protect Rural England advising the council that they were going to mount a legal challenge to the Local Plan.

The audience at Thursday's planning meeting

The audience at Thursday's planning meeting

Mr Fitzpatrick told councillors: “There is no current challenge to the Local Plan. It is a threat of an action and not a commitment to undertake proceedings.”

That may have been true on Thursday, but CPRE has since lodged papers with the council and the High Court to begin its legal action.

In doing so, it is taking the risk that it might have to pay considerable legal costs should it lose the challenge, but it is able to lodge the action under a procedure called the Aarhus Convention, which will limit its liability to £10,000.

The council on the other hand will have unlimited liability and could face a huge bill if it loses the challenge.

Council officers and members at the meeting

Council officers and members at the meeting

The campaign group is challenging the Woodcut Farm allocation in the Local Plan on three grounds: that the council had not properly assessed the need for commercial space, that it had not taken account of availability in neighbouring areas and that it failed to have proper regard to the effect on air quality.

In a letter to the council, CPRE's solicitor Richard Buxton described as "troubling" the council’s decision not to defer consideration of the application when it knew action was pending.

A spokesman for Maidstone Borough Council said: “We can confirm that we are in receipt of papers as served on behalf of Campaign to Protect Rural England, Kent Branch, in respect of Maidstone’s Local Plan.  Legal proceedings will be ongoing."

The council did not respond to questions about whether its legal officer, Mr Fitzpatrick, had given the right advice.

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