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Calls for Large Burton homes inquiry thrown out by Ashford Borough Council

A council has refuted claims a controversial planning decision broke guidelines in any way.

Following the approval of the 725-home Conningbrook Park in Kennington last month, residents raised a number of concerns with how the Ashford Borough Council (ABC) meeting proceeded.

The land off Willesborough Road in Kennington where 725 homes will be built
The land off Willesborough Road in Kennington where 725 homes will be built

The high number of complaints emailed to CEO Tracey Kerly prompted a response from the council’s statutory monitoring officer and director of law and governance, Terry Mortimer, but stopped short of the inquiry residents were hoping for.

Chief among the grievances was that Cllr Bernard Heyes (Con) had requested Cllr Gerald White, of Canterbury Road, Kennington, as his substitute, but the Conservative party selected Tenterden resident Cllr Callum Knowles instead.

Residents claimed this was done deliberately to stop Cllr White opposing the Quinn Estates plan, which has been dubbed Large Burton and was narrowly passed by just one vote.

It will be built on land opposite the existing Little Burton estate off Willesborough Road and features a primary school, community centre and new home for Ashford Town Bowls Club alongside the homes.

Mr Mortimer stated the ABC constitution gives free rein to parties to choose substitutes instead of the absent member, and noted that such internal decisions are “not a matter for council officers to monitor”.

An overview of the Conningbrook Park site, showing which area has been fully approved and which has been allowed in principle
An overview of the Conningbrook Park site, showing which area has been fully approved and which has been allowed in principle

There was also an allegation the party whip was used to push the scheme through during the meeting on May 20.

But Mr Mortimer said there was no evidence of a party whip being used, nor of any councillor having a “closed mind” or having “predetermined” the proposal - key terminology from the council’s adopted ‘Good Practice Protocol’.

Of the party whip claim, he writes: “The concern has been raised only in terms of “questions being asked” in the local community.

“In other words it appears there is a suspicion but no evidence.”

Some angered residents also suggested it was unethical for cabinet members to be on the planning committee, particularly the leader of the council - Cllr Gerry Clarkson - and the portfolio holder for planning, Cllr Neil Shorter.

How the Large Burton development could look
How the Large Burton development could look

In his letter sent to residents, Mr Mortimer responds that there is no legal issue with this in Planning Advisory Service guidance, and that it’s advised only in council-led schemes should the leader and portfolio holder not vote.

He also notes a review of this guidance is being undertaken soon.

The last two points Mr Mortimer sought to clarify was the size and make-up of the committee, the political balance of which has gone unchanged despite a recent by-election win for the Ashford Independents.

Due to the coronavirus, he writes, key decision-making meetings have been pushed back.

A protest sign near the development site in Kennington
A protest sign near the development site in Kennington

Furthermore the changes wouldn’t have come into effect by now regardless of the delays.

In summary, Mr Mortimer writes: “I have carefully considered the procedural and constitutional concerns raised.

“For all the reasons set out above I am satisfied that there are no grounds to impugn the decision made at the planning committee meeting on May 20.

“For the sake of completeness, I should record that a number of representations expressed a concern that the views of local people were not taken into account in making a decision.

The site is just off Willesborough Road in Kennington
The site is just off Willesborough Road in Kennington

“It is trite to observe that it is the material planning considerations raised in representations which the council must – and must be seen to – take into account.

“I understand the reaction that residents feel that their concerns have been set aside.

“In terms of due process I am satisfied that members of the committee had before them all the relevant information to allow them to balance the material considerations and reach a decision.”

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