Published: 15:04, 25 November 2020
| Updated: 09:41, 26 November 2020
A developer is having to pay more than £20,000 after repeatedly blocking a path - despite numerous warnings from Kent County Council.
GSE Commercial Estates Ltd, which is behind the major Waterbrook Park development in Sevington, Ashford, was found in February last year to be obstructing public footpath AE350.
The fence surrounding the 147-acre site cut off both ends of the public right of way (PRoW), prompting a notice from the the KCC PRoW team.
This was ignored, so the authority sent workmen to remove enough of the fencing to reopen the path to walkers, cyclist and horse riders once more.
However, the company continued with its building programme, completely blocking the byway.
A legal notice was served on company chairman Darrell Healey in September 2019, seeking the removal of the buildings and restoration of the land under the Highways Act 1980.
Andrew Hutchinson, the east Kent area manager for KCC’s PRoW team, said: “Despite repeated warnings from the council, the company continued to proceed with construction of the buildings without lawful excuse and in flagrant disregard of the law.
“We were left with no choice but to seek a prosecution through the courts.”
Earlier this month, the group pleaded guilty at Folkestone Magistrates' Court and was ordered to pay a £1,600 fine and £20,000 costs, as well as being ordered to cooperate in getting the byway re-routed.
District Judge Justin Barron demanded the diversion be carried out in good time, otherwise KCC could apply for the matter to be settled with the ultimate sanction that he could make - an order for the warehouses to be demolished.
However according to the developer, this option was taken off the table immediately by the judge, and GSE had already said they'd pay the £20,000 costs before the trial even took place.
GSE Commercial Estates' Ashford development plans have already been marred recently, when plans for a warehouse rumoured to be earmarked for Amazon were deferred by Ashford Borough Council partly amid PRoW concerns.
Welcoming the legal intervention, KCC's Mr Hutchinson called it a vital off-road link for residents as it connects directly to a bridge over the M20, recently constructed as part of the Junction 10a works.
He said: "Developers need to take into account all Public Rights of Way which cross their sites.
"These are highlighted to them as part of the planning process and we are very happy to provide advice as to how they can best manage them, including lawfully diverting them.
“Where permanent diversions are required there is a legal process to be followed and we encourage early consultation with us to avoid situations like this occurring.
"The Public Right of Way need not prevent a development proceeding on time, but the developer has to engage with us.
“GSE have been aware of the byway for a number of years and we have discussed the need for a diversion, which the county council would support.
"They have had every opportunity to get this in place, but have shown a blatant disregard for the byway and have prevented the public from using it.”
A spokesman for GSE noted the issue had been raised in 2012 and discussed extensively with KCC before the Waterbrook plans were submitted.
Darrell Healey, chairman of GSE Group, said: “We believe we didn’t stop public access to the footpath after our team moved the route’s position by only a few metres in order to protect public safety during the construction of the new buildings.
“As the District Judge indicated this was an offence more of us jumping the gun rather than a deliberate disregard of planning laws.
"He rightly acknowledges we will be replacing a muddy track in a field with a new maintained footpath linking with the existing one at the nearby railway crossing. It’s currently a little used public footpath and it is a shame it has ended up in court.
“We had already acknowledged our error and agreed to pay KCC’s costs before entering court, and for being technically in the wrong we have apologised for any inconvenience it might have caused, and have accepted the judge’s ruling.
“At no time was there any danger of the buildings being demolished as the District Judge rejected an application by KCC to remove the buildings unless an agreement was reached, arguing it was not a proportionate response.
“This prosecution for obstructing a byway was sought by KCC while simultaneously negotiating a diversion which has now been fully agreed and endorsed by the local community – something which would have occurred irrespective of criminal proceedings being brought due to the proactive involvement of GSE in those negotiations.
“As far as we are concerned the matter has been resolved and we will continue to do everything we can to attract more jobs to Ashford.”