Published: 12:19, 18 June 2020
| Updated: 13:40, 18 June 2020
A 16-storey apartment complex dubbed the 'Ashford Shard' has been put on hold over design fears.
Councillors discussed the bold proposal at a virtual planning committee meeting last night, eventually deferring the scheme so the developer can investigate a list of concerns.
These worries chiefly dealt with design, lack of affordable property and insufficient environmental considerations.
The 223-home development - earmarked for construction on the former HomePlus Furniture site in Beaver Road - would see nine townhouses and two apartment blocks built as well as a rooftop restaurant, three commercial units and offices.
None of the units would be classed as affordable housing, with a contribution being sought for the off-site council purchase of such social housing.
The plan is being led by the council's own property company, A Better Choice for Property Ltd, which bought the site from the Southern Housing Group and would have featured one of the town's tallest buildings if approved.
However, it wasn't the height of the 16-storey tower block that worried councillors but the "missed opportunity" to create a landmark structure for visitors arriving from the nearby Ashford International.
Labour's Cllr Diccon Spain, who represents the Bockhanger ward, said: "We have some not very outstanding architecture in terms of previous decades' tall buildings and now we have a building that'll be right next to the station, it's the first thing people will see coming off the train and what we have - and I'm not going to hold back my words on the design - is an ugly building, really an ugly building.
"I'm afraid to say you can put any kind of cladding on a pig and it's still a pig.
"The people of Ashford deserve better than a building that has almost zero architectural merit, it's just completely a missed opportunity."
These words were echoed by Conservative councillor Bernard Heyes, who represents the Repton ward.
"I can't see hardly any architectural merit in these basically hideous flats whatsoever," he said.
"The 16-storey tower block is positively grotesque, I think it's awful.
"If you're going to have a high building, which I don't really think's appropriate at that height in that area, you could have something better."
He also questioned the need for more one-bedroom apartments in the town centre, which would comprise 66 of the new dwellings.
Cllr Heyes seconded a motion to refuse the proposal outright tabled by Ashford Labour leader Cllr Brendan Chilton, who was "very disappointed" to see the design of what he said would be "a showpiece of Ashford".
The council officer responded that a "rigorous design process" had been undertaken by the contracted architects, having looked into the town's heritage and architecture to inform their design.
Cllr Liz Wright (Green) praised the environmental considerations of the scheme but agreed with the area's community forum in saying sustainability of the wider plan could be improved, with the proposal meeting regulations but going no further - a concern supported by committee members speaking later.
She also highlighted the lack of affordable housing, a point returned to later by Cllr Euan Anckorn (Lab).
He raised an ABC assessment that suggested all future housing projects in the borough should feature 50% affordable housing, to which Cllr Anckorn said: "It's perhaps unsurprising that this won't be delivered when even the council-backed developer here isn't bringing forward any affordable homes or housing of any kind in the application.
"There's great demand for affordable housing from young people such as myself in Ashford that is not being met all too often.
"The developer may be independent from the council but it is using taxpayers' money, it's taxpayers' money that is at risk and I think that the public do have a right to question whether it's best being used in a scheme that isn't going to deliver the kind of affordable housing Ashford needs."
Former portfolio holder for planning Cllr Paul Clokie (Con) questioned having 200 car park spaces for 223 properties, the design, and expressed how he'd prefer to see some of the blocks reduced by "two storeys, possibly three".
Calling for a design amendment, Cllr Clokie proposed a motion to defer the scheme for investigation into such a change.
Conservative Cllr Matthew Forest seconded this deferral motion.
However not all members felt the need to postpone or reject the plans, with portfolio holder for planning Cllr Neil Shorter (Con) motioning to approve the scheme.
He said: "I just want to make sure members do judge this on planning grounds not on other views and opinions.
"I wasn't at the design panel, I've not listened to the panel, but I have sat in on panels for other projects and I'm very pleased with how they take a project apart and then put it back together giving views and ideas on how the design can be tweaked and improved.
"I am not a design expert and in fact I avoid making comments on that but I would like members to note that the design panel did sit and give advice to this design and that was done at an early stage so the design could be modified."
Cllr Shorter found comfort in the officer's assertions that the number of parking spaces should be adequate due to the proximity of the station.
He added: "Many of the points put forward, I fear, are not pure planning issues.
"A lot of them are based on prejudice, views and opinions but not necessarily on planning grounds.
"We have to be careful we don't turn a development down based on likes and dislikes - we have to come up with a real reasons why this is going to be declined if that's where we end up.
"I would advocate that - if that's the route we determine tonight - that those who are opposing this development make sure that whatever they put forward as reasons for refusal are sound planning matters."
He then proposed a motion to approve the scheme in its current form.
Cllr Shorter's suggestion that design wasn't related to solid planning considerations was promptly called up by Cllr Spain, who listed council policies requiring good and unique design.
To that response, the Conservative assured members that he wasn't referring specifically to members' views.
Questions over design continued when Cllrs Linda Harman (Ash Ind) and Cllr Barrett (Con) spoke.
Cllr Shorter's motion to approve wasn't seconded, leaving the committee with motions to refuse or defer.
The latter won out, with 11 councillors supporting the motion, four abstaining and one against.
Earlier this month, permission was obtained to knock down the ex-HomePlus site and former car wash next door, which is now surrounded by temporary fencing.
When permission to bulldoze the shop was gained, the 'Ashford Shard' scheme had not yet been discussed by the planning committee, but bosses said they want to demolish the shop so the site “can be safely cleared and made ready for redevelopment ahead of a decision being taken”.
Signs have been put up around the spot warning people not to enter as ‘demolition work is in progress’.