Published: 10:20, 19 March 2020
| Updated: 15:37, 19 March 2020
A controversial council meeting, which many had petitioned to be cancelled, had to be abandoned after a live-stream failed.
Ashford Borough Council held a public Planning Committee meeting last night despite governmental advice to halt non-essential travel due to coronavirus.
The main item on the agenda was the Conningbrook Park application, which would see 725 homes, a community hub, primary school and bowling club built on agricultural land in Kennington.
Since its submission last January, more than 1,100 comments had been made by residents regarding the scheme which is also called Large Burton.
Despite a promise by the authority to live-stream the event - intending to reduce the number of attendees and risk of infection - ward representative Cllr Nathan Iliffe had called the meeting "an attack on public safety and democracy."
As the session begun at 7pm yesterday, already there was a marked departure from normality due to the coronavirus.
Five committee members didn't attend, and only three had been substituted. One of the absentees, Labour councillor Diccon Spain, remained at home after having symptoms of a cold.
Furthermore, a number of the public speakers had chosen not to attend and their speeches were read out by Ashford Borough Council press officer Jeff Sims.
Ashford Labour leader Cllr Brendan Chilton began the meeting by starting a motion to postpone the debate.
He noted that until yesterday he had been happy for the meeting to go ahead until further government announcements this week made him question the decision to continue.
Cllr Chilton said: "Without being ageist, there are people in this room and the screening room downstairs in the 'very severely at risk' category.
"Bearing in mind all schools - bar children of emergency workers - are shutting on Friday, there are a number of concerns."
He used the word "stupid" in a passionate speech to oppose the continuation of the meeting, and motioned a postponement.
Committee chairman Cllr Michael Burgess opined: "As far as I know, no one is being forced to come to this meeting."
Ashford Independent Cllr Noel Ovenden then supported Cllr Chilton's motion and noted that many councillors felt they had to be there due to the size of the Conningbrook Park scheme and the widespread public interest in it.
Cllr Charles Suddards then seconded the motion to postpone the meeting.
Council leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson said he "very much respected" these comments, but highlighted efforts to continue with council work.
He also stated that "planning is one of the biggest impact things in the borough", hence why the meeting had gone ahead with a series of public health measures in place. He concluded by calling the decision to go ahead "a sound and safe judgement."
"I think it was a sound and safe judgement..."
Cllr Neil Shorter told the chamber other authorities had been canvassed and that they are continuing to hold meetings.
He also thanked ABC employees for their work in creating and implementing this mitigation.
A vote on Cllr Chilton's motion to postpone the meeting was held, with four supporting and eight against - meaning the committee's session would continue.
Unfortunately this decision had no bearing on the live-stream, which became inaudible during the opening public representations due to a loud feedback sound.
The live-stream went dead shortly afterwards, and the video was unavailable on the council's YouTube page.
It transpired that Cllr Clarkson had subsequently called for the meeting to be cancelled and held at a later date - a motion that passed.
It is not known when the development will next be debated.
This morning, Cllr Chilton tweeted: "Last night, @AshfordCouncil held a public meeting with 35-40 people present despite #CoronavirusUK risk. Lots of attendees in “high risk” category.
"Irresponsible. I tried to adjourn meeting to July but was defeated on vote. They plan to do the same next week. #insane #disgrace"
A meeting is being held next week regarding the multi-million pound plan for a film and TV studio at the Newtown Works.
More by this authorCharlie Harman