Published: 00:01, 15 October 2018
Ambitious plans to transform 300 acres of protected countryside into a luxury holiday village have long-proved controversial.
Campaigners fear an area of outstanding natural beauty will be ruined if the land at Highland Court Farm, near Bridge, is built upon.
But as official plans were submitted this month, the developers behind the scheme, Quinn Estates, say that setting 175 high-end holiday homes around a community sports ‘hub’ could transform the way east Kent is viewed and bring the local economy £25 million a year.
The joint venture between Quinn and the Highland Investment Company, which owns the farm, aims to attract wealthy visitors to the county by creating an idyllic estate of second homes in the style of the Cotswolds’ Yoo Lakes and Silverlakes in Dorset.
To this end, the two have also partnered with Yoo, a design company with a portfolio of 150 hotels and resorts around the world in places as far-flung as Bali and Rio de Janeiro.
But Mark Quinn, Quinn Estates’ managing director and chairman, says his vision for Highland Court is to create a more “egalitarian” version of Yoo Lakes, where homes are typically worth in excess of £1m.
If the development is approved, serviced plots of land would retail for between £250,000 to £300,000, with buyers then stumping up about the same amount to build their holiday home to their own specifications.
The vision also includes a health club, gym and spa facilities and artisan food and drink outlets, as well as an extension to Canterbury Business Park and ‘innovation centre’ for start-up businesses.
Images show plans for a lake fringed by cottages and trees with platforms allowing residents to take in views of the wildlife or a dip in the water for a swim.
Under a contract with Quinn, Yoo will advise the company all the way through in areas such as home design, sales and management.
Mr Quinn says that: “What this creates is five-star level bedrooms, which Canterbury doesn’t really have.
“What you have got is seven million people a year driving past this location, up the A2 and M2, and what we want to do is capture that for the benefit of this area.
“We know that people want to be around here, but you can’t put accommodation near the city centre. It’s going to have to be somewhere which is an attractive location.”
To cultivate a “food-to-field” ethos, the masterplan includes space for a vineyard and the potential for a cidery run by Tenterden-based winemakers Chapel Down, as well as three restaurants, one of which would be a ‘fine dining’ option.
“It’s about us producing all the produce within the area and feeding people who have come to stay in Kent with Kentish Food,” Mr Quinn continued.
If given the go-ahead, the planned ‘sporting hub’ would also provide Canterbury Rugby Club and Canterbury City Football Club with state-of-the-art new homes, putting an end to almost two decades of nomadic existence for the latter, which currently plays in Faversham under a ground-sharing arrangement with the town’s football club.
Canterbury City FC chairman Tim Clark says the new facility, which would include two full-size pitches, a junior pitch, clubhouse and training area, would serve as a much-needed base not only for the club to train and host games, but to encourage more young people to take up sport.
“Next year will be exactly 20 years since we left Canterbury,” he said.
“There’s not a lot of football going on in primary school, when you really want to get kids interested in sport at a young age. So for us, to have this as a base, would mean that we could go out to schools every week.”
A proposed new partnership with Canterbury Christ Church University, under which 90 students would take up placements with the club each year as part of their degree, would mean “there wouldn’t be a primary or secondary school in the district which wouldn’t have a coach,” Mr Clark continued.
Meanwhile, Canterbury Rugby Club would get six new pitches and a clubhouse, which it says are vital for it to continue to grow and take on new players.
Mr Quinn said: “I live here, I work here. I’m not going to build a load of rubbish.
“I want people to know how great Canterbury is, and how beautiful the countryside is, and how great our clubs are.
What we want to do here is something exciting and this is the right location to do it. This benefits tens of thousands of people.”
Campaigners have questioned the tourism boost developers claim the scheme will bring to the city.
Patrixbourne resident Dave Howe, who is chairman of the Barham Downs Action Group, fears it could set a dangerous precedent for building on protected land where development is normally only permitted if classed as ‘national interest’.
“It is basically starting to nibble away at the edges of the AONB,” he said.
“None of it is in the national interest, so according to the national planning framework, it shouldn’t be going ahead. Planning law says it’s not a starter.
“I don’t think having this in Canterbury will make a huge amount of difference [to tourism]. People won’t come into Canterbury every day when they stay.
“You’re talking 175 houses. Even if they turned over every couple of weeks, it’s not going to be a significant increase.”
Among villagers’ concerns are that Highland Court Farm, which is criss-crossed with footpaths such as the North Downs Way, is home to wildlife including dormice, grey crested newts and badgers, who could lose their habitat should large-scale development go ahead.
Mr Howe also argues that the vast majority of the land - 56% - is classed as Grade 1 or 2 farmland which is vital for growing food.
There is also a fear that increased water run-off created by more housing could worsen flooding problems in nearby villages such as Bekesbourne, and that an influx of drivers will put pressure on narrow country roads.
“It’s not just a small parish saying they don’t want it, it’s the whole area saying they don’t want it,” he continued.
Former Lib Dem councillor Mike Sole, who lives in Kingston, says if the development is permitted there will be “no going back”.
“I can understand why the supporters of the rugby and football club are saying they want to go ahead with this, but that is a very small part of the total plan in terms of land use,” he continued.
“Surely if Quinn Estates, with all the other developments they have around the district, wanted to do a philanthropic gesture, they could find the money from one of those and put a rugby field and football field somewhere else, rather than in the middle of Bekesbourne?
“It’s just a ridiculous scheme. It’s not in the local plan, and the local plan is there to give us as residents certainty over development.
“This development is a good example of sub-urbanisation and were it to be come a reality the integrity of our local villages would be lost..." -Penny Morgan, The Campaign to Protect Rural England
Mr Sole also argues that Lower Mills, one of the Cotswold estates which Highland Court seeks to emulate, was formerly the site of an industrial quarry rather than protected countryside.
“It was a quarry that was disused and it was a blight on the landscape,” he said.
“It didn’t destroy anything to put houses there, it enhanced the area. It was in a beautiful part of the countryside and took what was a scar on the landscape and made it into something nice. You can’t really compare the two.
“I have not heard a single person apart from those associated with Quinn Estates saying they like the whole
The Campaign to Protect Rural England also vociferously opposes the plans.
Member Penny Morgan said: “This is hardly helping the local community or local housing need.
“This development is a good example of sub-urbanisation and were it to be come a reality the integrity of our local villages would be lost.
"Bridge would just be part of the Canterbury conurbation with no character and identity of its own.
“The developer has cunningly used the lure of a brand-new sports facility to attract support of the local community.
"The fact is that the housing development would come first to help finance the sports facility: football and rugby pitches and clubhouses would be a distant reality. This proposal is simply not sustainable.”
More by this authorAnna MacSwan