A planned expansion of a gypsy and traveller site on the outskirts of Canterbury could now be subject to a costly appeal after it was rejected by councillors.
The owners of Brotherhood Wood, off the A2 at Dunkirk, want to increase its size from 29 pitches to 40 – making it one of the largest sites in England.
Their application was narrowly defeated by seven votes to five at a meeting of Swale Borough Council’s planning committee this week.
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But officers took the rare decision to call in the vote, fearing the refusal could leave the authority open to an expensive appeal process if it proved not to be based on “sound planning reasons”.
More evidence will now be provided to the committee next time it meets and another vote likely taken.
Monday’s meeting heard many objections to the application following claims supported by police and Swale Borough Council that the site is over-occupied and many of its residents are not travellers or gypsies, but migrant workers.
Council leader Andrew Bowles was among those who feared any such breaches would be harder to enforce if the site’s expansion was approved.
“It’s time that the residents of Dunkirk were listened to, and bluntly, it’s time the police were listened to," he said.
“It’s quite clear that they are totally opposed to this development going ahead. We really are being taken as mugs.”
Jeff Tutt, the chairman of Dunkirk Parish Council, described the site as “intentional, unauthorised development”.
“It’s actually ironic that before the decision notice was issued there were already 31 caravans on the site,” he added. “From that day the site has grown steadily.”
The applicants have vociferously denied allegations of any breaches and say the expansion fulfils the council’s requirements for gypsy and traveller sites, preventing illegal encampments elsewhere.
They also say a three-day survey was held at the site by the National Gypsy, Traveller and Roma Council last month - during which the head of each family was interviewed – and found that all of Brotherhood Wood’s occupants were gypsies or travellers.
"It's not a good way for elected officials to be behaving towards a community, especially not an ethnic minority community" - Phien O'reachtigain
Phien O’reachtigain, the council’s chairman, attended Monday night’s meeting.
He said: “They’re going to find themselves shelling out £50-60,000 for an appeal. Taxpayers' money is going to be wasted by councillors in regards to an application that can’t fail at appeal.
“They’re not dealing with the application at all, which was virtually a variation and change within the existing site.
“It’s not a good way for elected officials to be behaving towards a community, especially not an ethnic minority community.”
A Swale Borough Council spokesman said: “The decision to call in the application was made – as per the council’s constitution – to ensure the committee’s decision could be justified by national planning legislation, planning case law and local planning policy.
“If an application is rejected, the applicant can appeal. If the committee’s decision was not based on sound planning reasons the appeal is more likely to succeed and the council could incur unnecessary expense.
"The call-in system is designed to allow time to review the position and provide further evidence to the committee, such that a decision that is sound in planning terms is more likely to be arrived at."