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Frustration as 10-year fight to convert old Hollingbourne telephone exchange continues

Proposals to convert a derelict telephone exchange have been rejected for a fourth time in a planning saga that has lasted 10 years.

Retired eye surgeon Intisar Al-Shawi, who bought the dilapidated building off Ashford Road in Hollingbourne, near Maidstone in 2011, says she feels like she has “lost £40,000 in the wind” trying to get it back into use.

The former telephone exchange in Hollingbourne
The former telephone exchange in Hollingbourne
Retired eye surgeon Intisar Al-Shawi
Retired eye surgeon Intisar Al-Shawi

She vowed to appeal against the latest council refusal, taking it to the government’s Planning Inspectorate.

Last Thursday (October 19) Maidstone council’s planning committee met to decide on whether she would be allowed to convert the small building into an office and add an extension.

Council officers recommended members approve the bid, arguing it would “bring a heritage asset back into beneficial use and will preserve its long-term future.”

However, councillors weren’t as enthused about the plans.

Cllr Patrik Garten (Con), who represents Hollingbourne on the council, said: “It is not even slightly bigger than a garden shed.

Cllr Patrik Garten
Cllr Patrik Garten

“It is in the middle of nowhere there is no reason for this building to be used as an office, it is not proposed to be a forestry or farm office,” he added.

“I remain very surprised by the officer recommendation for approval,” said Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem).

He noted how the building is “on the other side of the road from one of the most significant historic buildings in the country,” referring to nearby Leeds Castle.

“For the very tiny gain for the economy there’s an awful lot of harm to the landscape,” he added, describing the building as no more than “a brick shed.”

Cllr Stuart Jeffery (Green) told the committee he couldn’t see a need for it, adding: “I don’t like the fact it’s in the middle of a field, it just feels fundamentally wrong.”

Cllr Stuart Jeffery
Cllr Stuart Jeffery

Echoing similar sentiments, Cllr Claudine Russell (Con) said: “It’ll be urbanisation in an area where there isn’t anything.

“I agree that you could squeeze a tiny office in there, but should we? What is the point in that?”

Not all members were opposed to the scheme though, with Cllr Fay Gooch (ind.) saying: “If I was a writer I would love a tiny little room for myself in beautiful surroundings.

“What else would we use this building for, are we going to let it just fall apart?”

Cllr Denis Spooner (Con), chairman of the committee, said: “It’s a redundant potential eyesore in the countryside, it would be nice to have some official use made of it.

The location of the old exchange
The location of the old exchange

“We might not particularly want it there, but it is there and could we think of any adequate reason for refusal? I don’t think we can.”

However, the committee voted to reject the application with seven votes against two and no abstentions.

Speaking after the meeting, Dr Al-Shawi said she was left “very upset, very angry,” at the latest rejection.

The 78-year-old purchased the disused building off Ashford Road for £25,000 at a Clive Emson auction in 2011.

Since then she has spent over £12,000 on planning matters looking for permission to convert it, originally looking to turn it into a small home for her son.

The building has been derelict for more than a decade
The building has been derelict for more than a decade

“I thought it so straightforward – make this little building into a home for him in the countryside, and it’s become a disaster. Since then failure after failure after failure.”

She has applied for planning permission four times - the first two times to convert into a home - one of which was appealed and dismissed by the Planning Inspectorate - and the most recent two for an office.

“I asked ‘why didn't you tell me before I wasted my time and money?’” she added.

She reapplied for permission to make it an office after being told that, due to planning rules, it couldn’t be converted straight into a home.

“I thought I would rent it out for a while [as an office] then apply to change it into a home.

The building is largely hidden
The building is largely hidden

“That’s all I want at the end of the day, I want it to be a home for my son.

“I don’t know what they want from me, I think they don’t even know themselves what they want.”

In the 12 years she has owned the building, she has even found a squatter living there.

Dr Al-Shawi added that she attempted to sell the structure on, but there were no takers.

She said: “I can’t sell it because nobody wants to buy it. Who’s going to buy land you can't do anything with? Nobody.”

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