Published: 06:00, 20 June 2020
Ten years after hundreds of protesters set down their banners, having defeated one of the most controversial developments in the borough’s history, a new developer is looking to move in on the prized piece of countryside.
Clearbell Property Partners has just paid £5million for a 33-acre section of land previously set aside for the Kent International Gateway (KIG) development just off junction 8 of the M20 near Maidstone.
It saw potential in the fact the greenfield site at Woodcut Farm already has outline consent for a 489,000 sq ft business park secured by previous owners Roxhill.
It’s understood the new owners want to seek permission to bring the outline application forward meaning development in the countryside, which people fought so hard against, is no longer off the table.
The area of countryside between junction 8 and Bearsted has been the subject of battles since 2007 when KIG plans surfaced.
These featured a depot that could have created up to 3,000 jobs, huge warehouses and a rail-freight interchange across more than 250 acres near Bearsted.
This caused public backlash with campaign group StopKIG immediately set up. It was supported by more than 9,000 people and multiple groups - including Campaign to Protect Rural England, Kent County Council (KCC), and the 14-parish strong Joint Parishes Group.
The Kent Messenger supported worried residents with a ‘Say No to KIG’ campaign and protesters carrying banners made several marches through the countryside to fight the scheme on every ground.
KCC’s leader at the time Cllr Paul Carter (Con) even branded KIG the “demon of the south”.
Later that year in October, an official planning application was submitted.
The then Highways Agency demanded more information on the effect on Kent’s roads.
KIG was turned down by Maidstone council in May 2009.
Officers lined up to condemn the proposals on every possible ground, ranging from the effects on traffic, pollution, destruction of the countryside, damage to wildlife, and loss of archaeological heritage to the damage to the council’s own plans and ambitions for the future development of the town.
Two months later, KIG submitted new documents to Maidstone council, altering the number and size of warehouses proposed for the site and a new report into its environmental impact.
This prompted a public enquiry and the plans were called in to the secretary of state in October 2009.
After months of uncertainty, in August 2010, the inspectors reports confirmed KIG’s appeal had been rejected in the public inquiry which cost Kent’s authorities more than £3 million.
Villagers came out in their hundreds to celebrate the end of their fight to save their countryside on Bearsted’s Green with a truly English party.
MP Helen Grant who walked alongside many of these protestors says this defeat was made possible by their passion and determination.
The MP for Maidstone and The Weald said: “The campaign to oppose the Kent International Gateway development was one of the first I was involved with as a parliamentary candidate and then as the newly elected MP for Maidstone and The Weald and I remember it very fondly.
“The successful campaign demonstrated the power that people and communities can have if they come together to make change and I pay tribute, 10 years on, to all of the amazing community champions who led the campaign. They were a true inspiration to me.
“The KIG development proposals were so clearly inappropriate and would have had an enormously damaging impact on the Maidstone area; so it was vitally important that the community came together to successfully oppose them and we owe everyone involved a debt of gratitude for their work in ensuring our town was protected.”
Many of those celebrating the win were from the Bearsted and Thurnham society who campaigned tirelessly to prevent their villages being overlooked.
Looking back on the win a society said: “The whole community cheered when Inspector Phillipson’s findings were supported by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, and the planning appeal dismissed.
“If built this development would have devastated a huge swathe of mainly open countryside between Junction 8 at Hollingbourne and Bearsted to the west and blighted a large number of homes.”
But despite winning the battle, history repeated itself in 2013 when a similar development was proposed for land nearby at Waterside Park.
On the opposite side of the A20, developers Gallagher Group sought outline planning permission to create an industrial estate with 56,000 sq metres of offices, light and general industrial, storage and distribution buildings, plus a cafe and creche.
These plans, nicknamed ‘the-son-of-KIG’, were rejected in March 2014.
And if that wasn’t enough, soon after Roxhill proposed the 489,000 sq ft business park on some of the same land earmarked for KIG on Woodcut Farm.
The difference this time around was the application from Roxhill proposed less floor-space, lower roof heights and a greater overall proportion of office space than the first application.
Outline consent was approved in December 2017 and by then the site had become part of the adopted Local Plan, a document setting out housing target and employment development.
The plans which came in the wake of KIG still caused a great deal of controversy and once again the people of Maidstone united to object the proposals.
When an office and warehouse scheme, called Waterside Park, was on the table, Helen Whately, MP for mid Kent, said it would ‘ruin the countryside and the setting of Leeds Castle.”
In 2014 plans were rejected by Maidstone council and in summer 2015, Waterside Park was defeated after being considered at a planning inquiry. Gallagher Group was behind the scheme.
By summer 2016 Roxhill’s plans for a commercial complex were on the table and were rejected by Maidstone councillors.
But by early 2017 a planning inspector had endorsed the site being included as suitable for employment in the Local Plan, so when Roxhill submitted revised plans, it led to outline planning permission being granted.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) mounted a legal challenge to this, in a bid to protect the countryside, but it failed.
Detailed planning consent is still needed before anything can be built. Roxhill has sold the field to Clearbell, who said it would look to bring forward plans.
Mrs Whately said she would continue to give a voice to people's concerns, which 'had not gone away.'
A Bearsted and Thurnham Society spokesman added: “While outline planning permission has been granted for commercial development at Junction 8 since KIG, albeit on a tiny proportion of the land proposed by the KIG developers and despite widespread local objection, the society will be keeping a very close eye on the situation.
"This will be to ensure another such horror does not promote development to creep any further westwards”.
More by this authorLiane Castle
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