Published: 06:00, 02 June 2020
| Updated: 11:47, 02 June 2020
A new future beckons for the County Town - but it's one being driven by sell-offs.
In the next few years Maidstone will lose the historic HQ bases for the police, Kent County Council and it will no longer be a garrison town when 36 Engineer Regiment vacate Invicta Park Barracks - so can it really still claim the title?
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Last month, Kent Police announced its sale of the Sutton Road site was to save on the £2.5m yearly running costs.
Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant is now pressing senior officials at KCC and Kent Police to mitigate any job losses.
A business forecaster fears the force's move could have a detrimental effect on attracting young people to staff technology-related roles and says the feel of the High Street could change with less workers spending in town.
And three years since the Ministry of Defence announced the barracks sale, Mrs Grant still hasn't been told where our troops will move to.
A decision by Kent Police to sell their Maidstone-based HQ has left politicians asking what is next for the County Town.
The site, which costs about £2.5m a year to run, is no longer providing value for money and the force’s decision comes three months after Kent County Council (KCC) said it was considering quitting its historic headquarters, Sessions House.
The council plans to move into a new £50 million headquarters alongside the borough council on land opposite their current building.
KCC insists it wants to find replacement premises in the town.
The force’s move will sever a 163-year association of the town providing the base for a county police force. KCC has been at Sessions House since 1888.
There will be a further exodus in seven years time, when Invicta Park Barracks, home to the 36 Engineer Regiment of the Royal Engineers since 1959, will close.
There are currently 650 serving personnel and their various families living in the barracks or the town.
The moves mean Maidstone is set to change with the loss of headquarters for large public sector organisations and will no longer be a garrison town, when the military leave.
Kent Police has been unable to provide the exact number of people who work at HQ but it is understood to be in the hundreds.
The chief officer team will move in September to Northfleet but a question mark remains over where, within the force’s estate, the remaining departments will be placed and when.
The relocation project is at a very early stage and it is understood the force aims to retain all its workforce and will look to avoid any compulsory redundancies.
Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and the Weald, said her immediate priority was to safeguard as many public sector jobs as possible.
She said: “I have already been in touch with the Leader of Kent County Council and Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner to ask them to mitigate any job losses in Maidstone.
“I am pleased that Kent Police have confirmed they will be preserving a substantial police presence in our town at Palace Avenue and KCC has committed to keeping many of the jobscurrently at County Hall in the area.”
A lead campaigner against the closure of the barracks, Mrs Grant is still hopeful the Ministry of Defence will backtrack.
Richard Scase, Emeritus professor at the University of Kent and business forecaster said the HQ move would have a “big impact” on opportunities for young people in the town.
He said: “It has a big impact on social mobility of young people. Kent Police need ‘tech’ staff and a lot of administrative staff, people that are ‘non grads’. They have no means of transport, they can’t move out with their employers. They can’t get jobs with their employers unless Kent Police are going to pick a place where there will be publicly provided and accessible transport. These organisations depend on non-grads.”
He also said an issue for the organisations is whether land values fall after the pandemic.
Professor Scase added: “If the moves do take place, the properties could be vacant and derelict for years, creating a totally ‘run down’ depressing feel about Maidstone.”
Professor Scase explained that by moving out, organisations such as Kent Police are “contributing to the end of the heart and soul of the high street.”
“I suspect when people come in to work in Maidstone they will do shopping at lunch time or after work. It does have an effect on the hospitality and sector and retailers, whether big or small.”
“What’s going to happen to the facilities when they are vacated? Are they going to be knocked down into deveopments?”
He said talk of such a move could prompt “anxiety” among the workforce and the current coronavirus pandemic also raises questions about whether people in the future will be told to work from home instead.
The councillor for the ward where Kent Police HQ sits says he hopes the vacated land will be used for a health centre hub or community infrastructure rather than a “block of housing”.
There are two applications lodged for up to 202 homes to be built on land behind the headquarters and nearby training college.
Both pieces are earmarked for development in the Local Plan.
Cllr Matt Burton, for Park Wood, said: “The south side of Maidstone has had quite a lot of new housing, with Langley Park, and in exchange for that we got a primary school and a few shops.
“A developer coming forward with money will be enticing to the force, but some consideration must be given to what residents require.”
He has written to Maidstone council’s chief executive Alison Broom to make this case.
Cllr Martin Cox, leader of Maidstone council said: “Many organisations are re-evaluating what they need to have and where they need to be. These are big offices and are hard to maintain and keep. The police training centre will stay but things will be deployed around Kent.
“It’s a shame, but they have not said they are leaving the town, what things remain is down to them and their operational procedures.
“As different organisations buy and sell properties they have different needs and we must listen to those. KCC made an announcement that they are considering what level of occupancy in the town is needed.”
The council has offered more office space at its Maidstone House base.This would be for policing teams in the County Town and is not connected to the HQ sale.
Kent Police Federation Chairman Neil Mennie said he had not been told where officers currently based at HQ would be placed but the federation would be consulted as the relocation project moved forward.
He added: “No one is going to leave all of a sudden. I would imagine this will be a gradual process and there are a number of people involved. I don’t yet know where the force are going to put them. We will be consulted.”
Maidstone’s urban landscape has drastically altered as office space has been converted into homes, leading to fears the town could “become a dormitory”.
Since 2014, when the Government allowed offices to be converted to homes without planning consent, almost 60,000 sq metres of office space has been lost as a result.
The extent of the rush to convert was not anticipated, with 297 homes built last year, including at the former Springfield paper mill, and Maidstone Council chief planning officer Rob Jarman saying the town still needed a strong business sector.
In September, the council took back more control by ensuring planning applications will be made for 14 key office blocks.
Town's rich military history to end
When Maidstone’s Invicta Park Barracks closes, it will bring to an end more than 200 years of history.
The Military of Defence (MOD) plans on shutting the site in 2027 and it is earmarked for 1,300 homes.
Like the police, it too is trying to save money on its estate costs.
The 41-hectare site has been the home of the 36 Engineer Regiment of the Royal Engineers since 1959 and was built in its current form in the mid 60s.
Since then MP Helen Grant has been trying to find out where the 36 Engineer Regiment will relocate to and fears the effect on the town when troops and their families move out.
Invicta Park is also home to the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, with a 1,200-strong Nepalese community in the town as a result.
The Army has been based in the town since 1798, when troops were stationed there as part of Britain’s response to the threat of the French Revolution.
The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment’s Officer’s Mess was based at Sandling Road’s White Rabbit pub, now a steak restaurant.
In 2011 the Queen visited the barracks and in 2008 the regiment was deployed to Afghanistan.
This year 36 Engineer Regiment was involved in building the temporary Nightingale Hospital in London to treat coronavirus patients.
The MOD said the regiment’s future location is still subject to assessment.
KMTV reports on the latest blow for Maidstone
More by this authorKatie Heslop