The controversial proposal for two news schools to be built on Popes Field, in Boxley, has been passed, despite receiving more than 600 letters of objection from the public.
Maidstone Borough Council's planning committee decided to go ahead and consider the proposals tonight, Thursday, despite advice from their monitoring officer that because of the controversial nature of the proposal and the timing - just before the local elections - that it should be withdrawn from the agenda.
The committee chairman, Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem), said that would set an unwelcome precedent for future applications and would require some definition of what constituted "controversial" so with a reminder to all members that they should consider only planning matters, he ruled the discussion should go ahead.
There was no enthusiasm for the proposal for a new primary school and a secondary school for children with special needs from any of the planning committee members, but many felt compelled to support the application because of Government policy that gave priority to the establishment of new schools.
The committee heard impassioned pleas from a local resident, from Boxley and Bearsted Parish Councils, and from local ward members Cllrs Bob Hinder, Wendy Hinder and Mike Cumming urging them to reject the scheme, but they spoke to no avail.
Committee member Cllr Denis Spooner (Con) did propose the application be refused, calling it "grossly inadequate and an insult to the people of Maidstone," but his proposal was not seconded.
Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) said: "We can play to the gallery and refuse this, but we could not uphold a refusal on appeal." He said there was the risk not only of an allocation of costs against the council, but also that an appeal inspector would not impose the hard-won conditions attached to the application that alleviated some of the worst aspects.
Cllr English said it would be impossible to challenge the application on the grounds that it wasn't needed, as some objectors had suggested, because KCC was the education authority and it had said there was a need, even though, he said: "I personally doubt that."
Cllr Harwood proposed acceptance of the proposals but with the condition requiring wider pavements be installed along Bearsted Road and outside Gidds Pond Cottages be removed, saying there was no need for them since no-one would walk to the school anyway.
His proposal was seconded by Cllr English, even though the KCC highways officer present said that without the highways improvements, which it considered necessary, it would have objected.
The application was approved by seven votes to five.
Following on from that, councillors had to consider a second application, for an amendment to the earlier planning permission granted for the Kent Medical Campus.
That permission had required as a condition the creation of a nature reserve on Popes Field, which will now be home to the new schools.
The application sought an amendment to substitute a different piece of land for the nature reserve. Again, the proposal was objected to by residents and by Boxley and Bearsted Parish Councils and by Cllrs Bob Hinder and Mike Cumming. They argued that although the new patch of land was of a similar size, it was already a wildlife sanctuary and not under threat of development because it was ancient woodland. So instead of ending up with 12 hectares of protected land, they would have only six hectares. Cllr English said that was not the issue since as a result of the schools decision, the community was now going to lose the first nature reserve anyway. He said: "The question is whether Maidstone is better off with a nature reserve or without one?"
The application was passed by nine votes to one, with two abstentions. Members instructed officers to investigate whether the landowner would agree to the site being brought into some form of public ownership to ensure that the new nature reserve wasn't also lost at some time in the future.