Published: 21:13, 18 September 2019
| Updated: 21:16, 18 September 2019
Maidstone council plans to create a ‘garden community’ of 5,000 homes, but a key discussion has still not revealed where they could be built.
The policy and resources committee debated the proposals at a meeting tonight.
But the location for any development, widely thought to be Lenham Heath due to a ‘leak’ of information, was kept confidential alongside the council’s business case for the scheme.
The authority says including these details could compromise the council’s financial position and this outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information.
This latest bid for secrecy comes nearly four months after the council began holding meetings behind closed doors.
In May a Call for Sites discussion, where the council assess new land for the building of thousands of new homes as part of the Local Plan, was held in private. The bid for secret talks was proposed by council leader Martin Cox.
When details emerged these discussions involved speculative talks on a garden village of 2,500-5,000 homes near Lenham, Maidstone council’s legal department was instructed to interview everyone at the May meeting to hunt for the suspected mole.
Cllr John Perry, leader of the Conservative Group, then wrote to Cllr Cox, urging him to end the ‘culture of secrecy and subterfuge.’
The latest meeting shows how far discussions have come. The council is playing a lead role in creating the garden community, which includes master-planning the scheme. It sees itself securing the land options, promoting the garden community proposal as part of the Local Plan process, designing a plan for the homes and securing outline planning consent. It also wants to attract ‘high quality’ developers.
It says any planning submission will be considered by another committee - the Strategic Infrastructure and Planning Committee, under the normal planning process.
Documents say taking such an active lead role in the development would set it back £5 million in staff, consultancy and fees. It expects to recoup this from profits in selling on the land to housebuilders.
Officers have already had private discussions with landowners who own around 80% of the land needed for 5,000 homes. All have signed non-disclosure agreements and both sides have engaged legal representatives.
To date, the local authority has spent approximately £75,000 on consultancy advice and that figure is expected to double by the end of the financial year.
The recommendation for the council to progress its work on the garden village was backed by the committee, this included telling people the location by way of a media statement.
It also identifies the risks as: “A period of uncertainty for the community affected and possible negative perceptions of a broader role for the council in the context of acting as master planner.”
Ahead of the meeting the KM wrote to each councillor asking if they will support the site details being discussed publicly in the meeting.
Cllr Karen Chappell-Tay said: “I do believe that the public should be made aware of any locations under discussion and will be supporting any motion to that effect, unless I hear any strong and convincing arguments against it.
Cllr Fay Gooch said she was “content with the manner in which [the documents] have been presented.”
Cllr Jonathan Purle said the proposed site’s location should have been published ‘months ago’ and said he expected the private motion to fail.
He believes the council is now trying to put the main principles in public, only leaving commercially-sensitive matters in private.
Despite these sentiments, no protestations against the information being kept private were heard.
Cllr Purle was absent.
During the meeting, Cllr Annabelle Blackmore and Cllr Patrik Garten both queried whether there was an opportunity to build more than the 5,000 homes suggested.
Cllr Blackmore made reference to having to review the Local Plan and the need to allow for increased housing numbers.
Answering their queries, Cllr Martin Cox, chairman of the policy and resources committee, said: "The figures are calculated so that we can deliver high quality homes with the community around it, to make it exist both within the countryside and with the communities already there."
When the Call for Sites process saw a garden village of 2,000 homes suggested for Marden, by a developer, protesters took to the streets.
Members of the Marden Planning Opposition Group attended the meeting wearing their yellow campaign T-shirts.
Claudine Russell, chairman of the group said: "I really don't know how they will split the two roles to be completely independent. On the one hand they say they will be the developer but then the council will also be planning decider. You can't help thinking all the councillors will have had the benefit of the work of officers which has gone into this scheme so far."
She said her group continues to lobby the council against the Marden development.