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Bluebell Wood off Hermitage Lane saved from Croudace by Ancient Woodland concern - for now

By Alan Smith

Members of Maidstone's planning committee have taken a bold and rather unexpected decision to refuse planning permission for 71 homes on land adjacent to Maidstone Hospital - against the advice of their planning officers and despite the fact that the scheme had already been allocated in the borough's Local Plan and previously granted outline permission.

The move upset the borough's development manager James Bailey, who advised members that in his professional opinion, the decision could not be successfully defended if the applicant challenged it at appeal, and he exercised his right under the council's constitution to lodge a "significant cost warning."

The effect of that is that members will be obliged to reconsider their decision at a meeting in a month's time, and in the meantime officers will attempt to persuade members that the council could end up with egg on its face and a huge legal bill if they stick to their guns.

The decision has been welcomed by supporters of the woods
The decision has been welcomed by supporters of the woods

Meanwhile, the news was welcomed by residents who were concerned about the effect of the application on Bluebell Wood. Barbara Woodward of the New Allington Action Group said: "This is the best news we've had in five years - though we've still got a fight on our hands."

The application was for phase 4 of a larger scheme for 500 homes on land off Hermitage Lane.

To access this particular site the developers wanted to forge a new road through Bluebell Wood, part of which is classified as Ancient Woodland.

The site had already been approved by a Government inspector when he passed the council's Local Plan, but since then the Government has issued new advice in its National Planning Policy Framework giving much stronger protection to Ancient Woodland.

Planning development manager James Bailey will use the next three weeks trying to persuade councillors to change their minds
Planning development manager James Bailey will use the next three weeks trying to persuade councillors to change their minds

Croudace originally considered five options for routes through the woods, but by the night of the meeting these had been narrowed down to two: Option 2 a much longer route that skipped the ancient woodland itself but ploughed through the adjacent secondary woodland, and would involve the loss of 152 trees. Option 3, preferred by the developers and council officers, was shorter but plunged through the ancient woodland and would involve the loss of 32 mature trees.

Angela Poletti, for NAAG, said there was in fact an Option 6, a route that skirted the wood altogether and used an existing farm access. It was not being put forward by the developers because it involved land they didn't own.

The other routes would involve dissecting the wood and a public right of way.

Cllr Diana Lewins (Lib Dem) urged the adoption of Option 6, saying: "The developer's costs (in acquiring the extra land) should not be taken into consideration."

Cllr Matt Boughton (Con) said: "Since Option 6 is not on the papers before us we can't consider it." He proposed agreeing the application, using Option 2.

But Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) said: "The new NPPF guidance couldn't be any clearer. No application should be permitted that damages Ancient Woodland.

"We should refuse the application, which might force the developer to find an alternative route in."

Cllr Harwood was undaunted by the prospect of an appeal. He said: "It will be a fascinating test case."

Cllr Steve Munford (Ind) agreed, saying: "Since this site was allocated in the Local Plan things have changed. I'm sure that with the new guidance the Government inspector would not have approved it.

"Neither of these options is acceptable. The only course of action is to refuse."

Cllr Paul Wilby (Lib Dem) said: "If the Government policy had changed the other way, in favour of the developer, you can be sure they would be arguing for it.

"This application should be refused outright."

Cllr Lottie Parfitt-Reid (Con) agreed. She said: "We are bound by the NPPF - the application should be refused."

But she was the only Conservative in support of refusal.

Cllr Lottie Parfitt-Reid was the only Conservative councillor to vote in favour of refusal
Cllr Lottie Parfitt-Reid was the only Conservative councillor to vote in favour of refusal

Four other Conservatives opposed refusal and asked that their dissent be noted. They were Cllrs Martin Round, John Perry, Matt Boughton and Alan Bartlett.

The voting was seven in favour of refusal, four against, and with the committee chairman Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) abstaining.

The planning committee was one short on the night. Conservative Dennis Spooner had sent his apologies and the Conservative group had been unable to field a substitute member.

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