Published: 06:00, 18 September 2020
Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) faces a race "against the clock" to keep its housing figures down, as the Government considers yet again hiking up the number of homes expected to be built in the borough by thousands.
Under plans proposed by Whitehall to change the method used to calculate housing need, the number of homes required to be built in the borough per year could rise from 1,214 to to 1,569, resulting in an extra 5,325 units built between 2022 and 2037.
Councillors and officers fear what this could mean for the Local Plan Review, currently being worked on, with cllr Martin Cox, MBC leader, warning it could result in starting the process again, two years of extra work and spending an additional £2million, if the new figure is bought in.
Following a strategic planning and infrastructure committee meeting on September 8, where members were told by an officer that "we are against the clock", councillors have now been presented with plans to fast forward the Local Plan Review timetable.
It is hoped that by doing so the council can stick with the 1,214 figure, but even this comes with significant risks.
The proposed 1,569 figure is not guarenteed, but was described as "potentially likely scenario" in the committee meeting.
It also is not clear when the proposals, introduced last month and out for consultation until October, will be finalised, with officers warning it could be between December or April.
This means the council doesn't know what date it is working towards, or whether their plan to speed up the review will work.
If the changes do go ahead, this would not be the first time in recent memory that the Government has dumped more housing targets on MBC.
When the local authority agreed its Local Plan, a blueprint for development, in 2017, it had set aside space for building 883 homes a year.
However, the introduction of a new formula calculated Maidstone would need to increase that number annually to 1,236, up by 40%, to come into effect with the Local Plan Review in 2022.
A call for sites was issued for areas which could be potentially developed and a consultation also took place, with plans for so-called garden communities developed.
'We are against the clock in this, we are not in a win scenario...'
MBC called on the government to maintain the 882 figure until 2031 , with many labelling the new target as "impossible', with no meaningful result.
Cllr Cox said the new figures would be difficult for residents "to stomach", and speaking of when he found out about the potential rise, said: "It was horrifying to think we were underway and spending a lot of money getting our Local Plan Review done, with officers and councillors doing lots of work to deliver it on time.
"Now, to say 'actually here's a new figure', it may mean we have to go back to the beginning again. We are already two years into this.
"They moved the goal posts on us last time and they've done it again."
During the strategic planning and infrastructure committee meeting, faced with the prospect of meeting further building targets councillors discussed what to do and were given a stark warning by council officer Mark Egerton.
'They've moved the goal posts on us last time and they've done it again...'
He said: “We are against the clock in this, we are not in a win scenario. We are in high risk scenario no matter which choice we make.”
Committee members were presented with some options on how to avoid the higher targets.
They heard that local authorities may be able “lock in” their current targets if within nine months of the new figures being implemented, the final draft of their local plans will be consulted on and then submitted.
Councillors opted for a consultation on MBC’s spatial strategy for the Local Plan Review, being held in December, to be halved from a minimum of six weeks, and agreed to move “very quickly” to the final draft consultation.
But Mr Egerton warned there was still a risk of not meeting the deadline. Another meeting is being held on Tuesday, where members can give the revised timetable the green light, before going to full council.
Cllr David Burton, chair of the committee, said: “We agreed we should do our absolute best to stave off this new number for the longest possible period. But we are faced with uncertainty of when new guidance becomes operative.”