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Do all new homes in Kent look the same? Developments at Ebbsfleet, Chilmington and Maidstone compared

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There are few topics more likely to turn normally docile, law-abiding citizens into banner-waving, placard-carrying protesters than the prospect of a housing development in their neighbourhood.

But with significantly fewer houses being built today than a generation ago is the problem more an aesthetic one? Alan Smith goes in search of answers.

The Sandgate Pavilions look out onto the sea
The Sandgate Pavilions look out onto the sea

Is Kent becoming more and more homogeneous? Are developers churning out repeated patterns of identikit housing so that it becomes impossible to tell whether you are in Sevenoaks or Dover?

The question is an important one, not only for us, but also, as it turns out, for the effectiveness of government housing policies.

Many local authorities across Kent are struggling to have a new Local Plan approved or to update an existing plan.

Tunbridge Wells had its process "paused" by the Planning Inspectorate, while Swale has paused its own for a re-think.

Tonbridge and Malling is having to start again after having its plan rejected, while Maidstone has rushed to submit its Local Plan Review to the Inspectorate for approval, despite an enormous number of objections and the certainty that it will face strenuous challenges at its public examination later this year.

Best Western Clifton Hotel in Folkestone (47246988)
Best Western Clifton Hotel in Folkestone (47246988)

So why is planning such an emotive issue?

Part of the answer lies in the housing targets that each local authority must aim to achieve. The target-setting process is a complicated one.

The government does not allocate numbers to each borough, but rather gives them a formula to calculate need and the population projections. So that amounts to the same thing as setting the target, but allows both sides to blame the other for determining the figure.

Residents tend to see any target as an imposition as it is a figure arrived at on paper somewhere else and has not evolved naturally nor is it tempered by the local geographical constraints.

Certainly, the formula is unfair in that the maths produces the biggest housing targets for those communities that have already had the most housing growth in the past.

Naturally, residents in areas where there has been more growth in past years tend to think they should see less in future and that it's someone else's turn to shoulder the burden (an issue that is now being gradually recognised in the government's levelling up agenda).

People feel they are facing ever more house-building, but looked at on a national scale, that is not the case.

In their election manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to build 300,000 new homes each year by the mid-2020s. They haven't got there yet.

In 2019, the last pre-Covid year, a total of 213,770 new homes were built.

Historically that is low; the highest year for new housing was actually 54 years ago in 1968 when 425,830 new homes were completed.

In fact, in every one of the 20 years from 1960 to 1979, Britain built more homes each year than the 300,000 target which the government is now struggling to achieve.

Do too many estates look the same?
Do too many estates look the same?

So if we are not in fact being asked to accept unusually high numbers of new homes, why is there so much passionate opposition?

Well of course as building has gone on over the years, the residue of greenfield land, or countryside, has shrunk. And as people see their green spaces disappearing, so they become more determined to defend what is left.

There is also the question of facilities.

So many new homes have been built in the past without being required to pay sufficient compensation towards new schools, libraries, doctor's surgeries, roads etc, that many feel we have now reached a crisis point and it is just not possible to pile on any more pressure.

Think back to that year of peak house building in 1968. Residents were always able to register with their local GP and dentist - probably just a few streets away (sadly no longer the case) Primary schools were no more than a short walk, which was just as well because almost half of all households still did not own a car - a far cry from the two or three cars per family that is commonplace today.

Many councils are trying to address this shortfall in amenities by proposing the creation of garden villages - at Lidsing, at Capel, at Ebbsfleet, at Chilmington Green and at Lenham Heath for example.

They argue it is only by amalgamating large numbers of housing a new 'community' can be built with the requisite village hall, school, new road links etc.

Perhaps ironically, it is often such garden sites that seem to incite the greatest amount of opposition.

But it could be that the whole focus on housing figures is wrong.

People would be far more willing to accept development if only the homes were nicer.

That at least is the view of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Aerial Photography of the Ashford Area, 28th September 2020 Finbury Housing estate. (44177680)
Aerial Photography of the Ashford Area, 28th September 2020 Finbury Housing estate. (44177680)

It said: "The focus of the current planning system is skewed in favour of increasing housing numbers at the expense of good design and creating sustainable, liveable places.

"This has inevitably perpetuated an environment of resentment towards development among local residents.

"Communities feeling locked out of the decision-making process is symptomatic of the wider problem where development comes forward only in the context of numbers of homes supplied.

"We should be measuring quality and outcomes as well as quantity."

The Bartlett School of Planning based at University College London went further.

After carrying out a national audit of 140 housing developments built across England since 2007, it concluded that new housing design was overwhelmingly 'mediocre' or 'poor.'

It said a fifth of the sites should have been rejected immediately by the planning authorities as being of such poor design as not to accord with the Government's National Planning Policy Framework.

A further 54% of the sites should only have been passed if they had been subject to significant improvements.

Inadequate parking was one of the key factors along with poor bin storage provision, leading to "unattractive and unfriendly environments with likely negative health and social implications."

Professor Matthew Carmona, who led the research, argued that better design would actually reduce local opposition and speed up the provision of new homes.

He said: “Research has consistently shown that high quality design makes new residential developments more acceptable to local communities and delivers huge social, economic and environmental value to all."

One of the study's observations was that "poor housing developments scored especially badly in terms of character and sense of place, with architecture that does not respond to the context in which it is located."

Which brings us back to our original question.

Are new housing developments too "samey"?

Traditional seafront housing in Folkestone
Traditional seafront housing in Folkestone

If shown a photograph of a terraced crescent of five-storey Victorian boarding houses, another of white, weather-boarded homes and a third of small terraced homes with no front gardens you would easily be able to tell if you were looking at the sea-front at Folkestone, a Wealden village or the cloister district of the city of Canterbury.

Can the same be said if you looked at photographs of new housing developments in these districts?

Wherever you go now, in any major town, you will find the same range of High Street shops. There would be little to chose between Chatham, Tonbridge or Dartford.

Is a similar "wave of sameness" now affecting our houses?

You could understand why it might. It must surely be easier (read cheaper) for housing developers to work from a few stock template designs rather than start from scratch at each new location.

Traditional housing near Canterbury Cathedral
Traditional housing near Canterbury Cathedral

The Americans, who also suffer from this phenomenon, have an expression for it - they call it cookie-cutter housing. The image being one of identical houses stamped out like biscuits from a sheet of rolled dough.

Naturally, housing developers deny that is the case.

KentOnline wrote to a range of house-builders in Kent and invited them to submit photos of their recent housing developments.

We stressed that we were particularly interested in receiving photographs of developments that used local materials or designs in some way.

Ten firms replied.

Fernham Homes is using Kentish ragstone in a development at Linton close to an historic ragstone quarry
Fernham Homes is using Kentish ragstone in a development at Linton close to an historic ragstone quarry
A 'contemporary' design by Fernham Homes at Downsview in Westerham
A 'contemporary' design by Fernham Homes at Downsview in Westerham

Fernham Homes sent details of its Hillside Park development of 13 homes at Linton, near Maidstone. The nearby area has been used for quarrying ragstone since the Roman times and the company has designed the houses with a mix of ragstone, brick and render work.

It also sent in images of "modern contemporary" homes at Downsview in Westerham; in the company's own words a "location drenched in British history." Here the firm does not seem to have sought any historic link, but the design is at least distinctive from the run-of-the-mill.

Clarendon Homes' Woodside Court development in Maidstone
Clarendon Homes' Woodside Court development in Maidstone
Clarendon Homes' Weavers Park development in Headcorn - a traditional look?
Clarendon Homes' Weavers Park development in Headcorn - a traditional look?
Clarendon Homes: Woodside Court (55420832)
Clarendon Homes: Woodside Court (55420832)

Clarendon Homes submitted photographs of three developments: Weavers Park in Headcorn, Churchfields in Harrietsham and Woodside Court in Maidstone.

The firm said that many older buildings in Headcorn had a traditional character and so had designed its development of luxury homes at Weavers Park to have "a similar traditional Kentish architectural style of rustic brick and tile-hung elevations."

Its development of bungalows at Churchfields, now in its second phase, used "two different cottage-style bricks and slate roof tiles to give the development a traditional look," while Woodside Court was designed with a traditional masonry build - "its yellow brick and grey roofs give the properties a modern look which proved to be well received."

A CGI of the Redrow apartments being built at Whatman Mill in Maidstone
A CGI of the Redrow apartments being built at Whatman Mill in Maidstone

Redrow is in the process of building 140 apartments on the former industrial site of the Whatman paper mill in Maidstone. Whatman's had been one of Maidstone's oldest industries, dating from 1740, and there had been a mill on the site since 1805.

It's a reminder that a lot of new housing developments are not houses at all, but blocks of flats. In Redrow's case, five storeys high. The company is retaining the mill's Grade II listed chimney and its Rag Room, which was a condition of its gaining planning permission, but it has also commissioned artist Kerry Lemon to install a range of public artworks and heritage trails on the site to record the area's history.

Bellway's recent development at Ebbsfleet Cross
Bellway's recent development at Ebbsfleet Cross
Bellways' Buckland Rise development at Peters Village in Wouldham
Bellways' Buckland Rise development at Peters Village in Wouldham

Bellway has just completed a development of 125 homes at Wouldham.

The mix of two-, three-, four- and five-bedroom houses and one- and two-bedroom apartments at Buckland Rise, off Worrall Drive, forms part of Peters Village – a new garden village community of 1,000 homes, put together by Trenport Properties.

Following its completion of 100 homes at Ebbsfleet Cross off Craylands Lane, Bellway has also just won permission from the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation to build on the 11-acre Eastern Quarry site at Ebbsfleet. The site is to be known as Whitecliffe. The company envisages 75 apartments and 107 houses.

The firm's land director Dan Merriman promised: "The homes have been sensitively designed to reflect the unique architectural character of the local area and draw on its rich farming and industrial heritage. The terraced and semi-detached houses will be built using yellow brick inspired by the Swanscombe workers’ cottages located to the north of the site, while the detached houses will be built with red brick in the farmhouse style in a nod to the neighbouring Alkerden Farm.”

The Eastern Quarry site will eventually enclose three villages, Alkerden, Ashmere and Castle Hill, and total 1,500 homes, which in turn will be part of the Ebbsfleet Garden City of 15,000 new homes between Gravesend and Dartford.

David Wilson: Dickens Gate Staplehurst (55357705)
David Wilson: Dickens Gate Staplehurst (55357705)
Perry Court Faversham (55358103)
Perry Court Faversham (55358103)

David Wilson Homes submitted pictures of two of its recent developments: Perry Court at Brogdale Road in Faversham, and Dickens Gate in Staplehurst.

The company said its Perry Court development was built with plenty of green space to reflect its orchard setting with the homes in a "local Kentish vernacular."

Similarly, Dickens Gate included retained wildlife areas, allotments and play areas, to "reflect its village setting."

The Bovis Homes Catkin Gardens development in Headcorn
The Bovis Homes Catkin Gardens development in Headcorn

Bovis Homes, part of the Vistry Group, is just completing a development of 62 homes in Headcorn. The nine-acre site called Catkin Gardens, off Maidstone Road, will include 37 three-, four- and five-bedroom houses for private sale and 25 affordable properties.

The plans provide for a large area of public open space, as well as a children’s play area and natural green space.

Marketing manager Candice McCabe said the design had been focussed on the need to fit in with the rural setting. She said: "Catkin Gardens is in a delightful location in the open countryside, on the north-western edge of this beautiful Kent village. The new residents will be able to enjoy the outdoor green spaces within the development which reflect its natural surroundings.

“New footpaths link the open spaces to existing paths in the area and we have retained existing trees and hedgerows wherever possible. The provision of bird and bat boxes through the site is also providing new housing for the local wildlife.”

The company is also building 167 new homes at The Meadows, off Headcorn Road, in nearby Staplehurst.

Barratt Homes town house design at Chilmington Green in Ashford
Barratt Homes town house design at Chilmington Green in Ashford

Hedgers Way in Ashford is the setting for Barratt Homes' Chilmington Green - Ashford's first Garden City.

The area will see 5,750 homes built over the next 20 years - plus supporting infrastructure. Barratts says it has designed "striking" town houses, amid a wealth of green space.

The company is also building at Dorman Avenue North in Aylesham Garden Village, a new development totalling 1,200 homes around the existing village between Canterbury and Dover. Construction at the garden village is being shared with Persimmon. The development brief promises: "Each home planned for Aylesham Garden Village has been designed with facades in keeping with the character of the village."

Clarus Homes has a development of starter-sized apartments called The Hop Pocket in Paddock Wood
Clarus Homes has a development of starter-sized apartments called The Hop Pocket in Paddock Wood

Clarus Homes has built 24 one- and two-bed apartments in Maidstone Road at Paddock Wood with first-time buyers in mind called The Hop Pocket. The name reflects the town's long-standing connections to the hopping industry, though the design is distinctly modern.

The Charles Church development at Mascalls Grange in Paddock Wood
The Charles Church development at Mascalls Grange in Paddock Wood

Also in Paddock Wood, Charles Church has been building a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom properties at Mascalls Grange in what the company describes as a "range of new house types." Charles Church is a subsidiary of Persimmon.

The Sandgate Pavilions by Sunningdale House at Sandgate near Folkestone
The Sandgate Pavilions by Sunningdale House at Sandgate near Folkestone

Finally, Sunningdale House Developments provided details of its award-winning development of luxury apartments called Sandgate Pavilions, at Sandgate near Folkestone.

In a futuristic style, and with enough glazing to resemble a Californian beach pad, the apartments with their sea-views and balconies are certainly distinctive.

So too are the prices, which range from £665,000 to £1.75m.

Based on the 16 submitted examples, we would say the jury is still out. Several of the developments had a unique and distinctive style. Others seem fairly interchangeable.

Where the developers scored less well (in our opinion) was in reflecting traditional local building styles, though clearly some had tried.

RIBA has argued that all matters relevant to "place-making," - how a development fits in with its environment - should be considered from the outset and subjected to a democratic or co-design process.

A spokesman said: "We advocate raising the profile and role of planning both in political discussions and in the wider debate concerning how we wish to live and what kind of a country we want to pass on.

"Our proposals aim for long-term investment in which the values that matter to people – beauty, community, history, landscape – are safeguarded. "

RIBA's solution is the use of Local Design Codes, where beauty, not quantity, is the key consideration.

A few years ago, the government created something it called the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, led by Sir Roger Scruton.

'When people fear development will spoil their surroundings, they oppose it...'

It has since been disbanded but in its final report in January 2021, it said the best chance of convincing people of the need to increase house-building was to build developments that people would like: "beautiful buildings gather support; blank ubiquity garners protest and resentment."

It is a view echoed by Clive Aslet, a professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge. Writing in Country Life magazine, Mr Aslet said: "When local people fear that development will spoil their surroundings, they oppose it.

"The tortuous nature of the planning creates delay and reduces supply."

Professor Carmona agreed, saying: “Planning authorities are under pressure to deliver new homes and are therefore prioritising numbers in the short-term over the long-term negative impacts of bad design. At the same time, house builders have little incentive to improve when their designs continue to pass through the planning system. Some highways authorities, meanwhile, do not even recognise their role in creating a sense of place for communities.

“Collectively, house builders, planning authorities and highways authorities need to significantly raise their game. This can’t come soon enough”.

The professor's design audit also suggested the use of proactive design codes – with local parameters established for each site.

And it seems that finally the government is listening.

The Housing Minister Stuart Andrew
The Housing Minister Stuart Andrew

Stuart Andrew MP is the new Government Housing Minister – he is the 20th person to have held the post in the past 25 years, which perhaps indicates one part of the problem.

As Mr Andrew was only appointed in February, it seems unlikely he can have initiated the new thinking, which must have begun with his predecessor Christopher Pincher, but nevertheless Mr Andrew had the pleasure of announcing in March the government was awarding £3m in grants for its new Local Design Code Pathfinder Programme.

Twenty-one local authorities and four residents' organisations across the UK will receive grants ranging from £30,000 to £160,000 to help them draw up a Local Design Code.

Medway Council is one of the 25. It will get £120,000 to "help residents set their own standards for design in their local area, which could include architecture, building materials, standards for sustainability and street layout."

The code will be aimed specifically at Chatham.

Mr Andrew said: "We want to give people in Medway power over what their neighbourhoods look like and to make sure all new developments enhance their surroundings and preserve local character and identity."

The news delighted the leader of Medway Council, Cllr Alan Jarrett. He said: “We are seeing increased interest from developers in Chatham and the design code programme gives us the opportunity to pro-actively manage the possible impacts on the area’s heritage, landscapes and character.

"I am also pleased that we will be engaging with local communities to ensure they have their say on the design code.”

If successful, the design codes produced by the 25 organisations will be used as examples, when the scheme is later rolled out across the country, hopefully banishing cookie-cutting back to the kitchen.

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