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Pilgrims Retreat residents win nine months reprieve

Residents at the Pilgrims Retreat holiday caravan park in Harrietsham have been granted a stay of execution.

But in the words of one councillor, the Sword of Damocles still hangs over their heads.

Pilgrims Retreat in Ringlestone, near Maidstone
Pilgrims Retreat in Ringlestone, near Maidstone

The site off Hogbarn Lane was first established in 1967, but has been expanded several times and has had a chequered planning history.

It currently has planning permission for 180 holiday homes and 18 permanent residential pitches.

The residents in the holiday homes are supposed to maintain a permanent home elsewhere, although confusingly they can legally live on the site all year round.

In addition, the site has been recently expanded by the park owner, Sines Parks Luxury Living Ltd, run by Maurice ‘Fred’ Sines.

The company submitted a “part-retrospective” planning application seeking a change of use from a mixture of holiday and residential units to fully residential, but at the same time, expanding from 198 lodges to 248. The application was refused by the council last October.

Last night, Maidstone's planning committee were asked to impose a number of enforcement orders.

Maidstone council's planning committee seemed equally divided
Maidstone council's planning committee seemed equally divided

Officers wanted councillors to agree to five measures: to reduce the number of caravans to 198 within two years; to remove all the excess caravans and materials from the site within 30 months. The permanent use of the 180 holiday homes was to cease within four years. The southern part of the site was to be restored to the its previous state before the recent changes and finally a previously agreed landscape strategy should be implemented within four years.

Speaking for Sines Parks, Michael Rudd, a planning barrister, told the councillors they had been "misled" by their officers, who he said had been "arrogantly stonewalling" negotiations.

He accused them of failing to pass on to members his legal opinion that the council had no case.

He said: "You are being asked to take an enormous gamble without being properly informed - an enormous gamble with public money and with people's lives."

Again speaking for the applicant, planning consultant Matthew Green said he specialised in appeals involving mobile home parks and had more expertise in the field than any planning officer.

He said if enforcement action were taken there would be an appeal and he warned the council: "You will lose."

Cllr Tony Harwood: Sword of Damocles
Cllr Tony Harwood: Sword of Damocles

The issue divided councillors, with some arguing that the council must enforce its policies and others concerned that it would be the residents who would suffer, many of whom were elderly and infirm.

Cllr Tom Sams (Ind) said: "Enforcement would have a devastating impact for everyone."

Cllr Janetta Sams (Ind) said: "We must take into account the rights of our Maidstone residents who live on this site."

Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) was concerned that "This local authority should not appear vindictive to the 200 families on the site."

And he pointed out that arguments over the type of tenure of the properties did not really affect their impact on the landscape.

He said: "We should remove this Sword of Damocles that hangs over the heads of residents."

Cllr Paul Wilby: Compromise solution
Cllr Paul Wilby: Compromise solution

Cllr Karen Chappell-Tay (Con) said she had received "lots of heart-rending emails from the residents", but nevertheless she said: "We have a duty to enforce the decisions that we take."

Cllr John Perry (Con) agreed, saying: "It would be perverse if this planning committee makes decisions and then doesn't enforce them."

In the end it was Cllr Paul Wilby (Lib Dem) who suggested a compromise position. He suggested the site owners be given a further period of time to negotiate and submit a new planning application that would satisfy both sides, but if that wasn't achieved, officers be authorised to move immediately to enforcement action.

Committee chairman Clive English (Lib Dem) urged the delay not be too long, because he had noticed that homes at the park were still being advertised for sale with estate agents, so potentially new residents would be moving in to an uncertain future.

Councillors set the time limit at nine months and they also established a steering committee of members comprising the committee chairman and vice chairman, Cllrs Clive English and Dennis Spooner, the group party spokesmen and the local ward councillors, to facilitate a solution.

The motion was then passed unanimously.

After the meeting, a resident, who asked not to be named, said she doubted the two sides would agree. She said: "They seem both to have a vendetta against each other."

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