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Tears shed at emotional planning inquiry

Several witnesses were in tears as they gave evidence to the last day of the Fant Farm planning inquiry.

Inspector Olivia Spencer devoted the morning session on Friday to hearing directly from some of the neighbours and users of the farmland in Maidstone which is threatened with redevelopment for 225 homes.

Time and again, the residents spoke passionately about how much the open space contributed to their well-being, and three of the female residents could not hold back the tears as they contemplated its loss.

Residents make their voices heard at the Fant Farm inquiry
Residents make their voices heard at the Fant Farm inquiry

John Litton, the QC representing the developer Gleeson had the right to cross-examine the witnesses, but after being made to look rather foolish when he tried to trip up Cllr Keith Adkinson, Mr Litton wisely refrained from challenging the others.

Cllr Adkinson criticised the developer’s attempts at a public consultation on the proposals. He said many residents had not received the letter that the agents Barton Willmore said they had sent out.

He did get a copy, via Royal Mail, but unfortunately Barton Willmore forgot to put a stamp on it. Cllr Adkinson said: “I had to do an 11-mile round trip to the Royal Mail at Park Wood and pay a £2 fine to receive my letter.”

Cllr Adkinson produced copies of two emails he had sent to Barton Willmore asking for a refund of the postage. Both had been ignored.

John Litton QC: Caught out by poor instructions
John Litton QC: Caught out by poor instructions

Cross-examining, Mr Litton, demanded: ”Wasn’t this a mistake by the printers, not Barton Willmore, and didn’t the printers write to you to apologise and refund the money?”

“No,” answered a bewildered Cllr Adkinson. “I’ve had no apology and no refund.”

Mr Litton repeated his question more indignantly, but again Mr Adkinson said no he had had nothing.

Whereupon Mr Litton turned a baleful glare at his support team and blustered: “Well, those were my instructions.”

“So will I be reimbursed now?” asked Mr Adkinson, to laughter from the audience.

No-one on the developer’s team put their hand in their pockets.

The inspector joins in the laughter at the hearing
The inspector joins in the laughter at the hearing

The hearing at the Great Danes Hotel in Hollingbourne heard first from Sonya Daniels, who owns the neighbouring Little Fant Farm. She explained how her farm sold directly to customers through an honesty box and how often visitors to Little Fant expressed their joy at visiting a working farm in such lovely countryside.

That pleasure would be lost, she warned, if the application were allowed to bring a housing estate up to her borders. She said: ”Over the years we’ve seen a significant increase in people - retired people out walking and young families - coming to us via the public footpaths.
But with the development, she said: “People would lose their peaceful walk to reach us. They won’t feel they have left the town to come to us as they do now.”

She also criticised Fant Farm’s owners, the Watts charity, for allowing it to decline. She said her partner and other farmers had offered to take over Fant Farm back in 2008, but the Watts Charity would only ever offer a short lease of one or two years, which was not sufficient to justify any investment.

Fran Smith told the inspector Fant Farm was “not a location, it’s a way of life.”

Job Mayatt, who had led a successful residents campaign against development at Fant Farm 40 years previously, described how the land then had been considered high quality agricultural land then. It had since been allowed to deteriorate, but he said it was still capable of achieving high yields, with Fant Farm harvesting 4.9 tons of wheat per acre, as little as two years ago.

Stephanie Price argued that the developers had seriously understated the traffic that would be generated from the development. Taking her own road as a example, she said the 13 houses in Burns Road had 23 vehicles between them. By the same proportion, the new estate would have 398 vehicles, all competing with the Jubilee School traffic on Gatland Lane.

Denise Wallis of Pitt Road urged the inspector to listen to the people. She said: “People get very dejected because time after time we don’t get heard.”

Pam Berry described the area as a “wonderful quiet escape” from the pressures of modern life.

Brian Skinner of Gatland Lane described the appellants’ transport analysis as a “fanfare of fantasy.” Attempting to describe the effect of the development he said: “If there were a word more severe than severe, that would be it.”

His wife Barbara, was one of several people critical of the land-owners, the Watts Charity, whom she described as “a remote landlord that doesn’t have the interests of residents at heart.”

Paul Harper and Gareth Owen: keen to give the developer a good trouncing
Paul Harper and Gareth Owen: keen to give the developer a good trouncing

Cllr Paul Harper criticised the appellants’ traffic projections, which he said had the bulk of the traffic going completely the wrong way.

He warned: “The planning system now has a potential built-in bias towards developers, as, due to resource pressures at both Maidstone Borough Council and Kent County Council, the authorities increasingly have to rely on evidence produced by developers to assess the highways, sustainability and environmental impacts.”

He said while that might be pragmatic necessity in a period of scarce public resources, it would “offend moral justice” if decisions were based on the developers’ evidence.

Gareth Owen, who has led the Save Fant Farm campaign, reminded the inspector that the Government had in its Localism Act 2012, recognised that there were “significant flaws” in the planning system, which “did not give members of the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives.”

He urged the inspector to listen to local opinion.

The inspector's decision is not expected for several months.

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