Published: 11:08, 04 November 2019
| Updated: 13:17, 04 November 2019
Huge swathes of rural land in Maidstone have been earmarked as sites that could be developed over the coming years, it can be formally revealed.
The borough council has this morning officially released to KentOnline a map illustrating the extent of land that owners would be willing to sell to developers for business, retail and leisure use as well as housing.
In particular, several areas of Leeds, Langley and Lenham have been highlighted as potential development spots, following the local authority's Call for Sites exercise, which is part of its Local Plan Review.
The town hall is under pressure from central government to deliver even more housing on top of the 17,000 already identified in its plan, which was agreed in 2017.
Therefore, like many other local authorities up and down the country, it is having to review the document every five years to try and meet changing needs and demands.
Indeed, by 2022, its annual housing target will rise by more than 40% from 883 to 1,236 and so it has been inviting landowners to indicate where development could theoretically take place.
However, council chiefs are keen to quell local fears by insisting not all - in fact, comparatively few - of the sites that appear on the map of raw data will be the scene of diggers and cement mixers in the near future.
Some 334 options, which together could provide around 60,000 potential homes, were submitted before the Call for Sites deadline in May, but the council only needs to meet around a sixth of that as part of this process.
From the full list, the town hall will then select the options it thinks will best meet the requirements of the review.
Among those to have been submitted are well-documented plans for garden communities in Marden and Lenham, as well as proposals for up to 2,500 units at Langley Heath, 1,800 on land at Maidstone Road, north of Staplehurst, and a further 1,600 on land north of the M2 motorway.
Analysis from the opposition Conservative group on the council suggests some 207 of the 334 sites put forward are on greenfield land and indeed, the local authority admits available land in the town centre is in short supply.
Instead, it is looking to take the lead in driving forward a vision for its transformation, similar to the KM's own campaign to maximise use of the river and significant properties which are laying unused.
This morning, campaigners against the Lenham proposals, under the group name Save Our Heath Lands, protested outside the council offices, having recently been backed in their movement by Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately.
Concern has also been voiced in Marden, where campaigners argue their village has already had a 37% increase in housing over the last six years and fears the project would see it double in size.
Tristan Russell, a farmer and leading member of the Marden Planning Opposition Group, said: "The only summation we can draw from the huge areas of land personally submitted by landowners is that they don't care about the village of Marden or its vocal village community and its residents.
"The landowners have personally betrayed every single man, woman and child that visually and vocally made their opposition to more large scale housing in or around Marden at the protest at March for Marden."
The process was slammed by opposition leader Cllr John Perry, who said: “I’ve always thought a ‘call for sites’ would be a bad idea as it encourages every speculator to put forward any and every daft plan.
Campaigners opposed to the proposed Lenham garden community march through Maidstone town centre
"Some of the sites south of Maidstone, in places like at Marden and Staplehurst, are a case in point: transport infrastructure is so obviously lacking and some of these sites have already been refused planning permission multiple times.
“It is disappointing that five months have passed since the ‘call for sites’ closed but MBC have done little in that time to reject the really bad ones. A lot of people will suffer quite needless anxiety as a result.”
The council insists infrastructure - in terms of health facilities, leisure and schools as well as transport - will of course be taken into account and that these are perhaps more easily accommodated in garden community-type projects than smaller, individual housing schemes.
This can be funded through the Community Infrastructure Levy, which is a charge local authorities can impose on developments in their area for such facilities, on top of the cash provided by developers through section 106 contributions.
East Farleigh also appears to have been something of a hotspot for site submissions, which Cllr Lottie Parfitt-Reid, who represents Coxheath and Hunton, said left her "astonished".
She added: "It’s critical that we preserve the separate identity of places like East Farleigh instead of allowing them to merge into urban sprawl.”
Defending the process, council leader, Martin Cox, said: “Having been born and raised in the borough of Maidstone, I must ask why I repeatedly see comments and articles implying that I do not care what happens in our community when it comes to the particular issue housing, infrastructure and planning?
"I live in the town centre, and commute to work – so I too sit in traffic, I wait on the telephone to get a doctors’ appointment, get treated at a dentist and from time to time my family get treated at Maidstone Hospital.
"I do not shy away from the work that needs to be done, nor do I disregard or disrespect the views of any resident that may voice their opinion to each and every proposal for a site anywhere in the borough.”
A council spokeswoman added: “No decisions have been taken on the submitted sites. Not all sites will be needed for the Local Plan Review and many will be deemed unsuitable.
"However, we recognise the ‘Call for Sites’ exercise as an important piece of work for Maidstone, to help the council in its choice of land for future development.
"We’re keen to work with the community, especially with landowners and developers, to map out potential sites and be clear about what development could take place in the future."
There are several stages in the process still to be undertaken, including further periods of public consultation, and the review is not expected to be finally adopted until April 2022.
The full list of sites submitted can be viewed here.