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Bellway, St Nicholas and community must wait on Otham planning inspector's decision

A week-long public inquiry into whether more than 400 new homes should be allowed next to St Nicholas Church in Otham has concluded.

Planning inspector Stephen Normington heard the closing statements from all the main parties giving evidence on Monday.

St Nicholas Church in Otham: 'Facing tragedy'
St Nicholas Church in Otham: 'Facing tragedy'

The inquiry resulted from an appeal by housing developer Bellway against Maidstone council's refusal of planning permission for more than 400 homes on land west of Church Road, next to the Grade 1 listed church.

The refusal was based on highways safety issues on Church Road and the likely increased congestion on Willington Street, and was supported by the highways authority, Kent County Council.

Speaking for Bellway, barrister Hashi Mohamed said: "While of course the concerns about highway impacts are valid and important to take into consideration, much of the good points have been overshadowed by unworthy ones which seek to exaggerate the level of harm while not properly considering the plans."

He criticised local councillors for not fully understanding their own Local Plan and was particularly harsh about Richard Knox-Johnston, who had given evidence for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, saying: "Mr Knox-Johnston will no doubt complain that councillors and local people know best; well we know if they had their way, not a single house would be built, and generations left without an opportunity to have a home.

"It is this general attitude, sadly, which informs the opposition to this proposal."

Richard Knox-Johnston of the Campaign to Protect Rural England
Richard Knox-Johnston of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

He declared the highways objections raised by KCC were "unreasonable," and said that in fact KCC "is really part of the problem" in not having spent the contributions it had already obtained from other developers towards improving traffic flows on Willington Street.

For Maidstone council, Megan Thomas said the applicants had admitted that if the housing went ahead it would be necessary to construct traffic lights at the junction of Dering Wood Drive and Willington Street, adding to delays to a "commonly used cross-town route."

She also argued that the developer, who was now agreeing to widen Church Road along the part it controlled to 5.5m wide, could not make the whole of the narrow road safe for two large vehicles to pass because it did not control the length of the road.

The CPRE argued that Bellway had failed to show how Church Road could be modified safely and described the effect of the housing and consequent traffic on St Nicholas Church as a " tragedy."

Maidstone's Labour Group said: "Without major road improvements including the widening along the length of Church Road, this site cannot be considered suitable for housing."

Willington Street: Ready for more cars?
Willington Street: Ready for more cars?

In its closing remarks, Downswood Parish Council was highly critical of Maidstone council's planning officers (who had recommended the plan be approved) saying: "Those same planning officers, on numerous occasions, did not honestly disclose but almost ignored, or did not fairly describe, the facts in the objectors’ original submissions relating to the material considerations, whose presence they specifically denied in their committee reports."

The inspector will now consider his decision which is not expected to be published for several months.

David Hatcher, chairman of the Chapman Avenue Area Residents' Association, was among those who gave evidence at the inquiry. He was hopeful, if not confident, that the inspector would uphold the refusal.
He said: "I think the objectors scored some valid points, not just on highways but on heritage and air quality too."

The inquiry was jointly considering two appeals by Bellway: one an appeal for non-determination of an outline application for 440 homes, and one a refusal by the council of a detailed application for 421 homes.

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