Published: 12:00, 25 June 2015
Maidstone council has adopted a revised economic development strategy that contains specific reference to the need to identify land for employment use near Junction 8 of the M20.
The decision by the policy and resources committee yesterday comes just weeks after the close of a public planning inquiry at which Maidstone fought to defend its refusal to permit just such a scheme at Waterside Park, and also follows its refusal of the Kent International Gateway (KIG) scheme in the same area in 2010.
The decision has caused a furore among residents and parish councils near Junction 8, but council officers said that a telephone survey of 1,518 residents had shown that across the wider borough there was support for development there.
Economic development manager John Foster stressed the policy was setting out an over-arching strategy and did not indicate approval for any specific planning application. The details of what was and was not acceptable would still be decided in the Local Plan process.
Development at Junction 8, along with other policies to strengthen the town centre and expand the Kent Medical Campus, were needed if Maidstone were to provide the 14,400 extra jobs it needed by 2031.
The committee ignored advice from Kent County Council that it did not support economic development at Junction 8 and that the borough should not adopt the policy which KCC said “would be detrimental to the sustainable development of Maidstone.”
Cllr Martin Round (Con) observed that the telephone survey had polled 50 people in his ward of Headcorn, but that in the last 48 hours since the news had broken of the proposal to include Junction 8, he had received “148 emails, 20 phone calls and 10 knocks on the door” from people passionately opposed.
Cllr Dave Sargeant (UKIP) said the alleged need for 14,400 new jobs was based on some “pretty speculative assumptions” about population growth. He said: “In a couple of years we may have left the EU and the population pressures will ease.”
Cllr Paulina Stockell (Con) said it was “quite wrong” to include a reference to Junction 8, saying: ”This is the last green junction of the borough and we are about to sweep it away.”
She moved an amendment to remove Junction 8 from the strategy, but she was supported only by Cllr Round, Cllr Sargeant and Cllr Louise Brice (Con), and her amendment was defeated.
Many spoke in favour of including Junction 8. Cllr Annabelle Blackmore (Con) said: “As the leaders of our community we should be taking the tough decisions.”
Cllr Chris Garland (Con) said: “It makes a bold statement to the business community.”
Cllr James Ross (Con) said: “It is inevitable that industry will want to migrate to be close to a motorway junction.”
Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem) described the strategy as a “mood-board,” there was still the opportunity to shape what sort of application came to Junction 8 later.
Cllr Malcolm McKay (Lab) said he didn’t want to see industrial units at Junction 8, but he also didn’t want to see Maidstone become a minimum wage economy. “So,” he said, “with appropriate measures, I will support Junction 8.”
After the meeting, Richard Knox-Johnston, president of Kent CPRE, said: “It’s very difficult to understand what’s going on at Maidstone council.
"They’ve just spent hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting the Waterside Park appeal, Clearly the left-hand doesn’t know what the right-hand is doing,”
A council spokesman claimed the three-week planing inquiry in May had actually cost only £37,000.
Gallagher Properties had proposed to build a large warehouse and business complex at Waterside Park near Junction 8. The scheme had been opposed by CPRE, 16 parish councils, KCC, Natural England, Leeds Castle and the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Unit and by Maidstone council, because they feared it would harm the North Down AONB and the setting of Leeds Castle.
Bill Lash, chief executive at Leeds Castle, was in the Town Hall to hear Wednesday’s debate. He said: “It’s disappointing. You would have thought the council would have at least waited for the outcome of the planning inquiry before making a decision.”
John Horne, a former Mayor of Maidstone, said: “The strategy is about jobs, but there are other aspects to consider. This is not the way a responsible local authority should be run.”
*The planning inspector’s decision on the Waterside Park site is expected by the end of July.