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Maidstone council leader urged to abandon 'culture of secrecy' over housing plans

By Alan Smith

A council leader is being urged to "come clean" after he proposed holding a meeting in secret to discuss plans to build thousands more homes.

Maidstone Borough Council leader Cllr Martin Cox called a controversial meeting of the authority's policy and resources committee three weeks ago to discuss the council's 'call for sites,' where it searches for new land for development as part of its review of the Local Plan.

It later transpired this included a proposal for a "garden community" of more than 2,500 homes at Lenham Heath.

Maidstone council wants to build thousands more homes
Maidstone council wants to build thousands more homes

The council subsequently launched an inquiry to determine who leaked details of the meeting to the press.

But Cllr John Perry, the leader of the Conservative group, has now written to Cllr Cox saying: "Residents’ anxieties are seriously heightened by this culture of secrecy and subterfuge."

Cllr Perry said: "The meeting of the policy and resources committee is a case in point. Whereas this process ran from March 2, the committee was not convened until May 22 – just two days before the process ended.

"The papers for the meeting were not then distributed to members until the evening before with some not receiving them until they arrived at the meeting itself.

"Other papers, such as the draft planning guidance being developed for sites, were denied to members when requested."

Council leader Martin Cox
Council leader Martin Cox

In his letter, Cllr Perry then berates Cllr Cox for proposing the entire meeting should be held in secret.

He said: "This was despite opposition members pointing out that there was little genuinely confidential information in the papers, and that, if some information were genuinely confidential, the discussion would be better split with the majority of it held in public."

Cllr Perry continued: "It has become apparent since that meeting that the local press is aware of one large-scale proposal, the outline principle of which comes with no statutory requirement for secrecy whatsoever.

"Rather than address the public’s interest and concerns here, your response has been one of sitting back while unelected officers, with no lawful authority, purport to commence an investigation into some 21 elected councillors to discover the source of the supposed ‘leak’.

Cllr John Perry (Con)
Cllr John Perry (Con)

"This appears to be nothing more than an exercise in intimidation to maintain secrecy and to avoid public scrutiny of your coterie’s actions.

"I am therefore writing to urge you to come clean. I invite you to procure the release of a full account of that meeting. And I encourage you to make all the necessary changes to ensure that the residents of this borough and their representatives are fully informed about all house-building matters at the very early stages and are afforded far more time to lobby for changes."

Cllr Cox was advised at the May meeting by the council's chief executive Alison Broom that "this council has signed non-disclosure agreements with some of the landowners to whom these sites refer. I am not prepared to provide advice to you on those items in public".

Cllr Jonathan Purle
Cllr Jonathan Purle

Cllr Jonathan Purle (Con) said Mrs Broom's advice did not provide Cllr Cox with a let-out.

He said: "The motion to go into closed session was moved by Cllr Cox.

"Certain council officers then persuaded the meeting to agree to Martin’s motion, but had he not moved that the meeting was held in secret, it would not have been held in secret."

He said council officers' advice was just that - advice, and the committee chairman could overrule it as Cllr Clive English, the Lib Dem chairman of the planning committee, had done recently when he insisted that a planning application for two schools at Popes Field in Boxley be heard, even though officers had advised it should be withdrawn.

Cllr Purle said: "It was the Lib Dem leader who procured the secrecy motion, he could equally now do the decent thing and un-procure it."

Cllr Cox was unavailable for comment.

Although the motion to move into secret session was proposed by Cllr Cox, it was not opposed at the time by Cllr Perry, who abstained. Only Cllrs Jonathan Purle, Patrik Garten (Con) and Gordon Newton (Ind Maidstone) voted against the secrecy proposal, with four Conservative members, Labour, Independent and Lib Dem councillors voting to support it.

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