Published: 23:06, 24 January 2020
| Updated: 23:07, 24 January 2020
Applause rang out around a village hall as an MP told council chiefs to stop passing blame over controversial plans for a 5,000-home garden community.
It was standing room only at Lenham Community Centre as around 200 locals crammed into the venue for what proved to be a lively debate on the proposals earmarked for land east of the village.
The plans were revealed as part of the council's call for sites, in which it asks landowners to put forward areas they believe could be suitable for development, as part of a review of its local plan.
The event, organised by the Save Our Heath Lands campaign group, featured a four-person panel, made up of Maidstone Borough Council leader Cllr Martin Cox, deputy leader Cllr Fay Gooch, director of regeneration and place, William Cornall, and Faversham and Mid Kent MP Helen Whately.
The local authority bosses tried to address concerns over why the location was picked over others in the borough as well as accusations of secrecy, following a series of behind-closed-doors meetings on the matter last year.
Mr Cornall, who has been given a specific brief to develop the plans, told the meeting how the government was asking the council to substantially increase the number of homes it delivers each year - from 883 to 1,236 - and that garden community projects had been identified as a potentially effective route to help meet those targets.
He said the council was in discussions with eight landowners over the scheme but that "no deals have been agreed" and that "the only decision that has been made is to explore [the possibility]."
Regarding allegations of secrecy, after it was reported non-disclosure agreements had been signed last year, he added: "We needed to get a degree of comfort that landowners were willing to explore the proposal with us, we needed to respect their position.
"As soon as we got comfort that we were in a positive dialogue, the decision was communicated. I'm sorry it has not been possible to involve you all earlier or sooner."
Cllr Cox also defended the process, as he told the meeting: "Not everybody is behind this but we have very few options.
"When we look at the potential for garden communities, there are areas we cannot build on such as areas of outstanding natural beauty, or those on floodplains.
"We spend £1 million every five years getting this [local plan review] process done, so when we get to 2025 we'll have to do it all over again.
"We didn't pick this area and say 'that's where we are going to cause havoc'."
Cllr Gooch added: "We wouldn't be in this position if the government didn't bring in its standardised methodology.
"There are unexpected, almost unachievable targets that the government has set us."
Mrs Whately hit back in response, however, and called on the council to take more responsibility.
"I have heard a lot of blame levelled at government, and it's easy to blame somebody else," she said.
"The council has choices it can make about where housing goes, about how it builds it, about arguing the case for infrastructure.
"I am unhappy with this direction of travel, it feels like the community has not been involved.
"The MP is usually involved in consultation, but the first time I saw this was in the local media - that's not the way the process should work."
Turning to the other members of the panel, she concluded: "I would really like to see you think again about the choices you make on behalf of this community here."