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Bid to extend Gallaghers’ Hermitage Quarry into ancient woodland goes before Maidstone council committee

Councillors rebelled and voted to rip up a letter approving the controversial extension of a quarry into ancient woodland.

Members of Maidstone’s planning, infrastructure and economic development policy advisory committee arrived to a town hall meeting on the issue with chants of ‘Save Oaken Wood’ ringing in their ears from protesters outside.

The meeting was called so the authority could share its views on a plan to allow Gallagher Aggregates to extend Hermitage Quarry in Barming by 96 hectares – a scheme Kent County Council (KCC) is currently consulting on.

However, councillors had been advised they simply needed to ratify a letter cabinet member Cllr Paul Cooper had already drafted in support of the scheme, albeit with conditions that the area be reinstated after extraction had taken place.

In the meeting, three public speakers condemned that response.

Kimmy Milham said it would be impossible to restore the ancient woodland that would be lost at Oaken Wood, saying “Once it has been dug up, it has gone for centuries.”

Sandra Manser said: “Climate change and the loss of biodiversity should be top of the council's agenda. This shouldn’t even need discussing. The only appropriate answer is to say ‘no’.”

The picket outside Maidstone Town Hall
The picket outside Maidstone Town Hall

Green campaigner Rachel Rodwell, one of the leading figures in the campaign opposed to the extension, told the committee that granting permission for the extensions would be granting passion to “kill wildlife and destroy 70,000 trees.”

Cllr Cooper, who was at the meeting, defended his decision saying he had made it on the basis that no other possible site had come forward and that since KCC had estimated there would be 20m tonne shortfall in the provision of hard rock over the plan period, “KCC had very little choice but to allow this.”

He said the best course of action was to ensure the maximum possible mitigation measures were obtained.

He was supported by Cllr Claudine Russell (Con), an earth sciences graduate, who said she knew from personal experience that it was possible to preserve soils and successfully replant on a back-filled quarry.

She argued that they even often became a haven for wildlife.

The message from Diane and Phoebe from Barming
The message from Diane and Phoebe from Barming

But Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) disagreed. He said the proposal represented the biggest loss of ancient woodland in the UK for many decades.

He argued that government planning policy was clear – ancient woodland should not be disturbed except in “wholly exceptional circumstances” – of which there were none.

He warned that if the quarrying were allowed, the planning status of the land would change, and after quarrying had finished and it had been backfilled, the land “would then become the next housing allocation.”

Cllr Stuart Jeffery pointed out that 98% of the 20m tonnes of rock that would be extracted was destined to be crushed and used as roadstone.

He said: “To destroy ancient woodland just to build more roads just feels so utterly wrong.”

Cllr Clive English joined the protest
Cllr Clive English joined the protest

Cllr Richard Conyard (Lib Dem) suggested: “There are plenty of other sites that could be used, albeit perhaps at higher economic cost.”

In the end, it was the Independent Cllr Vanessa Jones who proposed withdrawing Cllr Cooper's letter and replacing it with one that totally opposed the quarry extension.

Her motion received cross-party support including from Conservatives Michelle Hastie and Lewis McKenna, and was passed by seven votes to two.

It is now up to cabinet member, Cllr Cooper, to decide whether he will take any notice of the committee’s decision.

In the meantime, the Conservative-run Tonbridge and Malling council has also written to KCC opposing the quarry extension.

County Cllr Chris Passmore
County Cllr Chris Passmore

KCC has also launched a second “Call For Sites” process in the hope that another less environmentally harmful and less controversial site might come forward.

Following the meeting, Ms Rodwell described the rebellion as “a great result.”

Before the session, 45 members of the public had waited outside Maidstone Town Hall to greet councillors with chants and placards as they arrived.

They were joined on the picket line by Cllrs Stuart Jeffery (Green), Clive English (Lib Dem), Maureen Cleator (Lab), and Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) and also by Cty Cllr Chris Passmore (Lib Dem).

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