Published: 05:00, 26 November 2021
Councillors have rejected calls for further planning training after a government inspector overturned the council’s rejection of a controversial Maidstone housing development.
The decision to reject 440 homes on Church Road in Otham was made by Maidstone Borough Council several times in 2020 over road safety concerns, despite the site being allocated in the Local Plan.
At the time councillors relied on evidence supplied by Kent County Council (KCC) as the highways authority who claimed that the access along Church Road was not suitable for more traffic.
However, this was in conflict with Maidstone council planning officers who claimed it was safe and warned the council it could face costs if an appeal was launched.
It was later found that the data from KCC was last updated in 2016 and outdated.
In January, an appeal from the developers was won and the council was forced to pay partial damages, which was estimated to be around £165,000.
As a result of the debacle, a review was conducted by the head of policy at the council, Angela Woodhouse, to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.
Some of the recommendations made included external training to councillors on the planning committee, encouraging councillors to attend other committees on the Local Plan, and for more information to be made public on the planning process.
The report came to Maidstone council's democracy and general purposes committee on Tuesday, and while councillors were sympathetic to Mrs Woodhouse for having to write the report, they were damning of its conclusion.
A visitor to the meeting, Cllr Val Springett (Con), who sits on the planning committee said: “I’m quite offended by the tone of this report. I do not consider that I need any more training on planning.
“We were presented with conflicting evidence from KCC highway officers and our planning officer, we had to decide whose professional advice to accept, we have the right to do that.
“Members must respect the advice from professional officers, but in this case it was conflicting.
“Maidstone council should have been able to rely on KCC to update their information to support the objection."
She said: "We should consider reclaiming these costs from KCC.”
Another member of that planning committee, Cllr Gordon Newton (Ind), said the case had caused significant stress. He said: "I think certain officers need to hang their heads in shame.
"We were given conflicting advice, certain officers were ignorant of the facts around this site.
"This particular project put me in hospital and nearly killed me actually because of the stress of it, and I’m still stressed out over it.
"The road information provided by KCC was inadequate. There’s been loads of accidents there, thankfully no one’s been killed."
Cllr Gary Cooke meanwhile focused on the relationship between councillors and planning officers. He said: "I think the process is a team effort, and in a team there are different positions but we come together.
"You can give as much training as you want, it wouldn’t have changed the decision making process that led to Church Road.
"The highways authority up until recently, had the right to fully refuse applications, which it categorically would have refused.
"If I’m having a go at officers, I apologise, I’m disappointed with the report I think it’s too officer-sided. It lacks the feel of independence.”
Despite widespread disappointment for the report, the recommendation to make the planning process more transparent and public was widely accepted, as Cllr Cooke stressed that more objections from the public should be based on planning law rather than emotions.
Cllr Annabelle Blackmore was also sympathetic to the planning officers: “Thank you for writing this because it was the poisoned chalice, whatever the findings are they probably wouldn’t be acceptable here to anyone spoken here tonight.
“Members' training, for new ones completely and utterly yes, but Cllr Springett said it well about experienced councillors, there is no one else more experienced than her.
“So I can understand why she is unhappy about those findings, but I do think it was down to bad decisions on the day, both telling the committee two different things.
“They're both right in a way. We all saw the photos and I even went there, and we saw there were going to be traffic issues.
“It was an application with a lot of passion running and a lot of members of the public were very unhappy that this site was in the plan to stand with."
She said: "However I just wish that when we have an application where councillors are saying no and officers saying yes, they don’t take a totally entrenched position but they understand why we are saying no.”
The report was unanimously rejected by the committee but the report will move to the council’s policy and resources committee for discussion.