Council leaders have been told to think again over their perceived support for an extension of a ragstone quarry at the expense of 50 hectares of ancient woodland.
The plans, which would see much of Oaken Wood felled, have been met with stiff opposition.
However, when consulted, Maidstone council’s cabinet member for planning, Cllr Paul Cooper (Con) responded with a letter saying the expansion could be acceptable so long as certain mitigation measures were in place.
His response was immediately criticised by back-bench councillors who tried without success to persuade him to write a more strongly worded objection.
On Wednesday, Green party leader Cllr Stuart Jeffery brought a motion to an extraordinary meeting of the full council.
It said: “This council states that Hermitage Quarry should not be further extended into Oaken Wood in Barming, an irreplaceable ancient woodland, and asks that the cabinet reconsider its support for KCC’s plans.”
The motion was seconded by the Lib Dem leader, Cllr Clive English, and supported by all the opposition parties.
Cllr Jeffery told the chamber there was a stark choice between either producing more crushed rock for road-building or saving an irreplaceable area of ancient woodland.
He said: “It is quite clear that Cllr Cooper’s decision did not reflect the wishes of many members of this council.”
Earlier this month, KCC had paused making a decision on the quarry extension because of the high level of opposition it had received.
Cllr Jeffery said there was therefore the chance for Maidstone to make an amended response on the quarry, even though the official consultation date had closed.
He said: “The boat has not yet sailed.”
Cllr English said: “This is a matter of considerable interest to the public of Maidstone and of Tonbridge and Malling.
“The quarry extension is a proposal that even its proponents recognise will cause considerable environmental damage.
“The response that was made previously did not weigh into account all the factors that should have been weighed – in terms of biodiversity and the environment. It was a deficient response.
“I hope the cabinet will change its mind and come to a decision to oppose the quarry extension.”
Cllr Tony Harwood (Lib Dem) said: “We are talking about the biggest loss of ancient woodland for many, many decades in the whole of the United Kingdom.
“The implication for the destruction of soils and biodiversity is profound. The amount of carbon released by the loss of those trees will be immense.”
He said that across the UK, the country had retained only 2.5% of its original ancient woodland.
He also claimed Maidstone council had become an “outlier” in its support for the quarry.
The MPs Helen Grant and Tracey Crouch had strongly objected as had Tonbridge and Mallng council, the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust.
Cllr Harwood said: “It’s just Maidstone left, saying, ‘yeah, come and tear up our environment’.”
He warned: “Once that ancient woodland is lost, the land will become fair game for developers, and in a few years the former quarry site will be covered with housing.”
Cllr Fay Gooch (Ind) disputed that the council had given support to the quarry, saying it had simply responded to the consultation setting out all the hurdles that any extension would have to cross.
But she conceded: “I really confess that our response was considerably understated – vastly understated, but we were not supporting an extension.”
Cllr Paul Harper (Fant and Oakwood Independents) said the woodland was well used and well loved by the public.
He said: ”I would hope this council would do everything possible to object to its loss.”
Cllr Maureen Cleator (Lab) said: ”Once that quarry is finished, developers will be along there like a red rash. The soil is the issue. It can’t be replaced.
“I am aware that Gallaghers are talking about bringing 130 jobs to the area, but some things are irreplaceable and ancient woodland is one of them.”
She added: “This council ‘s response is totally out of kilter with public opinion.”
Cllr Stephen Thompson (Green) said: “As things stand, the chainsaws are circling Oaken Wood.”
Cllr Brian Clark (Lib Dem) warned: “If this ancient woodland goes, any ancient woodand in the borough is at risk.”
Cllr Sue Grigg (Ind) said: “We have a responsibility to ancient woodland, the trees, the soil. Let’s for God’s sake make a stand.”
Cllr Cooper did not speak to defend his response. In fact, no-one from the Conservative bench spoke in the debate, but when it came to the vote, the chamber split pretty much down party lines.
Those voting against the motion were all Conservatives.
They were Alan Bartlett, Annabelle Blackmore, Heidi Bryant, David Burton, Gary Cooke, Paul Cooper, Stanley Forecast, Patrick Garten, Michelle Hastie, Bob Hinder, Peter Holmes, Lewis McKenna, Lottie Parfitt-Reid, John Perry, James Reid, Paddy Riordan, Martin Round, Claudine Russell, Dennis Spooner, Ziggy Trzebinski and Simon Webb.
Conservative Val Springett abstained and Conservative Sandra Knatchbull broke ranks to vote with the opposition parties in favour of the motion.
The motion was carried by 28 votes to 21.
Cllr Jeffery afterwards declared himself “delighted”.
However, under the cabinet system, the council’s Conservative governing body is not obliged to take any notice of the motion other than to “consider” it. It can still choose not to object to the quarry expansion.
Gallagher, however, which put forward the proposal, says that the environmental harm will be minimal because the firm will carefully remove the topsoil and preserve it so it can be replaced when quarrying is complete. The land would then be replanted with new trees,
KCC has received more than 25,000 individual letters of objection to the quarry expansion.