Home   Medway   News   Article

Fake letters and dirty tricks as MP and reporter dragged into Cuxton winery planning row

Boris Johnson, Prince Philip and our very own local democracy reporter are among the powerful forces trying to sway opinion over a controversial plan for a new winery near Cuxton.

That's if you take recent letters of support submitted to Medway Council at face value, without realising that they are, of course, fake.

An artist's impression of Vineyard Farms Ltd planned winery and visitor centre
An artist's impression of Vineyard Farms Ltd planned winery and visitor centre

It's hardly deception on the scale of international espionage, but it's been enough to force Vineyard Farms, the company behind the plan, to remove a standardised support letter template from its website, and it's probably been enough to prompt the planning officers at Medway Council to reach for a glass of wine.

That said, it might be best to put that glass down for now - because the murky waters surrounding the great Upper Bush winery debate are enough to make anyone feel discombobulated before they've even touched a drop of the good stuff.

It's a tale of fake news, fake letters, conspiracy theories, and barbed blogs - with no one totally immune from being dragged into the battleground and smeared with North Downs mud, least of all the region's press and MPs, specifically KentOnline and Kelly Tolhurst.

It all began last summer, when plans were unveiled for a 'world class winery' - The Kentish Wine Vault - at Upper Bush near Cuxton; a scheme which included a wine bottling site and visitor centre designed by world-renowned architect Lord Norman Foster, of London's The Gherkin and Wembley Arch fame.

To cut a long story a little shorter, some people liked it and some people didn't, and KentOnline reported on both sides of the argument - although that last point might surprise you if you take your news from hallingviews.blogspot.com.

The fake Kent Online page on hallingviews.blogspot.com
The fake Kent Online page on hallingviews.blogspot.com

A recent post on the site started with an image of what looked like a KentOnline article - which held the headline 'We love Vineyard Farms and think their winery is absolutely marvellous' and was said to be written by 'local democracy reporter'.

"I've just sent my letter of support into the council for this wonderful development and think you should too!" read the (fake and libellous) article. "I can't wait for all the bulldozers to move in and dig up Bush valley because I just LOVE Lord Foster's plans. It's well worth covering our green belt in concrete for them."

The blog goes on to accuse KentOnline of failing to properly report on issues surrounding the winery scheme and accuses our local democracy reporter of filling in and submitting a template-based letter of support for the scheme - using a form previously available on the Kentish Wine Vault's website.

"But then our 'local democracy reporter' (and as a Cuxton lass, she certainly is local) has recently been exercising her own democratic rights," writes the mystery author. "Indeed, she has apparently filled in the Vineyard Farms dodgy template and sent in her letter of support for the winery to the council (although with the VF template, who knows if it really was her?). Good for her (if she has). Last time I looked, objections still outnumbered letters of support by three to one, even with Vineyard Farms' Facebook begging letter, so VF need every bit of support they can get. A tame journalist in their camp would be very welcome, I guess.

"Quite what that may do to any pretence of unbiased reporting on the winery development by KOL and its sister "dead-tree" news outlets is open to debate, of course."

"But then KOL exists only because of advertising. The last thing they would want to do is to upset a billionaire tax exile who could potentially be throwing lots of his advertising money their way in future. And it seems that our young local democracy reporter knows exactly what side her bread is buttered, so to speak."

Reporter Katie Nelson was confused after finding planning submissions had been submitted using her name
Reporter Katie Nelson was confused after finding planning submissions had been submitted using her name

Well all this came as a surprise to those at KentOnline who have no problem upsetting billionaires, and also had no idea the local democracy reporter was a Cuxton lass; so we asked the local democracy reporter, Katie May Nelson, and it was a surprise to her too.

It turns out that the secret blogger was right on one point - a support letter had indeed been submitted to the council on behalf of 'Katie May Nelson', but she was in good company, because fraudulent letters of support had also been submitted from Kelly Tolhurst, Boris Johnson and Prince Philip too.

"I have no idea why anyone would think to use my name in a letter of representation," said Katie this week. "I've written about this application pretty much since the plans were put on the table.

"What benefit would it be to me to try and influence the councillor's decision either way?

"It does call into question the validity of these types of representation. Anyone can fill out one of these forms and there's no way of validating their identity."

Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst
Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst

While the PM has probably got other things on his plate at the moment, we also asked Rochester MP Kelly Tolhurst about being implemented in the apparent dirty-tricks campaign.

"I wrote to the council asking them for it to be removed and looked into because I believe it was from a fake address," said Ms Tolhurst. "I wrote to all my residents who had obviously been in contact with me either way on the winery to be very clear that that representation wasn't from me and that I believed it to be a false representation."

Ms Tolhust says she is not against the winery due to it being agricultural use of the land, but she is concerned about the potential impact on highways and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB).

And she added: "With regard to the proposal I have got concerns around how it will function, and what mitigations will be put in place.

"I do have concerns about how that is going to be managed because we've got historical issues on Sundridge Hill anyway, at the bottom of Bush Road.

An artist's impression of the interior of the winery being proposed by Vineyard Farms Ltd
An artist's impression of the interior of the winery being proposed by Vineyard Farms Ltd

"A lot of residents are obviously concerned about traffic going up and down Bush Road.

"We also have an issue with the bottom of Bush Road trying to get out and cross over on Sundridge Hill, has not been resolved satisfactorily yet by the council or the Highways Agency."

The debate on the practicalities of the winery is bound to rage when it hits the planning committee next month, but for now there are as many tongues debating who is behind the fake letter campaign.

Does our mystery Halling blogger know? Who knows... but the fake submissions to Medway Council were enough to prompt Vineyard Farms to change tactics and remove a page from its website.

A statement from the group issued this week said: "We launched a Facebook campaign earlier this month to highlight the benefits of the application and give residents the opportunity to express support for the plans directly to Medway Council.

“Our plans will deliver a multi-million-pound investment in Medway, create up to 100 new jobs and apprenticeships and provide a huge boost for local tourism. We are delighted that over 230 local people agree with us and have put their support in writing.

An artist's impression of the winery and vineyards
An artist's impression of the winery and vineyards

“However, we were made aware of five false submissions by those wishing to subvert the planning process. We therefore decided to remove the form, having already seen significant public support and ensure no further false submission could be made.”

As Katie, notes, the fake submissions have certainly highlighted problems with such template-based forms - and although they've now been removed, opponents continue to doubt the integrity of consultation surrounding the winery plans.

And maybe that's with good reason. The council's own 'Medway City Status Bid 2022 states "Medway will soon be home to a world-class winery, with the Kentish Wine Vault, nestled at the foot of one of our Green Flag Award-winning country parks," - a message from the planning authority which seems to pre-empt the decision on whether to grant permission for the winery.

Perhaps then it's no wonder opposition has been so fervent, and that some defenders of the North Downs' greenbelt countryside have resorted to alternative guerilla tactics like subverting the consultation process and producing fake news - or in another example, nabbing the web address kentishwinevault.com to establish an opposition website to the winery's own kentishwinevault.co.uk.

No doubt those behind the Kentish Wine Vault, and Medway Council's planners will be waiting with baited breath to see what's next.

An architect's impression of the winery's surroundings in Cuxton
An architect's impression of the winery's surroundings in Cuxton

With the next planning meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 9, there's still plenty of time for something else weird and unexpected to be unleashed from the hills in this strangest of planning battles.

For the neutrals - which some might be surprised to learn includes KentOnline - it's a far more entertaining conflict than some other current ones we can think of.

Now where's that glass of wine?

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More