Published: 11:04, 28 February 2021
| Updated: 13:11, 16 March 2021
With requirements to build 17,000 new homes over the next decade, residents in one corner of Kent fear it could mean an end to village life as we know it...
Stand on the south-west side of the Quex estate in Birchington-on-Sea and on a clear day you can see across the eight miles to Reculver.
With field upon field, and the sea a distant backdrop, the uninterrupted views of the countryside around north Thanet are a far cry from the more built-up areas the district is known for.
While tourists and sunseekers may flock to the beaches of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, the village of Birchington and small town of Westgate are the lesser-known, yet greener, gems in an otherwise urban area.
Much of the land is agricultural and, according to those wishing to protect it, ,"so good" that in some parts the fields can produce two crops a year.
But people living here are facing a threat which could signal the end of this important and already-scarce countryside.
Planning applications for thousands of homes - 1,650 for Birchington, 2,000 in Westgate-on-Sea and Garlinge, and 450 off Shottendane Road in Margate - have been submitted, threatening to concrete over this land.
This doesn't take into account the villages of Minster, Monkton and St Nicholas-at-Wade, which are facing their own issues of unwanted development.
While many of the concerns typically relate to the impact on communities - from the strain on public services to the massive increase in traffic - much of the upset concerns the loss of prime agricultural land and open countryside.
Campaigners blame what they describe as a poor national planning system, with unrealistic government-imposed housing targets which allow landowners and developers to "ride roughshod" over high-quality farmland.
Admittedly, this is not just a local problem but one which stretches countywide.
But for the villages in north Thanet, the fear of losing these few large open spaces is an imminent threat.
'Dumping ground for London'
Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, is so concerned about the problem he has appealed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to halt development on valuable agricultural land, to stop it being "needlessly smothered".
He says the area is otherwise at risk of becoming a "dumping ground for London", with "ghettos" of new housing.
"We need that land for farming and once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back," he warns.
"We’re told that we want to reduce carbon emissions and we want to become more sufficient in agricultural produce, but if we haven’t got the agricultural land, we can’t grow food."
The veteran Tory has formally objected to the plans for Birchington and Westgate, and also written a scathing letter to Secretary of State Robert Jenrick.
He said: "Not only are these applications in gross breach of the statements made by yourself and the Prime Minister in respect of future development, but it was your department, under your predecessor, who imposed this Local Plan upon Thanet.
"It is therefore absolutely the case that you have to take responsibility for these issues.
"I believe very strongly indeed that these applications should be called in, considered by an Inspector and adjudicated by you as Secretary of State. We shall then know precisely where the buck stops."
Sir Roger says the county has an adequate supply of brownfield sites – as well as plots already earmarked for homes – that should be built on “before we touch a blade of green grass”.
'This is a place people cherish'
One who knows only too well the threat is Craig Solly, who has been tirelessly campaigning for six years to protect Thanet's precious farming land.
He says it all comes down to unrealistic housing targets, which require Thanet District Council to build 17,140 homes by 2031, as well as ensure a five-year housing land supply.
The figures require the authority to deliver 600 homes a year and in the final few years, about 1,300.
"This is just not achievable," said Mr Solly
"They're meant to build 600 a year - the last they managed was 400.
"They're also encouraging more developers to put planning applications in to demonstrate land supply, but this all sacrifices agricultural land.
"We're not going to get the population into Thanet to live in the houses. We've had Brexit, our migration may change, there will be changes to population patterns, and we're also dealing with the impacts of Covid."
Mr Solly says he believes such developments are about making money off profitable sites.
But Ptarmigan Land and Millwood Designer Homes, the firms behind the 1,650-home scheme in Birchington, insist they are striving to create a new inclusive, vibrant neighbourhood with a "distinct identity that respects the character of Birchington".
They have submitted an outline planning application, setting out proposals for the site off Canterbury Road.
Plans include a two-form entry primary school, 70-bed residential home, a nature and heritage park, edible landscapes and community orchards.
The developers also want to create a three-acre multi-purpose sports playing field, a skate park and a village cricket green.
If approved, there will also be a new road between Minnis Road and Canterbury Road, 36 play areas and spaces, and new habitats alongside the new homes.
But the plans have been met with reproach, with residents warning the sprawling development will cause the community to collapse.
Mr Solly says if approved north Thanet will eventually lose its villages.
"I moved here from Ramsgate - there's a tranquillity here, it feels more open and peaceful," he said.
"This is a place that people cherish, and while I'm open to change it's got to be done correctly.
"No one really knows what this will do to Birchington, but we can guess."
Mr Solly says the Government's National Planning Policy Framework does nothing to protect agricultural land, despite the importance of food security, and warns that once it's gone, it's gone.
"I've been fighting this for years and how far can you really go?" he admits.
"If the Government wants to deliver this amount of housing, they'll do it. Residents are simply being punished by the planning system."
So far, some 200 objections have been lodged on Thanet District Council's planning website, including a 26-page response from Birchington Parish Council.
The parish authority says feeling among residents is that the proposals are so vague and uncertain that if accepted they would enable housebuilders to do what they wish on the site, within the loose constraints of the permission.
Fears are also that the suggested bypass road network - intended to relieve congestion - would unlikely be built before housing, something described as a high-risk strategy.
Village character 'will be lost forever'
Little more than two miles down the road, residents are facing a similar plight.
Millwood Designer Homes has also set it sights south of Westgate, near to the medieval Dent-De-Lion gatehouse in Garlinge, where it wants to create a new 2,000-home estate.
Called The Gallops - a nod to the site's previous use as a Victorian racecourse - the proposal includes a care home, two-form entry primary school, health centre, cafés, and restaurants on 237 acres, which includes prime agricultural land.
Millwood says there would be a variety of green spaces that thread through the development, and spaces for wildlife and people to enjoy.
The development would be west of Minster Road, another section between Minster Road and Garlinge High Street, and a third extending east of Garlinge High Street.
Almost 150 objections were lodged after the planning application was submitted in November and a campaign group Westgate Action Group Against Housing Development created.
Member Penny Wells says the development would destroy the green open spaces and farmland for future generations.
"We have very strong concerns regarding the impact on the environment and residents," she said.
"We're concerned about the decimation of prime agricultural land and that this development will increase the population of Westgate from approximately 7,500 to 11,500, changing the character forever.
"There has been a climate emergency declared locally, nationally and internationally.
"It is incomprehensible why there are plans to proceed to decimate acres of prime agricultural land, failing to protect this for food production now and for future generations at a time when we need food security."
Campaigner Louise Wetherill believes Birchington and Westgate are being sold down the river.
"The unique character and identity of both villages will be lost forever," she said.
"This is money orientated and the builders and planners have no local knowledge. The consultations were just box-ticking exercises.
"Building should be on brownfield sites and not Grade 1 farmland.
"What a mess we are in due to greedy developers who will just build and go and leave us with the consequences."
Westgate Town Council has also opposed the plans, calling it an over-development and raising fears over the use of agricultural land, as well as the loss of separation between Westgate and Garlinge.
"We believe that other, preferably brownfield sites should have been chosen for a development of this size.
"We understand that there is a need for housing, however we have always been concerned that the methodology used to calculate the housing need in Thanet caters for developers and those moving to Thanet from outside the district, more than local residents."
Could homes be built at airport site?
In 2018, it was agreed villages in the district be allocated 2,500 extra homes so aviation use could be retained at the Manston airport site, instead of the airfield being using for housing.
The decision by the district council meant 600 extra houses for Birchington, 1,000 for Westgate, 500 at Westwood, 300 at Hartsdown and 100 in Tothill Street, Minster.
These were in addition to homes already allocated to those villages.
Despite a recent decision by the High Court to quash the government go-ahead to reopen Manston as an airport, a new decision is required in the future, and housing requirements, which are in the Local Plan, look unlikely to change.
David Morrish, chairman of CPRE Thanet, says while he believes Manston is not an ideal place for housing due to its positioning, it would be sacrilege to build on prime farmland.
"Our view is first of all build on the brownfield land," he said.
"Only then can you look elsewhere, but agricultural land should not be built on."
Mr Morrish says the open space is a 'green lung' and place for different species and wildlife to develop.
He also believes it is short-sighted to think it is just the beaches and shopping that attract people to the area, and that the swathes of green in north Thanet are also a major draw.
"These developers, once they've got planning permission on this land, the price rockets," he said.
"It's all about increasing portfolios and making money. The farmers have little say, they're just tenants of the land."
A petition has been created, calling for a ban on the development of agricultural land to protect it for food production with thousands backing the demand.
Olly Buck from Ptarmigan Land says since October 2019 through to the middle of 2020, they have "engaged thoroughly with the Birchington community and a multitude of other local stakeholders in order to hear their views".
"We understand that while some residents still have concerns about the proposals, we feel that we have gone the extra mile to ensure our engagement was as inclusive, transparent and productive as possible," he said.
"As part of the agreed Local Plan, Thanet District Council needs to deliver 17,140 new homes by 2031.
"South West Birchington-on-Sea has been identified in the local plan as a strategic extension to Birchington.
"As well as 1,650 much needed new houses, the development will also provide 26.32 hectares of public open space, which is over double the amount required by policy; a fully serviced area of 2.05 ha (to be provided at the cost of the developer) to accommodate a new two-form entry primary school, and a community hub at the Birchington Gateway providing a range of facilities including small scale convenience retail, a multipurpose community centre and co-working spaces .
"Also provision for the expansion of medical services at the Birchington Medical Centre to cater for the additional needs created by the development and a new link road to serve the development and extending from Minnis Road and the A28, and A28 to Manston Road (including new junctions on A28/Minnis Road and Acol Hill/ Manston Road).
"We understand the concerns about building on agricultural land, however, following consultation and examination by an independent Government Inspector, Thanet’s Local Plan, with its proposed distribution of growth and new homes, was agreed and confirmed that the council’s approach to balancing housing delivery against potential environmental impacts was sound.
"It is essential for new homes to be built in sustainable locations and this site is in close proximity to existing transport connections as well as the shops, services and local facilities already established in Birchington."
Mr Buck says people can see all the relevant documents at www.SouthWestBirchingtonOnSea.co.uk/planning-application/ and anyone with questions can contact them via freephone 0800 232 1794 or info@SouthWestBirchingtonOnSea.co.uk.