More public money for bungled garden town

23 / 04 / 20

The Save our Heath Lands (SOHL) Action Group has learnt this week that Maidstone Borough Council’s first major committee decision during lockdown is expected to approve moving into the next stage of their garden community project at Lenham Heath with a further injection of £100,000 of taxpayers’ money needed to do more survey work and develop a revised masterplan.

Councils have recently been granted permission through the Coronavirus Act 2020 to hold remote meetings in the absence of normal council meetings due to the national lockdown.

Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) have scheduled their first virtual council meeting next week where it was expected they would use the opportunity to deal with emergency council matters and decisions in relation to the current pandemic. Instead, the first item on the agenda is a decision to proceed with the council-led garden community east of Lenham.

SOHL’s committee member Kate Hammond said: “our action group has taken a respectful break given the emotional and uncertain times everyone is currently facing. We did not expect MBC to use this vacuum of public and political scrutiny to be a back door for officers to be working on their own agenda and push plans for their council-led garden community. At best it is insensitive to the Maidstone community, at worst it is a flagrant disregard of local democracy.”

MBC’s latest plans for their controversial garden community sees significant scale backs on their ambitious vision following months of bungled negotiations with landowners and a heated public meeting in January with 300 angry residents, which left the Council’s Leader and Executive Director red-faced and unable to respond to residents’ concerns.

MBC have dropped their plans to build a new motorway junction on the M20 and a new High Speed rail station citing a “shift away from big-kit infrastructure” instead to “a sustainable transport planning strategy” that favours the use of existing railway stations, a new local shuttle bus and a modest improvement to one existing junction on the A20.

Kate Hammond said: “MBC should know from their botched attempts to improve traffic in Maidstone Town Centre that tinkering with road junctions does not provide extra road capacity or reduce congestion. It simply moves the problem somewhere else. SOHL have been saying all along that MBC could not deliver a new motorway junction or high speed station at Lenham Heath as the economic case simply did not stack up. It’s another classic case from MBC of growth without infrastructure.”

MBC have attempted to ‘gag’ some of the biggest landowners in the area over the last 12 months as part of non-disclosure agreements using expensive London-based planning lawyers to twist their arms into a deal. MBC have now confirmed that three of these landowners have formally withdrawn from the negotiations leaving just five landowners and a smaller area of developable land.

None of the remaining 5 landowners are yet agreed to the Council’s deal and officers want more time and permission to enter into another lockout period to carry on negotiating.

There is also no sign of any housing developers being interested in the project. MBC officers confirm that they are yet to ‘attract a partner developer to work with and who could fund the transaction’. Given the likelihood that the country will be going into recession within weeks and the expected housing market slump, it is unlikely any housing developer will be coming forward any time soon.”

In the meantime, MBC want councillors to approve a further £100,000 of investment to keep the scheme afloat through to the autumn. This takes the total spend to over £300,000 of Maidstone taxpayers’ money without any guarantee that this funding could ever be recovered.

Kate Hammond said. “We are currently in the middle of this country’s biggest national emergency since World War 2. Millions of people are furloughed from work with no guarantee of returning to a job in a few weeks’ time. Meanwhile MBC are increasing council tax whilst frivolously spending taxpayers’ money on a property whim which will ultimately benefit private landowners with an uplift in the value of their land. This is not the role of a local authority and is not what council funds should be spent on, particularly in the current climate.”

The council-led garden community east of Lenham is one of 334 proposals submitted to the Council’s own Call for Sites process looking for new development sites across the borough. In total, these sites deliver up to 60,000 new homes against a housing need of around 15,000 homes.

SOHL Action Group continue to question why MBC are so determined to be their own self-styled property developer when there are more than enough private developers offering the Council sites they need.

Kate Hammond said. “Next Wednesday MBC councillors will have an important decision to make. Do they walk blindly into another phase of work which hands more money to expensive consultants and no further guarantee of success, or do they call time on an 18 month project that should never have really got off the ground. We just hope councillors do not blindly follow their officers’ advice when the report is suspiciously silent on the full facts of the project.”