It is interesting to note that at all of these stages, which were preceded by the plan being signed off by the policyholder, the same person is ultimately responsible: Councillor Alan McDermott. Cllr McDermott is the policyholder, chair of the PTCAB, chair of the Cabinet and chair of the full council. So, it is no surprise that he had commented in the press that this plan would be submitted to the inspector, before any of the council meetings had taken place.
At the meeting (which can be watched again here https://tunbridgewells.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/536583) Head of Planning, Stephen Baughan, supported by Landscape and Biodiversity Officer, David Scully, and Strategic Sites and Delivery Team Leader, Hannah Young, presented key aspects of the plan to the councillors. From the points covered it looked very much like they had seen the letter we had sent to Councillors ahead of the meeting as all points raised were covered. Although at this, and the later stages of the meeting, a common phrase became ‘I won’t go into that right now, but…’ meaning while many points were covered, they were not backed by any evidence, simply needing to be taken on trust by the Councillors.
After the Planning team’s presentation, ‘visitors’ were allowed to speak for three minutes each.
Hugh Patterson, Chair of Capel Parish Council called for the plans to be delayed to allow further time to consider them and the alternatives. He cited the plans’ disproportionate nature as far as Capel was concerned, especially in light of the increased housing numbers planned – 25% more in East Capel and another 200 in Tudeley – since the Regulation 18 consultation. Hugh also suggested that time was needed to assess the alternative proposals at Castle Hill and that with the plans for Tudeley being unsustainable there was a need to assess them fully.
Save Capel’s Vice Chair, Stewart Gledhill, spoke on behalf of the campaign. Stewart opened by flagging the lack of recognition of the overwhelming response from Capel residents to the Regulation 18 consultation: “It is extremely disappointing that the overwhelming public condemnation in the unprecedented response to Reg 18 has been ignored. This is not ‘public engagement’.”
The planning team said it had been reviewed but made no effort to say what had been done as a result. Indeed, with housing numbers increased on both sites in the Parish, it seems quite the opposite has occurred.
Stewart went on to recognise the need for housing but to question the choices which have been made: “The community needs affordable housing, but in the right place. That is close to employment opportunities and using policies that address climate change. The isolated car-dependant proposal at Tudeley, in particular, fails on both, with increased pollution, additional roads, and the enormous infrastructure costs that affect the viability of affordable provision.
“There are sustainable alternatives, including 1,500 homes at Castle Hill, which Save Capel supports in place of Tudeley.
“The Borough’s much needed urban regeneration should be a key priority in our Plan; instead the removal of countryside and productive agricultural land remains the main focus.”
Closing his comments, Stewart then asked the Councillors to pause the Local Plan process: “Councillors, I am requesting you take a pause. The pressure to avoid the mutant algorithm has gone. Indeed, the likelihood that the new planning system would strengthen protected zones may mean that our constraints could actually reduce our housing requirement.
“With the UK back in full lockdown and increasing death rates from the virus, now is not the time for a decision on the biggest development plan in our Borough’s history. A plan that will unsettle residents for decades and shape the outlook for future generations.
“Please take more time to fully consider the pandemic’s economic and social effects and our needs in a post-COVID world. Our towns need regeneration, and empty offices and other unused space can enable that. We appreciate more expansion is needed, but not in the countryside that is so important to the wellbeing of us all.
“Restrictions are highly likely to remain in force during the proposed consultation period, which cannot be effective without access to physical documents. There must be an opportunity for ALL stakeholders to express an opinion.
“We, therefore, urge you to recommend to Cabinet that the pre-submission draft is not submitted for progression, but that time is used, wisely, to develop a forward-looking plan that is sound and deliverable and which has public support.”
Following the public presentations, the Planning team addressed a number of the points. There was a lot of talking, but from an observer’s perspective, not much was said. In what was at times a very ‘chummy’ first-name-based exchange between the Head of Planning and the Council leader, there was a distinct lack of detail and background to statements dismissing the issues raised. Indeed the ‘I won’t go into more detail’ phrase appeared several times.
There was contradiction as well. For example, one reason given for not pursuing the Castle Hill plans at this stage was that Natural England would object. And yet Natural England objected to the recently approved Kingstanding plans initially (plans supported by the Planning team it’s worth noting) and yet the issue was resolved. Plus much was made of the planning department view that ‘there will always be reasons to delay the plan, but we shouldn’t’, and yet it had delayed the plan itself after regulation 18, to deal with the overwhelming number of responses – how it dealt with them, as we have said, is not evident.
And yet the 15 minutes those speaking against the plans had out of the three hours of the meeting in total (yes, those challenging the plans had just 8.3% of the time available) were in vain. In the final vote seven Councillors voted to send the plan to Cabinet for their sign off, two voted against, and two abstained. It’s perhaps no surprise to note that those who voted in favour were all Councillor McDermott’s party colleagues, including two representatives of Paddock Wood; which was a surprise.