There was no doubt that this meeting of the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s Cabinet would vote to approve the plans, as it is made up of the leader’s closest allies in the council. And let’s not forget that the leader, Alan McDermott, put forward the draft as the portfolio holder, is chair of the first group to be asked to sign it off – the Planning & Transportation Cabinet Advisory Board and chairs the Cabinet.
Despite this, Save Capel felt it was important that we were represented at the meeting and made our representation alongside Hugh Patterson of Capel Parish Council, Sue Lovell for Paddock Wood and Hazel Strouts representing Benenden – all speaking against the Local Plan in its current format.
Save Capel Executive member, Jan Mueller, gave a presentation which began as our previous statement had, by asking the councillors not to sign off the plan but to allow the time to develop a plan that is forward-looking, that enjoys public support and that is not at serious risk of being derailed further in the process.
Jan commented that: “…the Local Plan proposes to squeeze half of the new development into one parish (Capel) that only houses 2% of the Borough’s population. This is not equitable. It is also not popular.” He added that, “in the Regulation 18 consultation, more than 95% of 1,000 responses to Capel objected to the plans. But in response, the housing numbers for the parish in this new version of the plan have increased.
“It is very disappointing that the overwhelming public condemnation has simply been ignored. I may be a novice in local politics, but if this passes for ‘public engagement’, then something important has been lost.
“Putting all your eggs into one basket is also risky. The proposals for Capel are highly problematic on numerous dimensions – missing infrastructure, flood risks, environmental concerns and the negative impact on a neighbouring borough to name but a few. The viability of plans for Tudeley, in particular, have been questioned by numerous developers. The proposals contain serious delivery risks which in turn would put the entire plan at risk of failure.”
As we had done at the previous meeting, Jan stated that: “There are sustainable alternatives, not least proposals for 1,500 homes at Castle Hill – which Save Capel supports in place of Tudeley – and which are lower risk and far more sustainable.”
Then Jan moved on to what we feel is needed for the Borough: “We believe that the Local Plan in its current format is backwards-looking with a misguided focus on developing countryside and green spaces. We want a forward-looking plan that takes account of the huge implications of a post-COVID future, that focuses on urban regeneration, that makes greater use of mixed developments, and that better leverages brownfield space. A plan which embraces the Council’s promises on the environment and climate change, rather than encouraging car transport and pollution. This is not that Plan.”
After the public statements, Head of Planning, Stephen Baughen once again gave his overview of the plan. As he did last week, he used the phrase ‘I’m not going to go into much detail…’ on several occasions. But if you review the presentation (which you can do here https://tunbridgewells.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/538177) you will note that some aspects were covered in detail – notably the reductions in housing allocations in Cranbrook and Hawkhurst – which was in stark contrast to the increases in the already huge Capel and Paddock Wood allocations not being mentioned at all.
Indeed, despite being the Local Plan’s cornerstone, Capel was barely mentioned. That was until after Mr Baughen’s presentation when Councillor Bailey suggested he might want to respond to comments made by Jan, and Hugh Patterson, about the weight of resistance there was to the plans for Capel at Regulation 18. And Mr Baughen’s response was… “It’s not a numbers game,” stating that just because lots of people don’t want something doesn’t mean it will be stopped.
Basically, the community has no voice… or not one that Tunbridge Wells Borough Council will listen to if it doesn’t suit its Local Plan.
Councillor McDermott also gave Mr Baughen a prompt, suggesting he explained the position regarding the Castle Hill development. He was once again very dismissive of the opportunity. But this time the justifications had changed. At the previous meeting, it was dismissed claiming Natural England would object. But this time Kent Highways was cited as the key objector. Perhaps this was because Mr Baughen had remembered that Natural England had objected to the plans for the adjacent site – Kingstanding – and yet TWBC had overcome these objections to take forward the development, which was recommended by the planning department.
And new this time was reference to an underground gas main, which also renders the site unsuitable. However, it didn’t stop the inclusion of the (now removed) site near Somerhill school in the Regulation 18 version of the plan – for a school no less.
Is TWBC looking for any excuse to dismiss Castle Hill out of hand?
This makes us recall the first council meeting on the plans that Save Capel spoke at in 2019, where Councillor McDermott said in passing to a team member, “you will never win”, reflecting the determination to develop the Capel sites at all costs, however unsustainable, unpopular and environmentally damaging they clearly are.
And yes, as anyone could have guessed from the very start, the Cabinet voted in favour of the resolution, and the draft version of the Pre-submission Local Plan will go before Full Council on February 3rd for the final vote on whether it is taken to Regulation 19. The councillors will have a week to fully scrutinise the 1000+ pages in the collective documents they will be presented and make a decision which will affect thousands of residents of the borough – many negatively.
We will continue to fight this plan and will be making representation to the full council on February 3rd.
Let’s hope they truly understand the importance of the decision they have to make.